Opportunity in America Video Transcript



People in this video: Irwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, Bo Cutter, Chrystia Freeland, Isabel Sawhill, Dan Varner, Doug Massey, Karen Freeman-Wilson, Rick Stafford, Clifford McKinley, Thomas L. Friedman, Wade Henderson, Eliot Cutler, Tonya Allen, Tim Smeeding, Jerell Blakely, Darren Green, Rev. Scott Planting, Maurice Tenney, Russell Hancock, Anthony Chavez, Cathy Richard, Ernestine Weems, Neal M. Brown, Kim Heckart, Sheryl Brissett Chapman, Mark Gerzon, Charlie Harrington, Wendy Harrington, Taryn Ishida, Pam Kingery, Janice Brown, Tom Murphy, Jasaria Dorty, teachers and various students, including Desiree Grant.

On-screen: All aforementioned interviewees, various scenes of rural and urban America, various scenes of teachers and students interacting in classrooms.

Narrator: America has always prided itself on being the land of opportunity, a nation where the qualities of good skills, hard work perseverance and playing by generally accepted rules have been essential elements in achieving the American Dream. For generations, many millions of Americans were able to realize their versions of that dream. But is that still true today? And will it be true for generations to come?

On-screen (title slide): Choosing our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America 

Irwin Kirsch: Much of the last century was focused around the industrial revolution.

On-screen: Irwin Kirsch, Tyler Chair, Large-Scale Assessment, ETS 

Henry Braun: Millions and millions of Americans were developing the knowledge, the skills that we call human capital.

On-screen: Human Capital – The cognitive skills and knowledge, along with interpersonal skills and character traits, that are necessary to succeed in America today. 

Henry Braun: And the human capital that people developed was exactly the right set of knowledges and skills they needed.

On-screen: Henry Braun, Boisi Professor of Education and Public Policy, Boston College 

Irwin Kirsch: And so a high school education, high school level skills pretty much guaranteed you a place in the middle class.

Bo Cutter: And there was a very high level of economic dynamism and change which created the opportunities.

On-screen: Bo Cutter, Senior Fellow Director, Next American Economy Project, Roosevelt Institute 

Henry Braun: And all that meant that everybody had a chance to really make the American Dream and millions did. Now, millions did not. They were shut out, either by racial discrimination or because they lived in extremely poor areas. But for large numbers of Americans, the American Dream was a reality.

Chrystia Freeland: We had really robust economic growth shrinking income inequality. In many ways, you know, it was a golden age of egalitarianism.

On-screen: Chrystia Freeland, Canadian Minister of International Trade and MP, University-Rosedale, Toronto

Henry Braun: In that post WWII era, wherever you on the economic ladder, you had social capital. Whether they had the family bonds, the social networks, whether it was through the unions, or through fraternal clubs, through neighborhoods, and also those shared norms and behaviors that everybody respected and honored.

On-screen: Social Capital – One's family, social networks and other relationships that provide support and advice, as well as the social norms and values that guide one's behaviors.

Isabel Sawhill: Everything seemed to come together in a way to enable us to advance together as, as a nation.

On-screen: Isabel Sawhill, Senior Fellow, Economic Studies, Brookings Institution

Henry Braun: All that led to an enormous increase in prosperity and the largest increase in the middle class that, not only that this country had ever seen, but that the world had ever seen. And everybody sort of expected that this would go on forever. But it didn't.

Dan Varner: Equal opportunity is a core value of our country. And it's on the basis of that equal opportunity that we then want folks to compete and for talent and for hard work and all of those and of the American ethos to pay off in the achievement of the American Dream.

On-screen: Dan Varner, CEO, Excellent Schools, Detroit, MI

Henry Braun: We see that human capital and social capital, together, are the basis of achieving adult outcomes and because of that, we define opportunity as those pathways that allow children to develop and accumulate the human capital and the social capital they'll need  for their adult lives.

On-screen: Opportunity – Pathways to the development of human and social capital.

