November 6th, 2011
08:00 AM ET

Zakaria: Fix education, restore social mobility

Editor's Note: Learn more about the future of education with the special edition of GPS, Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education.

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

I've been thinking about Occupy Wall Street, which is now occupying a number of other cities in America. What is it really about? The protesters don't like bank bailouts; they feel the 99% have been hard done-by and they're protesting what they see as unprecedented inequality. But America has always had more inequality than many countries.

I think underlying their sense of frustration is despair over a very un-American state of affairs: A loss of social mobility. Americans have so far put up with inequality because they felt they could change their own status. They didn't mind others being rich, as long as they had a path to move up as well. The American Dream is all about social mobility - the sense that anyone can make it.

TIME magazine's Rana Foroohar has a great cover story this week that highlights that social mobility in American is declining. She points out that if you were born in 1970 in the bottom one-fifth of our socio-economic spectrum, you had only a 17% chance of making it into the upper two-fifths. Data show that its much easier to climb the socio-economic ladder in many parts of Europe. Rana points out that while nearly half of American men with fathers in the bottom fifth of the earning curve remain there, only a quarter of Danes and Swedes and only 30% of Britons do. The American dream seems to be thriving in Europe more than it is here at home.

What happened and what can we do?

There are a number of reasons why we find ourselves in this predicament - but the most important of them is how much we have lagged behind on education. No other factor is as closely linked to upward mobility. Education is the engine of mobility. And for all its current troubles, many countries in Europe - especially in northern Europe - have done a much better job providing high quality public education, particularly for those who are not rich or upper middle class.

We talk a lot about the genius of Steve Jobs these days, and justifiably, because he was a genius. But he also grew up in an environment that helped. He graduated from high school in 1972 at a time when the California public school system was ranked first in the country and American public education was the envy of the world. The public school he went to in Cupertino was high quality, with excellent programs in science as well as the liberal arts. Today, California's public schools are a disaster, and the state spends twice as much on prisons as it does on education.

So how do we fix our education system? Watch my GPS special tonight. It's called "Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education" and it airs at 8pm and 11pm Eastern.

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Topics: Education • Fareed's Take • From Fareed • GPS Show

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