Monday, October 10, 2005

Jonathan Kozol sees American Education as Apartheid

Reading Jonathan Kozol's work always angers me. Not because of him; I happen to think he is an excellent writer and a dedicated educator. I have been reading his works since I got my degree in education, and I had to read Illiterate America for an adult education class. At the time, I was also working as a volunteer tutor at an adult literacy program. It was one of the best things I have done, and I only wish I had the time these days to volunteer like that again. That book stayed with me as have the rest of his works. Kozol is a writer and thinker who belongs in the company of other educators like Paulo Freire. In reading Kozol's work, I get angry because of the truths he exposes. It angers me because of the indifference and neglect of this nation towards its children that he shows through his writing. Mr. Kozol has a new book out, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. An article that is an adaptation from the book is featured in Harper's Magazine (September 2005: 41-54; I read the article in print) with the title "Still Separate, Still Unequal." To my readers, this is probably going to be a post more angry than usual. And if a reader out there is one of those people looking to justify or excuse the situation, he or she is likely to hear from me as well. I am not one to tolerate excuses, especially from hypocrites who decry the situation from a distance while actually being part of the problem. Anyhow, let me get on with the post.

In the article, Kozol reports how segregation in public schools has gotten worse in recent years. He provides statistics to illustrate the isolation of children in the poorest school systems in the nation. One of the problems in addressing the issue of racial segregation in education is language. The media basically prefers using "linguistic sweetness, semantic somersaults, and surrogate vocabularies" (43). The word "diverse" applied to a public school pretty much means anything but that. Let's be blunt: it refers to a predominantly minority school, namely Black or Hispanic. Kozol goes on to discuss visits to various schools, looking at their demographics and then contrasting those numbers with documents provided by the school districts to proclaim their diversity.

A reason that I find Kozol's writing so moving is his interactions with students. He talks to students and sincerely seeks to find how they think and feel. He often let's their own words be the strongest indictment against a society that clearly refuses to educate all of its children. Much of this situation, Kozol suggests, is going back to the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In a sign of how the situation has worsened, inner city schools come to hope, not for equality, but for adequacy. Kozol writes, "higher standards, higher expectations, are repeatedly demanded of these urban principals, and of the teachers and students in their schools, but far lower standards--appear to be expected of the dominant society that isolates these children in unequal institutions" (44).

Often, the situation is blamed on economics: times are bad, so cuts are needed. However, as Kozol points out, "the fact of economic ups and downs from year to year, or from one decade to the next, could not convingcingly explain the permanent shortchanging of the city's students, which took place routinely in good economic times and bad. The bad times were seized upon politically to justify the cuts, and the money was never restored once the crisis years were past" (45). If we apply this today, given the variety of "crises" going around, money is not about to be restored to education or for these schools anytime soon. And before some reader out there points out there was a hurricane or two recently thinking I may be dismissive, I am fully aware of those very real crises (not to mention I have lived through a hurricane or two myself), and I will point out that the way such have been handled simply add evidence to Kozol's arguments of apartheid.

In the Harper's article, Kozol also looks at the issue of high stakes tests and the hypocrisy behind the movement when some children have all the economic advantages, and others don't. I bet this is the sort of thing that really irks some teachers in those segregated schools, assuming they can even take a moment to think about it. On accountability, Kozol states, "there is something deeply hypocritical about a society that holds an eight-year-old inner-city child 'accountable' for her performance on a high-stakes standardized exam but does not hold the high officials of our government accountable for robbing her of what they gave their kids six or seven years earlier" (46). One other thing I would like to see: some of these politicians take the tests, especially those high school exit exams. Or maybe, since they like to push so much for teacher certification while letting just about anyone without any credentials into a classroom, for those politicos to take some of those teacher tests and see how they do. After all, to them, anyone can do it, right? It would be very accountable if we made their scores public as well. But I am disgressing. Kozol is referring to those wealthy people who pay $20,000 a year for private preschools. But this is not really the issue. It is not the wealth; it is the way the society actively chooses in the most callous way to value some children and not others. Very often, these refined and very educated people claim that simply putting money into education will not solve the problem; it is necesary to look at "other factors." Really? So why then do they spend those exorbitant amounts of money to buy for their children the education that they claim money cannot buy? It is truly hypocritical. If money really cannot buy a better education, let them put their children in those inner-city schools they condemn. Do readers out there really think any of those parents, which include government officials, would actually go for that? Of course not. They will get the best education money does buy. And yet these are the ones who cry loudest about property taxes needed to fund schools for everyone. Kozol wonders about this. So do I. Many teachers and children wonder too while society's choice is one of racial inequality.

To add insult to the injury, many of the schools Kozol speaks of are more like prisons in their use of conditioning theory (a la B.F. Skinner) and industrial efficiency concepts (think Frederick Taylor). The vision of a factory striving to produce kids able to pass an exam at the expense of a true education is appalling. In a way, it is Orwellian, totalitarian. Kozol does a good job describing how these use Skinnerian curriculums; I suggest readers take a look. As an educator, this was a part of the article that infuriated me and that I found hard to read because such visions represent everything I have fought over time to avoid and counter. What Kozol shows are places where teachers are forced to teach at the most primal survival level because society has abandoned them and their children. The only thing I will say is that this gets close to the way you may train your dog. See the label on page 49 if you think the dog label is mine (it's not, but I concur). The truly sad thig is that even the children know they are being trained.

Further in the article, the writer discusses a school in California in the context of a lawsuit versus the state regarding the conditions of public schools. A child talking to Kozol, afterwards in that passage, talks about the bathroom issues. The unsanitary conditions are bad enough, but the rules that limit bathroom use to only between class periods are terrible. Keep in mind there is no bathroom use allowed during the 30 minute lunch. If you have two classes at extreme ends of the school building, you can't use the bathroom and make it to class on time. If you choose to make it to class and hope the teacher will give you permission to go during class, the teacher won't give you permission to go because you had your chance to go between classes. So,

"'This is the question,' said a wiry-looking boy named Edward, leaning forward from his chair. 'Students are not animals, but even animals need to relieve themselves sometimes. We're here for eight hours. What do they think we are supposed to to?'" (52).

By the way, it is not that much better for the teacher who may also ask what he or she is supposed to do given the schedule and the workload. The article is a call for change. It is not an easy change. It will require a high price: moral, financial, ethical. Society owes those children more than the false appeasement they have received.

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