Irwin Kirsch: But in the mid-70s and beyond, there was a shift away from the machines as being the most important kind of capital to human capital being the most important form of capital.

Doug Massey: As we've shifted from a manufacturing economy towards a knowledge-based economy, the educational premium has gone way up and people who used to make a good living through unionized jobs, through skilled jobs, through manufacturing jobs, they found themselves going down.

On-screen: Doug Massey, Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, Princeton University

Chrystia Freeland: Nowadays, the western middle class worker is competing with a global labor force and that is exhibiting real downward pressure on wages.

Karen Freeman-Wilson: I can't impact the fact that U.S. Steel decided to take much of their business and many related industries outside of the country.

On-screen: Karen Freeman-Wilson, Mayor, Gary, Indiana

Rick Stafford: Today, we are defined by technology, by knowledge based jobs.

On-screen: Rick Stafford, Professor of Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA

Chrystia Freeland: The reality is when it comes to a lot of middle class jobs, they're simply disappearing.

Clifford McKinley: The jobs are gone. It used to be Graphic Packaging, that parking lot used to be full. Georgia Pacific, Beech Product. All of this is gone, man.

On-screen: Clifford McKinley, Kalamazoo, MI

Thomas L. Friedman: There's been this skills bias polarization. So if you have the skills and education today to take advantage of the IT revolution, you're going to be fine. But if you don't have that education, you're in real trouble.

On-screen: Thomas L. Friedman, Reporter and Columnist for The New York Times, Author

Wade Henderson: And so for that group of people, the chances of them ever participating meaningfully in American life is almost non-existent.

On-screen: Wade Henderson, President and CEO, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

Eliot Cutler: We are stuck in an economy that is suffering from an absence of a strategic plan to create opportunity.

On-screen: Eliot Cutler, CEO, Maine Center for Graduate and Professional Studies, Portland, ME

Henry Braun: What we will see is a slow but inexorable polarization of our society into a relatively small group of haves and a relatively large group of have nots that will place enormous strain on the nature of American society and democracy.

Irwin Kirsch: What you see is this pulling apart or this bifurcation of the society along the lines of education and human capital.

Henry Braun: There's a profound change in the kinds of human capital that were valued. And those individuals that have that human capital, they were doing well, and their communities do well, so they're able to maintain not only their human capital but their social capital as well.

Doug Massey: It's become more and more of a two tiered economy with a small number of people at the top and everybody else kind of struggling to stay where they are, or falling down.

Tonya Allen: What we have in Detroit are people who want good things. Many of them believe in the American Dream even though the American Dream has not proven to be a reality for them.

On-screen: Tonya Allen, President and CEO, Skillman Foundation, Detroit, MI

Tim Smeeding: The worst is the working middle class. You've worked hard, you've paid your taxes, you put your kids to school and you're still going downhill.

On-screen: Tim Smeeding, Professor of Public Affairs and Economics, University of Wisconsin

Irwin Kirsch: What's interesting when you think about it through the lens of opportunity, the relationship between human capital and social capital has changed. So we are becoming more polarized as a society, not just in terms of our skills, but also in terms of our social capital.

Chrystia Freeland: So even as the economic divide has been growing larger, so has the social and cultural one.

Doug Massey: We're seeing a polarization of the residential structure of the United States. So you see affluent places becoming increasingly affluent and poor places becoming increasingly poor.

Irwin Kirsch: Your neighborhoods used to be this mix of people with different levels of education and economic lines.

Jerell Blakely: This was a mixed neighborhood growing up.

On-screen: Jerell Blakely, History Teacher, Trenton High School, Trenton, NJ

Darren Green: It was actually one of the best sides. West was always considered one of the affluent sides. There's a different mindset here now. There's really no blue collar here now. There's poor people who live here now, so there's a concentration of poverty.

On-screen: Darren Green, Community Activist, Trenton, NJ

Henry Braun: The neighborhoods and communities began to fracture and with that fracturing the social capital began to dissipate. And the people who live in that community no longer have the trust, the bonds that sustain them and the community as a whole.

