Does the American Dream exist? Are poor but highly skilled individuals able to achieve their full potential? These questions are at the heart of recent episodes of Malcom Gladwell’s new podcast, Revisionist History.
In “Carlos Doesn’t Remember,” Gladwell examines the idea of “capitalization,” or how well America makes use of its human potential. Americans typically believe people are able to climb the ladder to success through hard work and determination, but Gladwell uses the story of one smart, low-income student to express doubts about American meritocracy.
“Carlos” is a bright but low-income student in Los Angeles, who secured a spot at an elite private school thanks to entertainment lawyer Eric Eisner’s YES program. The episode is a stark reminder that low-income students—even the most talented ones—face large barriers to success. Gladwell calls Carlos’ journey a “one in a million shot.” He identifies two large obstacles that smart, low-income students must overcome, but fails to discuss the best solution to these problems: school choice. The public education system traps students like Carlos in underperforming schools that Gladwell likens to concentration camps, but choice policies could help more poor students like Carlos access good schools.
The first barrier to success is a lack of advocates for talented, low-income students. But must it take an Eric Eisner to discover such kids and help them capitalize on their potential? The underlying assumption is that advocates will not be parents or teachers, but only rare, outside forces.
Really? Most parents want the best for their children, and work hard to give them opportunities for success. The problem may well be that wealthier families can access private institutions or choose expensive homes zoned for high-quality public schools, while low-income families are relegated to cheap addresses assigning them to subpar schools. Low-income parents, as Gladwell and others imply, are not necessarily uninformed or uncaring. They just lack the resources of wealthier families.
School choice policies help to give parents those resources. In The School Choice Journey, Thomas Stewart and Patrick Wolf show that given choices, low-income parents transition from passive clients to active consumers, seeking out information on options for their children.