Is Occupy Wall Street Really about Education Reform?

The following is a dispatch written by guest blogger Marie Lawrence, a researcher at the New America Foundation. As a recent college graduate watching the Wall Street protests, she saw a connection that I had not considered. Here is her take:

A few days before my 6th-grade graduation in Richardson, Texas, my teacher asked us to write poems about the jobs we hoped to have in 10 years. In clumsy rhyme and loopy cursive, we proclaimed our intentions to become singers, pilots, doctors, race car drivers and pastry chefs. With the audacity of youth, I predicted my own success as an author, lawyer or architect. (I was keeping my options open.)

Mrs. Babb affixed a gold star to each page and lovingly pinned them to the bulletin board, silently affirming that yes, these jobs are waiting for you if you work hard. Not a single child prophesied his future as a barista, a telemarketer or a perpetual job-seeker.
Since then, I have graduated from college and been fortunate to find a job that allows me to use my brain and pay the bills. But some of my highest-achieving friends are still grasping for the very bottom rung of the career ladder.

We know that the Occupy Wall Street protest is partly a response to corporate greed, but I suspect it also reflects the disconnect between our aspirations and our reality. It feels like the engines of social mobility (namely education) are failing us. After talking with the protesters in Zuccotti Park, the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri described the sentiment this way:

“Growing up, we were told: You are special. You are brilliant. Go to school, get a degree, pursue what you love. Four years later, we are mired in debt. Jobless, with no prospects. This is not what it said on the motivational poster.”

It’s as if we are catching up to the data, which has for years shown a mismatch between our academic performance and our occupational aspirations. In its 2007 report Child Poverty in Perspective, UNICEF evaluated countries’ performance along 40 indicators of child well-being, six of which measured educational well-being. Among 25 “economically advanced” nations, the U.S. ranked 21st in educational achievement of 15 year-olds in reading, math and science. The U.S. also had higher drop-out rates than similarly prosperous countries. Of the 23 countries ranked, the United States ranked 21st in “percentage of 15-19 year-olds in full-time or part-time education.” In fact, the United States ranked second-to-last (20th of 21 countries) in child well-being overall.

But at the same time, U.S. kids trounced all others when it came to optimism about their careers. Just 14% of 15 year-olds surveyed said they expected to go into low-skilled occupations—the lowest rate in the world. Although many could not compete with average students elsewhere in core academic subjects, very few believed they would pay a price for this mediocrity. (By contrast, over half of Japanese 15-year-olds expected to be doing low-skilled work—while the country ranks fourth in overall academic achievement and has a lower unemployment rate than we do.)
Can we continue to peddle the American Dream in classrooms that don’t prepare students to compete in a globalized labor force? One anonymous blogger wrote on the “We Arethe99 Percent” tumblr page:

“I have a bachelor’s degree from a top-ranked liberal arts college and a master’s from an Ivy League university. After graduation, all I could find was a year-long internship that only pays about 1/4 of my living expenses. The fellowship ends in under three months, and I still don’t know if they plan to hire me on permanently.”

Occupy Wall Street is not just about deadlock, dysfunction and disenfranchisement. It is about our nation’s willingness to over-promise and under-educate. It is about the urgent need to finally get serious about making our education system worthy of our ambition.

EducationAmanda Ripley