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

Monday, April 13, 2009

Kozol on America's Segregated Schools

From Inside Ed at the Baltimore Sun:
I had a great conversation with Jonathan Kozol before his talk last night at the University of Baltimore law school's Urban Child Symposium on the dropout crisis. He says the heart of the problem is segregation. Of Baltimore, he told me, "this is one of the most segregated school systems in America... this must be one of the closest to absolute apartheid." (I told him there are some schools in the city that are an exception to that. Folks at City Neighbors Charter had wanted to give him a tour of their well-integrated school, but it didn't fit into his schedule.)

Kozol quoted a recent speech by President Obama who said high school dropout rates have tripled since the early 1980s -- when, Kozol says, the schools began to "massively resegregate" and Brown vs. Board of Ed was effectively dismantled. He says black and Latino children are more segregated now than they have been since 1968, the year of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

"I'm utterly out of fashion these days in that I actually believe Dr. King was right," said Kozol, 72, who doesn't use a computer and had hand-written notes for the address he was about to deliver to more than 100 people in a university auditorium. He says segregated schools convey the message to the children there that "you have been sequestered in this institution so you will not contaminate the education of white people." Children get this message from the condition of the buildings (often "squalid surroundings") and from dispirited teachers who have to "give up joy and creativity to become drill sergeants for the state." (Kozol went on a hunger strike in 2007 to protest No Child Left Behind.) He says the most successful African-Americans he's seen -- including Obama and Kurt Schmoke (a student of Kozol's once upon a time at Yale) -- did not have to attend segregated inner-city schools.

So what's the solution? Kozol likes what Dr. Alonso often says in jest about closing down all the private schools of the city. And he supports cross-city busing to integrate schools. But clearly, those things aren't going to happen anytime soon. Kozol says that when he began his work in education decades ago, he thought he could effect change. Now, he says, he's just a witness.

On another note: Kozol is also on the same page as Alonso in saying that good schools don't resort to suspension or expulsion as punishment for truancy and other non-violent offenses. "Nothing could be more Orwellian in its absurdity," he told the crowd at UB. He also says that full-day pre-kindergarten (preferably for multiple years before kindergarten) is essential, and holding children back for failure increases their chances of dropping out of high school exponentially. We're willing to hold an 8-year-old accountable for her performance, he said, yet we don't hold government leaders accountable for their failure to give inner-city children the same resources as they insist on for their own children.

2 comments:

  1.  I am a veteran teacher in Houston seeking a dialogue with Teach for America teachers nationally regarding policy positions taken by former Teach for American staffers who have become leaders in school district administrations and on school boards. I first became aware of a pattern when an ex-TFA staffer, now a school board member for Houston ISD, recommended improving student performance by firing teachers whose students did poorly on standardized tests. Then the same board member led opposition to allowing us to select, by majority vote, a single union to represent us.

    Having won school board elections in several cities, and securing the Washington D.C Superintendent's job for Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp's friends are pursuing an approach to school reform based on a false premise: that teachers, not student habits, nor lack of parent commitment or social inequality, is the main cause of sub-par academic performance. The TFA reform agenda appeals to big corporations who see our public institutions as inefficient leeches. This keeps big money flowing into TFA coffers.

    The corporate-TFA nexus began when Union Carbide initially sponsored Wendy Kopp's efforts to create Teach for America. A few years before, Union Carbide's negligence had caused the worst industrial accident in history, in Bhopal, India. The number of casualties was as large as 100,000, and Union Carbide did everything possible to minimize its responsibility at the time it embraced Ms. Kopp. TFA recently started Teach for India. Are Teach for India enrollees aware of the TFA/Union Carbide connection?

    When TFA encountered a financial crisis, Ms. Kopp  nearly went to work for the Edison Project, and was all but saved by their managerial assistance. The Edison Project sought to replace public schools with for-profit corporate schools funded by our tax money. Ms. Kopp's husband, Richard Barth, was an Edison executive before taking over as CEO of KIPP's national foundation, where he has sought to decertify its New York City unions.

    In 2000, two brilliant TFA alumni, the founders of KIPP Academy, joined the Bush's at the Republican National Convention in 2000. This was pivotal cover for Bush, since as Governor he had no genuine educational achievements, and he needed the education issue to campaign as a moderate and reach out to the female vote. KIPP charter schools provide a quality education, but they start with families committed to education. They claim to be improving public schools by offering competition in the education market-place, but they take the best and leave the rest.

    D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee's school reform recipe includes three ingredients: close schools rather than improve them; fire teachers rather than inspire them; and sprinkle on a lot of hype. On the cover of Time, she sternly gripped a broom, which she presumably was using to sweep away the trash, which presumably represented my urban teacher colleagues. The image insulted people who take the toughest jobs in education.

    TFA teachers do great work, but when TFA's leadership argue that schools, and not inequality and bad habits, are the cause of the achievement gap, they are not only wrong, they feed the forces that prevent the social change we need to grow and sustain our middle class.. Our society has failed schools by permitting the middle class to shrink. It's not the other way around. Economic inequality and insecurity produces ineffective public schools. It's not the other way around.

    Ms. Kopp claims TFA carries the civil rights torch for today, but Martin Luther King was the voice of unions on strike, not the other way around. His last book, Where do we go from here?, argued for some measure of wealth distribution, because opportunity would never be enough in a survival of the fittest society to allow most of the under-privileged to enter the middle class.
    Your hard work as a TFA teacher gives TFA executives credibility. It's not the other way around. Your hard work every day in the classrooms gives them the platform to espouse their peculiar one-sided prescriptions for school improvement. I would like a dialogue about what I have written here with TFA teachers. My e-mail is JesseAlred@yahoo.com.

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  2. About Andres Alonso: It's never what he says but what he does. As a Joel Klein acolyte who was in charge of curriculum in NYC before he went to Baltimore, he was an apologist for all of Klein's policies which have so undermined public education in NYC.

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