"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, January 23, 2006

On Kozol

Peter Majoy recently heard Jonathan Kozol, and these are his reflections:
On Thursday, November 17th, 2005, I attended a talk in Keene, New Hampshire (I live 16 miles south of Keene) given by Jonathan Kozol. This was a happy coincidence since I had already started reading The Shame of the Nation. I had never heard him speak; I was priveleged to be there to witness his charisma, humor, compassion, and biting commentary on the return of inner city schools to segregation brought on by economic and social policy. He includes NCLB as part of that economic and social policy and told us that he wrote this book to confront the Bush administration. Interestingly enough, he included mention of rural schools in our state and the fact that the school funding formula here is one of the worst in the nation. I reference Mr. Kozol to help me comment further on NCLB, small schools, and a bit about what it means to possess the vocation of a teacher.

Kozol spoke of the patronizing politicians who should teach in a classroom for the whole day so that they understood one of the most important goals necessary for American education to move forward, "elemental racial justice." He said that segregation is back with a vengeance and that we are in the midst of "postmodern millennial apartheid." Schools are under a "state of seige" with the "sword of accountability over their heads." Later, Kozol connected these remarks directly to high stakes testing which he said created a state of terror in our schools where principals operate in a state of anxiety where sanctions include loss of money turning them into "curricular cops" who monitor teachers who have been handed scripts and texts with which to teach to the test where no time may be spent on anything but material that is test related.

Kozol continued to play this critical chord by asserting that under NCLB, teachers were becoming "mechanistic proficiency deliverers" instead of "lovers of culture" who would be able to look for the "hidden treasures" in kids. Instead, schools would not be able to "interrogate reality" because everything is prescribed. Inner city schools under this apartheid regime reinforced by NCLB were delivering a kind of lockstep militarized curriculum that was deadening of the human spirit. In this regard, Kozol said that "mediocrity is being imposed on the poorest of the poor in the guise of accountability." He went on to speak of the Orwellian lingo used to push NCLB like the "polysllabic pretentiousness standards people use in language of educational bamboozlement." He said that schools are being placed in a situation requiring "recovery from educational gibberish."

Kozol wove all of this together with stories of specific schools and individual students. One school's basement cafeteria was dark, filthy, and supportive of an animal atmosphere, but when one visited schools only several miles from these poor, black and now hispanic schools, the atmosphere of the cafeteria included salad bars, and both a seating and an aesthetic atmosphere conducive to a positive, interactive communication. Addressing this reality, he said that "we sweeten the lives of some and soil the lives of others". This was followed by comments on how beauty and aesthetic quality inform the soul and spirit in a way that, in itself, teaches children about life and the value of the world around them. He told stories of politicians who invite him to speak before committees and from this an incident where one well known political figure praised his talk but brought out a piece of the common script used to question everything he spoke about. "Can you really change things by throwing money at it?" asked the pol almost rhetorically. Kozol told us that this point was disingenuous when you realized what the per pupil expenditure was at the school his children attended! He gave an example of one inner city school in New York spending 11G's per student but only 4 miles North in a fairly well to do suburb, the per pupil spending was 18 G.s, and then on Long Island, one very rich system spent 22G's. He went on to speak of the 4 major prep schools in the Northeast where 30-40 G's per year fund each student's experience. Put into this frame of reference, one sees the hypocrisy of that comment on throwing money at poor schools.

Lastly, he commented on what great authors would do if they returned from the grave to find out that their literature existed only to help students reach a "certain proficiency". He said that their beautiful literary creations can't be enjoyed for themselves and that all is becoming banal. He said that the reality, language, and hypocrisy of resegregation and NCLB must be confronted. The redistribution of wealth is mandatory for social and economic justice, and he spoke of teachers, for whom he has the utmost respect, as "warriors for justice."

How can I have really done justice to this incredible experience, so I apologize for the fact that this brief review has left behind a great deal of what he said as well as the mesmerizing atmosphere he created through the way he said it. Let me go on to the book for a second to summarize what he says regarding small schools in The Shameof the Nation.

