working-class people versus elites on education

(Dayton, OH) I have been listening to preliminary qualitative research: focus groups of working class adults from several communities (almost all people of color). Asked to discuss “youth,” they identify behavioral problems: violence, crime, lack of respect for adults and for themselves. Asked to propose solutions, they cite family and community, not schools or government. When one of the researchers explicitly asked them about the government, the respondents (in this case, African Americans between 18 and 25) uniformly said that the government was irrelevant. Finally, despite some economic anxiety, many said they were optimistic that young people would have good economic futures because they are savvy about technology.

Meanwhile, there is a whole official debate about youth that focuses on schools (which are government-run or government-funded institutions) and their graduates’ inadequate preparation for economic competition. This is the expert or elite discourse of tests, standards, teacher quality, “the achievement gap,” charters, vouchers, and unions.

A hypothesis: It is bad for progressive politics that core Democratic constituencies do not see the government as the solution to the problems that matter most to them. And the reason they don’t see the government as a solution is that the government has defined a different set of problems from the ones that concern them. That doesn’t mean that working people are right and elites are wrong; but the gap creates a serious problem for both.