Tearing Down the Gates

Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education

Peter Sacks
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 388
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pp8rb
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  • Book Info
    Tearing Down the Gates
    Book Description:

    We often hear about the growing divide between rich and poor in America. This compelling exposé, backed by up-to-date research, locates the source of this trend where we might least expect to find it-in our schools. Written for a wide audience,Tearing Down the Gatesis a powerful indictment of American education that shows how schools, colleges, and universities exacerbate inequality by providing ample opportunities for advantaged students while shutting the gates on the poor-and even the middle class. Peter Sacks tells the stories of young people and families as they struggle to negotiate the educational system. He introduces students like Ashlea, who grew up in a trailer park and who would like to attend college, though she faces constant obstacles that many of her more privileged classmates can't imagine. Woven throughout with voices of Americans both rich and poor,Tearing Down the Gatesdescribes a disturbing situation that has the potential to undermine the American dream, not just for some, but for all of us. At the heart of this book is a question of justice, and Sacks demands that we take a hard look at what equal opportunity really means in the United States today.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93223-4
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures and Tables
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. INTRODUCTION: Lost Illusions
    (pp. 1-8)

    Tearing Down the Gatesis about injustice. It is about the staggering economic inequalities that open the gates of opportunity for the children of affluent and well-educated families and slam the gates shut for children born without social and economic privilege. While we often hear about the widening economic divide between the rich and the poor in modern America, this book attempts to locate the fountainhead of this growing economic disparity in one of our most cherished democratic institutions: our education system.

    Ashlea Jackson is a high school junior who would like to attend college and perhaps study journalism.¹ She’s...

  6. PART ONE RICH FAMILIES, POOR FAMILIES
    • ONE ASHLEA AND GILLIAN
      (pp. 11-36)

      Ashlea Jackson remembers the moment she decided to choose a different path than her troubled brothers had followed. She was in fourth grade, and one day, walking down the hallway, she looked up when she heard some girls call out her older brother Justin’s nickname, “Jay Jay.”

      “They were saying, ‘Bye, Jay Jay,’ and I turned around and saw my brother being taken out of the school in handcuffs by two cops, and that is when I knew I didn’t want to end up like my older brother,” Ashlea told me. “He was in fifth grade. He was eleven or...

    • TWO “DO WE LOOK INTIMIDATING?”
      (pp. 37-60)

      Where family ends and school begins for families like Becky Parkinson’s is a blurry line indeed. Not only do affluent families provide their children with the cultural and financial resources that enable them to succeed in school, but these same families also assert political influence over teachers, principals, and school affairs to a degree that helps to ensure that success.

      Parkinson, a parent of three children, has a full-time job at Highlands Elementary. That, of course, is hardly unusual. Even the job itself, teaching math and science and leading novel-reading groups for schoolchildren, isn’t uncommon.

      But what is noteworthy about...

  7. PART TWO STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS
    • THREE BERKELEY HIGH AND THE POLITICS OF EXCLUSION
      (pp. 63-78)

      As I walked back to my hotel through downtown Berkeley on a gloriously sunny February day, I took in the sights of this vibrant, politically progressive, and diverse city. In certain respects, Berkeley is not remotely like the rest of America, and the people who live there are clearly proud of that separateness and difference. Politics and culture, especially, are what set Berkeley apart from the mainstream. Tucked up next to the Oakland Hills on one side and the San Francisco Bay on the other side, being in Berkeley feels a bit like being on an island. It’s an island...

    • FOUR “DO I MAKE THE KIDS SMART OR GET THEM INTO COLLEGE?”
      (pp. 79-91)

      Several questions were in play at Berkeley High for which there weren’t clear-cut answers, let alone a consensus among the school’s different factions. Was Berkeley High’s primary job to serve individual interests, or should individual interests be secondary to public interests? Are public high schools simply taxpayer-subsidized arenas for a collection of private interests? Was Berkeley High a gathering place for several schools within a school, in which students were sorted—and sorted themselves—along racial, class, and ethnic lines? Was “academic rigor” code for legitimizing more invidious ways of sorting by race and class?

      At Berkeley High, fundamental questions...

    • FIVE PUBLIC SCHOOLS, PRIVATE PRIVILEGE
      (pp. 92-108)

      As Americans, we like to think that our public school system can be a great equalizer, able to overcome social and economic disparities, not an institution that may in fact reproduce and justify existing inequalities.

      But by reinforcing the advantages conferred by the abundant human capital that affluent parents provide their children at home, many public schools have effectively put themselves in the business of widening the school performance gaps between the rich and the not-rich, of reproducing the class barriers that exist in the larger society, not lessening them.

      Indeed, as the twenty-first century unfolds in cities and towns...

  8. PART THREE AFFIRMATIVE ACTION FOR THE RICH
    • SIX CLASS MATTERS
      (pp. 111-129)

      In the past few decades, the controversies over affirmative action in higher education have preoccupied America’s debates about equal educational opportunity. This battle led to feverish public and media attention in the summer of 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court finally entered the affirmative action fray for the first time in a quarter century. InGrutter v. Bollinger,a case involving the University of Michigan’s law school, the Court in a 5–4 vote upheld the use of affirmative action in the school’s admissions policy. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s majority opinion largely turned on the question of the educational benefits...