As soon as I bought the book, I looked up "small schools" in the index which directs readers to four places:

(1) pp 27-28....Martin Luther King High in New York was divided into 4 smaller schools and "some of the tension in the corridors and other common areas diminished as a consequence." It was still segregated, and Kozol points out that the social conditions like "virtual apartheid" seed the violence "in so many schools like this."

(2) pp. 275-279....There are good small schools which are good because each of them "is defined not only by its size but also by its sense of mission, with a teaching staff that truly wants to be there in the first place." Kozol praises Debbie Meier's Mission Hill school in Boston and states that "If I were a student, I would love to go there." Kozol lists the following types of small schools as examples of those he opposes: (a) small schools rushed into being by school boards who don't do the important and necessary groundwork; (b) small "elitist 'niche academies'"; (c) small military schools intended to recruit minorities into the army; (d) some small schools-within-schools that seem to get preferential treatment and trigger resentment in the rest of the school (this is not a universal judgment against this kind of small school); (e) small schools that are given academy names that have nothing to do with what is really happening there. In response to the statement made by the Advocates for Children that small schools offer "the best hope" for high school students in New York, but must be well planned to avoid cloning the problems they are attempting to eradicate Kozol agrees and states this: "These impressions are close to my own, although I would argue that 'the best hope' lies in small schools that are also making conscientious efforts to appeal to diversity of students rather than permit themselves to intensify the pre-existing isolation of their student populations." He ends this section pointing out the political pressures resulting in a successful law suit that enabled the small Center School in Seatlle to enroll a predominantly white student body( disproportionate to the white population) while the African American Academy was filled with mostly black students whose spirit had been dulled by direct instruction. To defend the results of their law suit, white parents pointed to the brand new African-American Academy but were blind to the fact that the result of the whole process created separate, unequal, apartheid schools.

(3) p. 302-303......Regarding the breakup of Martin Luther King High into four smaller academies, Kozol points out that the Arts and Technology Academy is almost totally black inspite of the fact it exists adjacent to Lincoln Center. Kozol pointed to the incredible commitment of its teachers and their outspoken criticism of the fact that their school was predominantly black in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood.

(4) pp. 379-381....This is the "Notes" section explaining more about what's above. In effect, Kozol sees small schools as a beacon of hope if correctly planned for and intentionally focused on developing a diverse student body. He has praise for small schools that stay true to their mission like Meier's Mission Hill. He criticizes small schools that are small in name only but continue age old segregation policies, i.e., sos in smaller packages.

I found The Shame of the Nation to be moving, personal, fundamentally on-target, and depressing as well as inspring. His critique of market-driven privatization pressures that dominate so much of educational reform efforts as well as his overt and subtle reminders of the continuing racist policies within American educational renewal, like the irony of NCLB's focus on standards based reform rather than on smaller class size and desegregation, is a solid reminder of how far we have not come. Lastly, if you want to really feel proud of the fact that you heard the call to be a teacher, Mr. Kozol is someone who will lift your heart and your spirit because you have done so.

Peter Majoy


  1. Kozol has long been a hero of mine. His points about integration and the hypocrisy of those who would privatize public education in the name of applying market principles are right on the mark. I have yet to hear a conservative commentator on education to rival him.

  2. Kozol's central thesis, that society shortchanges poor minority kids through insufficient support for their schools, is false. Across the US, the correlation (enrollment, $/pipil) is positive in all but three or four States with five or more districts over 15,000 (or 20,000, depending on which year of the __Digest of Education Statistics__ you use). The correlation (% minority enrollment, $/student) is positive in every single State with five or more districts over 15,000 (or 20,000...). The myth of the under-funded, inner-city minority school district is a lie. Dilapidated buildings and obsolete textbooks are not due to insufficient taxpayer generosity. The bureaucrats steal taxpayers' money and poor kids' life chances. Exit, in the form of parent control (school vouchers, etc.) is the only realistic hope.