The American Dream, Education, and Poverty

The ideology of meritocracy is key to the American Dream. The word “America” immediately conjures up thoughts of equal opportunity for all. According to Johnson, “the American Dream promises that our system functions as a meritocracy…[where] people get ahead or behind based on what they earn and deserve rather than what circumstances they were born into” (20). This idea permeates everything from the government, to schools, to family homes, to conversations, to core beliefs. Though we may not realize it, we accept this idea of the American Dream functioning as a meritocracy without question.

Though the American Dream would like to pretend that it perpetuates a system of meritocracy, in reality, self-serving desires—while not necessarily wrong or bad—keep the dream of a meritocratic society from being realized. Because an upper-class existed prior to the implementation of a meritocratic/democratic system in America, there are those who entered the so called “meritocratic” system at an extreme advantage as well as those an extreme disadvantage. In the face of the rising value and standards of merit in America, those who had access to the power of wealth used it, and are still using it, to put themselves and their children ahead. This is seen in the interviews discussed in “The American Dream and the Power of Wealth.” These interviews provide two points that directly oppose the idea of America as a meritocracy: parents want the best education for their children in order to give them the best opportunities to succeed, and, the higher a family is on the economic ladder, the more power they wield in order to secure the best education for their children. Though parents often admitted to the inequality inherent in the education system, that did not stop them from doing everything they could, using every resource—from their own income to the acquired wealth of those in their families—available to them to put their children ahead. Through a race, a competition of “meritocracy’s” own making, America has become a system of stratification.

In a “land of opportunity,” the very real variations in school quality creates a paradox that forces us to ask a very important question: if American is the land of opportunity, a meritocracy where one advances or falls on their merit alone, and education is the “great equalizer” that levels the playing field, giving all students the same tools, how can we justify the fact that overwhelmingly schools in poor neighborhoods and areas do not have the same funds, resources, quality teachers, etc. that more affluent neighborhoods do? How can we say that children in poverty have the same, equal opportunities to succeed as children from wealthy families when their access to quality education is not equal?


Johnson, HB. 2006. Chapters 2 and 3 in The American Dream and the Power of Wealth: Choosing Schools and Inheriting Inequality in the Land of Opportunity. New York: Routledge. Pp. 19-78.

More Than 40% of Low-Income Schools Don’t Get a Fair Share of State and Local Funds, Department of Education Research Finds–US Department of Education

More articles:

Very Rich Get Very Richer: Wealthiest 20% Holds 94.5% of World’s Money–Wall Street Journal

Low Income Students Now a Majority in the Nation’s Public Schools: “Mississippi led the nation with the highest rate: ­71 percent, almost three out of every four public school children in Mississippi, were low-income [in 2013].” –Southern Education Foundation


Since this blog will be about teaching articles, ideas, etc. that I find, as well as my journey as a college student studying to be a teacher, I figured it was kind of important to explain what the MET program is. Here’s the Official METP About Page if you would like the spiel, but I want to give you my explanation as well.

First off, METP stands for the Mississippi Excellence in Teaching Program. The MET program was designed with the need for better teachers in mind, both better educated in their class material (Math or English) and more prepared for different possible classroom environments. The basic structure of the program is very similar to many teaching grants–your college tuition gets paid for and you have to work in the state as a teacher for x amount of years. Our scholarship is fantastic. Every single student in the program (no more than 20 per school, 10 Math, 1o English, per year) gets a full ride paid for by the program, which is funded by the Robert M. Hearin Support Foundation in Jackson. We all receive our specific school’s projected cost of attendance in scholarship funds for use for housing, food, tuition, as well as other expenses like gas, as well as a $600 textbook fund per semester, and a technology allowance (read: free laptop!) our freshman semester.

Beyond the money, the MET program does something that most teaching grants couldn’t dream of doing. Because the aim is to produce excellent teachers, the program recruits students with competitive GPAs and ACT/SAT scores, as well as requiring students to be apart of their school’s honors college. But the program is also helping us to create a network of teachers who I truly believe are going to be an extraordinarily positive force in Mississippi education. We’re an unusual group of people, all hardworking, all excited to teach, but each with different backgrounds and perspectives that are brought to the table. Throughout the course of our studies at college, we will make teaching friends outside of the MET program, but already, only one year into the program, our year group has banded together in a way that would be hard to replicate outside of the program. Though we’re all different, we embrace our differences because we need to–we’re going to be together through a lot that no other group of friends will be able to identify with.

We’ve begun to rely on each other in a way that I think will drastically change our first few years of teaching and beyond. We study together (as many of us are taking the same classes, both in and outside of our major), critique work, encourage, and desire for the others to succeed. While this extremely helpful now–I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have other MET people in my classes to ask about homework questions–I can only imagine what it will be like when we are in the classroom and we have other people who we know intimately to bounce ideas off of and ask questions through those nerve racking first few years of teaching where we’re still learning the hands on things about teaching that are so very hard to learn in a college classroom.

Which brings me to the other huge advantage of our program. The staff of our program are dedicated to giving us as many learning experiences outside of our classes as possible. Last spring, during our “cross campus visit” we do each semester, we had the privilege of listening to the National Teacher of the Year give a lecture on what makes a good teacher, as well as visit a special program in Oxford that uses different techniques (demonstrations, hands on projects, etc.) to give students a love for Math and Science. While many teaching students won’t see the inside of the classroom until junior or senior year, our year has already spent ten hours in the local middle school observing teachers. I personally got to observe both a substitute teacher and a 6th grade English teacher, which was an incredibly interesting contrast.

That all sounds a lot like the “official” METP spiel, so I’ll leave you with this: what the MET program means to me. When I first got my acceptance letter to Mississippi State, I registered as an English Major. Why? Because I have a passion for English. But I also have a passion for children. My problem was that I had always worked with elementary aged kids and younger, so when I started to consider what I wanted to do with my life, teaching never crossed my mind. I didn’t want to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic to a bunch of small children. I don’t have a passion for Math, Science, History, etc. I have a passion for English. So I didn’t even consider teaching as a possible profession, because I had already dismissed it as something I wasn’t cut out for. But when I heard about the MET program, which is just for Secondary Education majors (middle school and high school) I realized that there was a way for me to do something I truly loved for the rest of my life. But, not only that, this program is also helping me become the teacher I dream of being–engaging, aware of each child, passionate, and dedicated.