Eliot Cutler: When you go down east, when you go to towns and villages all over the state of Maine, there is no opportunity, people are trapped.

Rev. Scott Planting: Forty years ago, these communities had a greater sense of self sufficiency. There were smaller mills, canning factories. There was a way of life and I have seen that almost entirely go away. So people really wonder where to look for hope.

On-screen: Rev. Scott Planting, President, Maine Sea Coast Mission, Bar Harbor, ME

Karen Freeman-Wilson: Gary had the best part system, Gary had the best educational system. There have been so many outside forces that have had an adverse impact on the resiliency of the community, on the spirit of the community.

Maurice Tenney: Most of the towns are turning into ghost towns because there's just not enough people to keep them viable.

On-screen: Maurice Tenney, Columbia Falls, ME

Russell Hancock: For decades Silicon Valley was actually a middle class town. This has changed. Our face today is one of extremely high income earners, and then an impoverished class.

On-screen: Russell Hancock, CEO, Joint Venture Silicon Valley, San Jose, CA

Anthony Chavez: And now people are lucky enough to hold on if they can because there's so much influx of wealth coming in and displacing people.

On-screen: Anthony Chavez, Cesar E. Chavez Foundation, Oakland, CA

Cathy Richard: Our youth now, most of them don't come back because there are no jobs for them to come back to.

On-screen: Cathy Richard, Creole, LA

Ernestine Weems: The lack of employment is, is incredible here. The coal industry leaving lost thousands of jobs. You know, when you think of thousands of jobs, you can multiply that by four or five because you've got that many people in that family that it impacted. 

On-screen: Ernestine Weems, Buckhorn Children and Family Services, Buckhorn, KY

Dan Varner: There are legions of studies that prove what we all know to be true, and that is the thing that makes the greatest difference in the life of a child are caring adults who are healthy in their own right. And when you reach a point where there are too few of those adults in a community, then it has disastrous consequences for all the kids in that community.

Wade Henderson: On the one hand, students from affluent families and backgrounds enjoy high quality public education. But students who live in concentrated poverty, often have educational experiences which are less than optimal, in fact which are dreadful. The concern that we all share is that education in our society is the gateway to opportunity.

Teacher: Good morning.

Children: [Chant] Good morning.

Student: My name is Tiara and I want to be a neurosurgeon when I grow up.

Student: When I grow up, I want to be a physician.

Student: I want to be a baseball star.

Student: When I grow up, I want to be a scientist.

Student: Hi, I am--

Irwin Kirsch: When you listen to these kids and you look at them and you listen to their, their hopes and dreams, you have to wonder are they really going to make it.

Student: My name is Jordan and I'm ten years old and I want to be a game designer when I grow up.

Irwin Kirsch: It's important for us to recognize that these kids are growing up in the circumstances that reflect the shifts that have taken place in America over the last 30 or 40 years. So in order for these kids to realize their hopes and dreams, they have to have opportunity. And by opportunity, we mean pathways have to be clear for them to be able to develop the human and social capital that they're going to need in order to participate fully in American life.

Narrator: As these children grow and develop, what will their opportunity pathways look like? For children born into families with rich human and social capital, advantages start before birth and continue to accumulate over their life trajectories.

Isabel Sawhill: We now know that even by age four or five, children from higher income, better educated families have a lot more human capital than those from less educated or less fortunate families.

Neal M. Brown: Some of the changes that are happening in the world today make what schools like ours are doing and much more of an emphasis on teaching and learning even more relevant. We know that we want kids using technology here because that's the world they live in.

On-screen: Neal M. Brown, Head of School, Green Acres School, North Bethesda, MD

Narrator: For those born into families with poor human and social capital, the disadvantages can also start before birth and begin to accumulate.

Kim Heckart: In any part of the United States, there's not an equal playing field for all kids when they come into school.

