Without a high-quality education, our kids cannot aspire for more than Nikes -- and escape poverty.

Yesterday’s rally by charter school parents against the lawsuit filed by the NAACP and the American Federation of Teachers proves that the Poverty Myth of Education is just that. At the same time, our poorest communities are enveloped by a cultural fog in which the lack of high-quality education has led to many young men and women to embrace status symbols instead of the knowledge and brighter futures that they really want to seek. And while families may want more for their children, they must also battle an outside world (both in their communities and in America culture, in general)  in which gold glitters more brightly than books.

In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, 2008 Teach For America alum Creighton Davis — now a middle-school teacher in the New York City borough of the Bronx and founder of youth empowerment program Serving While Achieving Greatness (S.W.A.G.) — offers his own solution for making education a catalyst in moving young men and women from economic and social despair. Read, consider, and offer your own thoughts on how we can bring high-quality education to bear in helping so many young men and women escape from poverty.

From an aesthetic perspective, when comparing urban poverty in the United States to that of other nations in the world, one might conclude that poor Americans have it pretty good. One would certainly be hard-pressed to find a poor child in Cairo or in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro with designer jeans and $150 dollar Nike shoes.

But in the United States, opulence creates a unique brand of poverty. While the poorest of our children may dress in designer apparel, most have gone to bed hungry at night and struggle with preventable illnesses that stem from a dependence on cheap food sources. In a country where the 99-cent burger reigns supreme, people are not confronted by an American child half-clothed and emaciated begging on the side of the road.

From afar Americans see a picture of relative comfort rather than poverty as we have come to understand the term. This causes many to believe that being poor is a result of bad choices rather than the consequence of an unequal system at play. If parents would spend their money with greater prudence, some might say, on healthy meals and books for their children rather than $200 dollar jeans then maybe that child could escape the cycle of poverty.

Unfortunately, this response fails to take into account the ubiquity of the American dream and the injustices at work that prevent one from achieving it. And it ignores the important key in ending this form of poverty: Education.

If a nation’s culture is predicated upon what you can buy and its people judged upon the rubric of what you possess, then most citizens in that nation will labor in the pursuit of an unquantifiable end-goal: To possess as much as one can while striving to have more than the next man. Children grow up indoctrinated in this culture, but as they grow older, many children, often African-American and Latino, realize that the tantalizing dream that hangs above their heads was, simply, not made for them. Resources are inequitably shared and jobs are in low supply. More importantly, when one out of every 10 low-income high school graduates are adequately prepared for college, the hope of progress through education is but a fleeting illusion highlighted by exceptions rather than a rule.

To escape the reality of this grave injustice – indoctrinating an entire nation in a dream but withholding the means to achieve it – comes the phenomenon of being ghetto rich. Rather than confront the lie and face a shattered reality directly, the young African-American or Latino child exists in a state of fantasy and denial. The child, now maybe a teenager, continues to subscribe to the dream that has enveloped him since birth and convinces him to believe that he is actually living it. That teenager, now a young adult, buys, buys, and buys with the few dollars he has, so that it seems on the exterior he embodies the dream that the rest of America seems to be living.

But while stepping over a shard of broken glass in a dark corner of his rat-infested, crime ridden project hallway, he glares at a reflection of a man that is hungry, hollow, and hopeless – his culture and character built upon the bedrock of falsehoods from which there is no escape. The omnipresence of the American dream serves as a constant reminder to his inadequacy with this injustice flaunted on nearly every billboard, song, movie, and magazine. The young adult now leads his own child through an inverted system of priorities where at all costs it is the superficial that is nurtured and the material things that are coveted at the expense of, literally, the mind, body, and soul. Without the option of a high quality education, there is no pathway to upward mobility and no escape from this uniquely American brand of poverty.

Give kids good-to-great teachers and schools and they will want more for their lives.

Education is the inextricable link in the food chain of a community. Without the existence of high quality schools, communities lack the intellectual sustenance needed to survive. Thus, the communities across the country that have become synonymous with poverty, crime, and hopelessness all suffer from a malnourishment of the mind. This is the true face of poverty in this country: An invisible straightjacket that sedates the limitless potential of a young mind by denying it access to quality schools, highly effective teachers, and experiences that might inspire him or her to realize that change is possible.

Change, though, must also come from within a community that is united under the common purpose of progress through education.  While this inherently involves improving our schools, a burden must also rest on the shoulders of parents, grandparents, and extended families.  For the mothers and fathers that have grown up in an environment that has supported an addiction to a hopeless dream, an incentive is needed in order to turn away from this inverted system of priorities that has existed as the norm for their whole lives.

This incentive can arrive in the form of a program similar to Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, which is a conditional cash transfer program based on a family’s adherence to certain established criteria.  In Brazil, in order for a family to receive funds, the criterion is set around a number of issues. A similar program should be started here and focus only on one issue: Education.  Conditional cash transfer programs have been tested in the United States in the past, but have all included a host of requirements that often reinforce a focus on those same misplaced priorities.  If this program only focused on education, and families received financial incentives based on their child’s attendance at school, completion of homework, and overall academic performance with bonuses given to students that achieve A’s or high scores on standardized tests, the system of priorities within families would change into one that places a significantly higher value on academic excellence.

Once empowered by this change in values and priorities, communities could then be the force that demands the transformation of its education system.  And if this happens, then that young man walking through his project hallway is more likely to see a reflection in a brightly polished window of a doctor, lawyer, or teacher standing with purpose and prepared to march to the drumbeat of progress and change.