Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Summer Reading: The Shame of the Nation

When you send a kid off to college, he’s likely to come home with a stack of interesting books. Ted passed one along to me that I want to share.

Sunday night I finished Jonathan Kozol’s 2005 book, The Shame of the Nation subtitled The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.

In it, Kozol argues that schools have become as segregated today as they were when the Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.

I think he's right. He cites a lot of evidence for his observation. And it fits what I'm seeing around here. For example, two years ago, a teacher from Dunham transferred to a nearby school for two reasons: (1) to earn a better salary, and (2) so that she could teach impoverished students. When I visited her I was surprised to see ZERO white students in many of the classes in that school. I had not realised how segregated schools in Sonoma County had become.

I share Kozol’s sadness about this. He contends that if the United States is ever to succeed as a nation, our citizens must learn to interact, to mix together and work together across races and classes. In short, he argues, we must integrate our society. What better place to begin that mixing than in public schools, since children, especially young children like kindergarteners, are for the most part open-hearted souls?


Kozol also comments upon another troubling development in public schooling that’s getting less attention than it deserves: Boutique schools. Boutique schools are public schools that have become quasi-private in that they benefit from fund-raising efforts of parent bodies like the PTO and educational foundations. The problem with boutique schools is that they end up providing unequal educational opportunities skewed in favor of children of greater wealth and privilege.

The school I teach in is one such boutique school. Dunham receives additional money raised by its parents, perhaps $3,000 per classroom to support its educational offerings. Schools nearby raise up to $50,000 per classroom. That $47,000 difference buys some excellent field trips, art and music instruction, smaller class sizes and more. Parents in these schools are expected to contribute $250 to $300 per month per child. Not every family can afford this expense—you’re not supposed to call it—tuition.

Top private schools, like the ones reserved for the ruling class, charge up to $30,000 per year in tuition. These schools could pay my salary and benefits package with less than the tuition of 3 students.

So we end up with a school system that delivers a very special kind of education to its wealthiest people dropping down by degrees to, impoverished education for its impoverished citizens. That ain’t how it ought to be.

As Kozol writes:

“A narrowing of civic virtue to the borders of distinct and self-contained communities is now evolving in these hybrid institutions which are public schools in that they benefit from the receipt of public funds but private in the many supplementary programs that are purchased independently. Boutique schools within an otherwise impoverished system, they enable parents of the middle class and upper middle class to claim allegiance to the general idea of public schools while making sure their children do not suffer gravely for the stripped down budgets that have done great damage to poor children....”


Kozol is critical, too, of the reforms brought on by No Child Left Behind. He doesn’t mince words:

“Turning six year olds into examination soldiers will not change this [the gap between rich schools and poor schools]. Denying eight year-olds their time for play at recess will not change this. What these policies and practices will do, what they are doing now, is expand the vast divide between two separate worlds of future cognitive activity, political sagacity, social health and economic status, while they undermine the capability of children of minorities to thrive with confidence and satisfaction in the mainstream of American society.

‘I went to Washington to challenge to soft bigotry of low expectations,’ the president said again in his campaign for reelection in September 2004. ‘It’s working. It’s making a difference.’ It is one of those deadly lies which, by sheer repetition, is at length accepted by large numbers of Americans as, perhaps, a rough approximation of the truth. But it is not the truth, and it is not an innocent misstatement of the facts. It is a devious appeasement of the heartache of the parents of the black and brown and poor and, if it is not forcefully resisted and denounced, it is going to lead our nation even further in a perilous direction.”

Kozol trusts teachers and he trusts children:

“Teachers and principals should not permit the beautiful profession they have chosen to be redefined by those who know far less than they about the hearts of children. When they do this, as in schools in which the principals adopt the borrowed lexicons of building managers or CEOs, they come out sounding inauthentic, self-diminished, and they end up by diminishing the human qualities of teachers. Schools can probably survive quite well without their rubric charts and numbered standards-listing plastering the walls. They can’t survive without good teachers and, no matter what curriculum may be in place, whether it’s approved by state officials or by Washington or not, they are no good at all if teachers are unable to enjoy the work they do and be invigorated by its unpredictables.

I am grateful for the fact that—at least for now—I do not teach in a school where recess has been abolished and where much of what happens in a classroom has been decided by faraway educational ministers in Washington. Not a day passes that I mourn the fact that so many students and teachers must work in schools like that.

I teach in a school where children still get to play and paint and sing and dance and smile. They put on plays. They do projects and write reports about matters of interest to them. I teach in a school that trusts children and seeks to draw out their best qualities.

May there soon be more schools that do the same.


Anonymous said...


cryogenetics said...

WOW, Is there any room on that soap box for me? How true it is and how sad. As I am entering the political relm of Sonoma county schools, I find that this is so true, everyone says they want change, but the wheels keep turning backwards. The amount of energy, time it would take to turn it all around is almost overwhelming.
I am off to find that book!

Anonymous said...

What about special needs children in a school like Dunham? Like maybe a High Functioning Autistic child? No child left behind huh? For ALL minorities? Someone dropped the BAR! EVEN at DUNHAM!

Anonymous said...

Oh, maybe you can justify THAT because of LACK of FUNDS! Or "we are not equipped to deal with YOUR child" and we aren't going to take care of THAT.....No child left behind... If there is a color or MONEY in QUESTION. Minority my biscuits!

Earl & Vickie said...

And according to NCLB, in 2013 ALL children will be on grade level. The closer we get to that date, the steeper the curve has to be for the children to achieve the goal. The steeper the curve, the more pressure that will be brought to bear on the teachers and students.

I MIGHT make my retirement goal.....