On-screen: Kim Heckart, 3rd grade teacher, Cedar Rapids, IA

Sheryl Brissett Chapman: Who protects them the larger problem, the violence in the neighborhood, the drug dealing, the insensitivity, the guns, the guns, the guns, the guns? What happens to the child. At seven, I've seen them already with the lights out.

On-screen: Sheryl Brissett Chapman, Executive Director, National Center for Children and Families, Bethesda, MD

Mark Gerzon: I keep coming back to this idea of a door. For some kids, that door is not only not open, but it's virtually locked. And they've got to be a hero to get through it.

On-screen: Mark Gerzon, Founder and President, Mediators Foundation

Charlie Harrington: About 70 percent of these children live below in the poverty line.

On-screen: Charlie Harrington, Director of EdGE, Cherryfield, ME

Wendy Harrington: They need more than just an in school education, after school education, sports. I think of the children that we work with who live in poverty, many of them don't know where the next meal is coming from. They live in houses that are not safe. What we see in the children is hopelessness.

On-screen: Wendy Harrington, Director of Service Programs, EdGE, Cherryfield, ME

Taryn Ishida: We just finished a round of our own research. It involved 2,000 students across the state. And the surprising thing in California is that actually half of students can't name a single caring adult, be that your family members, be that a teacher or a principal or a counselor.

On-screen: Taryn Ishida, Executive Director of Californians for Justice, Oakland, CA

Isabel Sawhill: So add the income inequality to these inequalities and circumstances of a child's birth and the stability of their environments, add that to the educational inequalities all the way from K through 12 through college and you've got a recipe for less social mobility in the future.

Irwin Kirsch: The opportunity to develop the kinds of human and social capital they need is basically denied. They find too many gates, too any pathways that are blocked.

Henry Braun: This breakup of communities, the lack of relevant human capital, the loss of the social capital, it affects the adults, and therefore changes the lives of the children.

Eliot Cutler: And the consequence of that has been a recession in opportunity, a dramatic recession in social mobility and those feed upon themselves, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

Irwin Kirsch: These are self sustaining forces. This is not something that is going to stop and go away and we're going to return to the way we were.

Henry Braun: And what we'll see is an accumulation of advantage and an accumulation of disadvantage that will play out from generation to generation.

Narrator: So as we confront the effects of these forces that are driving us apart, denying opportunity to millions of children, is there still hope? When we drive across America, we can readily see the divisions that have occurred over the last 40 years. But we also see something else.

Henry Braun: We know that all over this country, there are thousands, if not tens of thousands of people and organizations that really get it. They understand the importance of human and social capital. They may not use those words, but nonetheless, they are providing their neighborhoods, their communities with the skills, the links, the trust that they will need to succeed in the 21st Century.

Narrator: In rural Washington County, Maine, the EdGE program helps develop both human and social capital in young people whose families have very limited resources.

Wendy Harrington: All the research pointed to the need to surround children with family, a community and a positive school environment and their peers. And that's what we're trying to do up here.

Doug Massey: It requires an informed, well informed understanding of how to reach into families without disrupting them and solve the aspiration challenge, because we know that children either recognize and develop aspiration and see opportunity and possibility or don't.

Narrator: In Kalamazoo, Michigan, a group of anonymous donors created the Kalamazoo Promise, a program that pays for college education for all graduates of the city's public high schools.

Janice Brown: One of the donors said, you know, if we paid for everybody to go to college, that's what would make the difference in our community.

On-screen: Janice Brown, Executive Director Emeritus, Kalamazoo Promise, Kalamazoo, MI

Pam Kingery: The community was really mobilized because of the promise. People were saying things like wow, if other people can give lots of money to send complete strangers to college, the least I can do is volunteer to help a kid read better.

On-screen: Pam Kingery, Executive Director, Communities in Schools, Kalamazoo, MI

Janice Brown: An investment in human capital this great is one that will pay dividends in this community and far beyond this community for many, many years to go.

Narrator: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of the hardest hit of the rust belt cities, has reinvented itself, transitioning dramatically into the new economy.

