I consider myself lucky that JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy found its way to the top of my holiday reading pile this December. This poignant memoir was not only a beautiful tribute to the people who helped the author survive his difficult Appalachian upbringing, but coincidentally, served as my companion reading to several academic research papers about the risks of waiting until middle or high school to expose children—especially economically disadvantaged children—to career development guidance and resources.  

Examining this eye-opening academic research alongside Vance’s heart-breaking story of the cruel cycle of poverty felt like being handed the answer key to a high-stakes test. Vance describes a cycle of poverty that felt nearly inescapable, where few members of the community possessed the “social capital” to build a safer, healthier life for their families.

“To move up was to move on. That required going to college… the message wasn’t explicit; teachers didn’t tell us that we were too stupid or poor to make it. Nevertheless it was all around us, like the air we breathed: No one in our families had gone to college; older friends and siblings were perfectly content to stay in Middletown regardless of their career prospects…In Middletown, 20 percent of the public high school’s entering freshman won’t make it to graduation. Most won’t graduate from college. Virtually no one will go to school from out of state. Students don’t expect much from themselves, because the people around them don’t do very much. Many parents go along with this phenomenon.”

Meanwhile, the academic research I read in parallel reinforced that crucial career-related attitudes are first formed in early childhood. Children are shaping—and often limiting—their career aspirations as early as six to eight years old. These attitudes are often formed based on misperceptions driven by three powerful factors: gender norms, poverty, and parental and societal expectations. 

It became clear that it is no longer a luxury to start discussing children’s dreams, interests and strengths and how to connect them to long-term success. It is an imperative. Our children are shutting doors to their future based on their gender, their parents’ income, or lack of support from their community. The sad reality is that our children are losing HOPE as early as kindergarten and it can be a downward spiral from there.

Don’t we owe it to them to help keep those doors open as long as possible? To show them that their hopes are possible and that there’s a way to achieve their goals?  

Hillbilly Elegy has underscored the situations that thousands of educators face in the real world today. Hopefully critically acclaimed voices like J.D. Vance can help lend a megaphone to the voices of Donna E. Palladino Schultheiss, Andrew Helwig, Linda Gottfredson and other researchers, so we as a society and as individuals can help our children stop the downward spiral of hope while they are still young and can make the largest impact of all.

To learn more about emerging trends in elementary education, download the recent research study, The Shift Toward College and Career Readiness, from Hanover Research.


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