    • SEVEN PART CHURCH, PART CAR DEALER
      (pp. 130-158)

      The unfortunate irony of our collective dismissal of class questions in public debates about educational equity is that class is the grand organizing principle of American education. Class, and where one fits into the class structure,definesthe American education system. Social class—measured by parents’ education, their cultural and financial resources, and their occupational status—is fundamental to a student’s chances of even considering going to college, and it is fundamental to the kind of college a student can hope to attend. To paraphrase Albert Einstein’s famous portrait of the universe, God does not play dice with the opportunity...

    • EIGHT A SOCIAL COMPACT BROKEN
      (pp. 159-174)

      The inequities of social class, which permeate and largely define the American education system, remain a cancerous lesion that policy makers and university presidents themselves have long ignored. Educational leaders seem to believe that if they pay sufficient attention to ethnic and racial diversity in higher education—and use race-based affirmative action as the means to achieve that diversity—then their institutional and collective obligations to the public trust are fulfilled.

      When industrialist Andrew Carnegie founded the Carnegie Technical Schools in 1900, he did so as a gesture to the public good, to help the sons and daughters of the...

    • NINE GOVERNMENT GIFTS TO THE RICH
      (pp. 175-192)

      Aged eighteen and a recent high school graduate, Katelyn Ware ought to have the world at her feet. With her love of learning, her good grades, and her fondness for Shakespeare, going to college would seem to be the natural next step for Bonnie Butler’s youngest child.

      But Katelyn saw what happened to JordanWare, her older brother, and she saw what happened to ErinWare, her older sister. Erin, who is twentyeight, was the first in the immediate family to go to college. After attending a local community college and then graduating a few years ago with a four-year degree from...

  9. PART FOUR EXPERIMENTS IN GATECRASHING AND THE BACKLASH OF THE ELITES
    • TEN A DANGEROUS MAN
      (pp. 195-224)

      Dayle Mazzarella is crashing the exclusive party that American higher education has become. Google his name, and you’ll find references to his coaching prowess: he spent decades coaching high school track and wrestling in Oceanside, California. But being a coaching legend in Southern California isn’t what makes him a gatecrasher. It’s because he’s an educator, because of the students he educates, and how he goes about doing it at Oceanside High School, north of San Diego.

      Oftentimes, the American education system serves as a handmaiden to affluent society, re-creating the cultural norms of dominant social classes and expecting all students...

    • ELEVEN THE GATECRASHERS
      (pp. 225-257)

      All things considered, it’s a small revolution.

      In previous chapters, we’ve seen how our American ideal of equal opportunity in obtaining a quality education has increasingly become just hollow rhetoric. Colleges and universities, as well as government agencies, have made deliberate choices in recent years to enhance opportunities for children born into socially and economically privileged lives. Those same choices have limited the opportunities for children born without such privileges. Despite all the talk about equal access that progressive leaders of higher education often espouse, they operate the levers of America’s inequality engine, a machine that systematically reproduces social class...

    • TWELVE “I ALWAYS IMAGINED MYSELF AS A ROCK”
      (pp. 258-274)

      Upon turning eighteen, Melissa Morrow promptly moved out of her house in Kevin, Montana, where she had lived with her mom and stepdad and her two younger siblings, about two hours’ drive from Great Falls. Leaving behind her family and her small rural high school, she picked up and moved to Missoula. The adults who knew her were hoping for the best, that she would finish her senior year of high school in the western Montana college town. Though her family and support would remain in Kevin, Melissa’s simple physical presence in Missoula would put her that much closer to...

  10. PART FIVE AMERICAN DREAMS
    • THIRTEEN HOW WE GOT HERE
      (pp. 277-287)

      The educational opportunity structure for Melissa Morrow at the dawn of the twenty-first century was about far more than schools and colleges and individual families. It was also about the structure of the American economy. It was about winners—and losers. It was about the public and its problems.

      When George W. Bush was sworn in for a second term as president, he spoke to Congress about his plans for war, for privatizing the Social Security system, for sweeping tax cuts, and for reductions in domestic programs on which many ordinary Americans depend. Bush and his neoconservative backers, stoking fears...

    • FOURTEEN CLASS CONFUSIONS
      (pp. 288-298)

      Meandering into the cereal aisle at the grocery store, I happened to glance at a woman’s grocery cart, and there lay the red and blue balloons of a Wonder Bread wrapper. Sometimes I do this, looking at people’s grocery carts, merely curious about what they’re buying, and it’s usually a nonevent. But that loaf of Wonder Bread somehow made a deeper imprint.

      Of course, a loaf of Wonder Bread isn’t commonly thought of as an especially noteworthy sight. But Wonder Bread is more than a package of processed white bread. It’s more, even, than an icon of pre-VietGate, undeconstructed innocence,...

    • FIFTEEN WHERE ARE WE GOING?
      (pp. 299-318)

      Forget the moral arguments about making America more socially and economically inclusive and less punitive to children who happen to have been born to poor parents. Forget the ideology of scarcity and the notion that colleges and universities, states and the federal government can’t afford to embark on an ambitious strategy to diminish the widening opportunity gap between children born into privileged lives and those who are not. Instead, consider this simple truth: an untold amount of potential human talent in the United States is wasted as a consequence of an increasingly rigid class structure and the stagnant society it...

  11. APPENDIX A: SUPPLEMENTARY FIGURES
    (pp. 319-336)
  12. APPENDIX B: SUPPLEMENTARY TABLES
    (pp. 337-340)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 341-364)
  14. Index
    (pp. 365-376)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 377-377)