Tom Murphy: The president of Carnegie Mellon University, Dr. [Richard] Cyert [president of Carnegie Mellon from 1972 to 1990], said that universities could be the economic drivers of this region. Now, we thought of the universities as the places you go to get educated and maybe do research, but not like our steel mills. So that was a revolutionary idea. And as a community, we began to think about what it meant to have the universities to be the economic drivers, and how do we build an entrepreneurial culture. Fast forward to today, and we have one of the best economies in the country here.

On-screen: Tom Murphy, Mayor from 1994-2006, Pittsburgh, PA

Henry Braun: Literally everywhere we looked, there were people coming to grips with this problem and creating opportunity for our nation's children.

Teacher in background talking to child: That's good. That means that you're rolling, okay.

Henry Braun: And what we need now is to go beyond those individual points of light to a nationwide network of individuals, organizations and even governments that would see the problem, work together, provide each other with support and inspiration. And we at ETS want to learn from them support them in any way that we can to help us as nation to create opportunity for all our children.

Student: Why do you want to be a teacher?

Jasaria Dorty: I like teaching because starting kids young, I want to let them know that they can make it anywhere. Knowing that helps me everyday.

On-screen: Jasaria Dorty, Teacher, Freedom School, Detroit, MI

Mark Gerzon: I mean I was a part of that whole opportunity wave. But we, we created the institutions that opened those opportunities. I think we can change the circumstances that are now closing those opportunities.

Irwin Kirsch: There is no magic bullet, there is no one thing we can do as a society. We have to be in this for the long haul. We need to be systematic about it. America does great things. We've done great things throughout our history. And I think it's time for us to come together as a country and recognize the importance of the challenges we face to who we are as a society and who we want to be 25 years from now.

Dan Varner: This is a tremendous opportunity to figure it out and to get it right and then to spread that across the country. And can you imagine like what's available for us as a country if we get that right.

Irwin Kirsch: You know, we're at this crossroads. And the path that we choose will have major implications I think for what we look like as a society in the next generation.

Student: My name is Diana Faithful, I am 10 years old, and when I grow up, I want to be a singer.

Student: Hi, my name is Caleb Jones and my hobbies is photography and I want to own my own production film when I get older. 

Student: My name is Kayla. I'm nine years old. I like to draw and I want to be a fashion designer when I grow up.

Student: When I grow up, I want to be an animal rescuer because I love animals.

Student: When I grow up, I want to be some kind of scientist. I'm not sure right, quite yet, because there's so many things.

Student: My name is Desiree Grant, I'm from Columbia, Maine, and I'm going to be a freshman at the University of Maine at Machias. People set good examples for me, and l learned from that. Many people would say that people who live in Washington County, especially growing up in a trailer don't have opportunities. I am a big dreamer, so all I thought was I want to get out and I want to be something big. 

On-screen: Desiree Grant, Student, Columbia, ME

On-screen (closing image): ETS logo and tagline, Measuring the Power of Learning.

On-screen (credits): Executive Producers: Irwin Kirsch, Henry Braun. Director: David Hanrahan. Producers: David Hanrahan, Joe Fab, Les Francis. Associate Producers: Mary Lou Lennon, Anita Sands. Editors: Richard Ackerman, David Hanrahan. Original Music Score: Charlie Bennett. Second Unit Producer: Les Francis. Cinematographers: Husain Akbar, Jamar Jones, Ivan Herrera. Grip/Production Assistant: Chris Simmons. Assistants to the Director: Chris Hanrahan, Emma Mankey Hidem. Graphics: Sameer Zavery. The producers wish to thank the many interviewees, facilitators and other participants all across the United States who helped to make this film possible.

This film is based on a report authored by Irwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, Mary Louise Lennon and Anita Sands titled, "Choosing Our Future." The positions expressed in the film are those of the authors. As such these positions to not necessarily reflect the views of the Officers and Trustees of Educational Testing Service.