The irony is that so many of the most deeply segregated schools I
visit are named for the leaders of the integration struggle. I
walk through these schools and I don’t see the slightest hint that any
vestige of the dream associated with Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and
Dr. Martin Luther King has survived—not in these schools.
Some people say a Black student doesn’t have to sit next to a White
student in order to learn. What’s your answer to that?
Kozol: There are two issues here. One is the
recognition that money follows power. Once you cordon off a group of
children in a form of physical sequestration, it is much easier to cheat
Look at this: $12,000 a year per student in Roosevelt, Long Island,
92 percent poor. This is right next to Manhasset, 5 percent poor, which
spends $22,000. Those kids in Roosevelt will never get the kind of
schooling the children in Manhasset get until they attend the same
If the parents of poor Black and Latino kids want them to be in a
class of 16 or 17, instead of 28 or 30, if they want them to have a
teacher who has had 12 or 14 years of good experience, rather than one
who’s just starting out, if they truly want them to be in a school that
has a richly supplied library, they know the place to find that is the
school district attended by middle class people where a substantial
number of the children are White.
It’s an amazing fact that after all these years, we still can walk
into an all-Black or Latino school in most major cities and find the
same degrading, humiliating, low-level job training that I saw in my
first week as a teacher in Boston. Black girls were taken out of
language arts and math classes to learn to sew for two hours. I said to
myself, they didn’t do that to my sister out in the suburbs where I grew
Four decades pass, and I walk into a high school in Los Angeles and a
student tells me she was forced to take sewing class last year, and this
year she’s required to take hairdressing.
She starts to cry, and she says, “I didn’t need to learn to sew. My
mother is a seamstress in a sewing factory. I hoped for something more.”
She wanted to go to Boston University. Her teacher said she was a very
likely candidate for college.
I said, "What would you rather have taken?"
She said, "I wanted to take an AP class, but there was no space."
And a boy in the class said, "The owners of the sewing factories need
workers, right? They’re not going to hire their own kids. You’re ghetto,
so you sew." Now, I think that’s an atrocity.
So you’re saying, as a matter of practical politics, minority
children will never get a fair shake unless they’re learning alongside
middle class, white children.
Kozol: That’s the first point. The second reason I
believe is even more important: Children learn at least as much from one
another as they do from any curriculum.
So from year to year, we are provided with new promises of new
programs, usually with clever acronyms, which are guaranteed to turn it
Every few years, there’s a new plan. For some reason, it always has
seven parts. If you do the following seven things that work, you can
turn it all around.
One of the most highly heralded programs in New York in the 1960s was
called Higher Horizons. The newspapers claimed spectacular gains in test
scores. Seven years later, the program was declared to be a total
Next came Effective Schools. And that, too, had either five or seven
or eleven essential parts. After the Effective Schools movement petered
out, there was More Effective Schools. Then, by the 1980s, the experts
added an extra syllable and called it "efficacy." I know teachers to
this day who say, "We had a workshop with the efficacy man."
What did the efficacy man say? Well, one teacher in Roxbury in Boston
told me this last year: "He said that there are three ways to be an
effective teacher. One is to strive for excellence. One is to have high
And the third item in the efficacy man’s pitch was something she said
was hyphenated and had many poly-syllables, something like
"performance-based-assessment," or, she said, maybe it was
And, she asked him finally, "Well, what are competency-based
criteria? You mean, as opposed to incompetency-based? Who would favor
that?" And, he said, "If you have to ask a question like that, you
shouldn’t be teaching in an urban school." Wow!
This was a first-grade teacher in Roxbury. When I got most depressed
writing this book, I used to drop in on her class, because she had such
a great first grade.
Today we have No Child Left Behind (NCLB). What's your take on that?
Kozol: I differ with a number of other critics of
NCLB. I don’t believe that it’s basically a benign program that simply
needs to be fixed. I consider it benighted from top to bottom. It is
basically driven by the concept that teachers have an inherently
perverse attraction to mediocrity, that we entered this career because
we just love mediocrity, and only if we’re scared out of our wits will
we aspire to excellence.
All of this is Stalinist gibberish. Yes, there have always been some
mediocre teachers, and I described a bunch of them in my first book
years ago. But the handful of teachers who really are in the wrong
profession are an almost insignificant fraction of the problem that we
How is NCLB affecting schools? What are you seeing?
Kozol: In the best-funded suburban schools, and even
in just the average good American public school that serves the
mainstream of society, they find the testing pressures and the
associated rituals, AYP [adequate yearly progress], and benchmarks, an
irritant, a distraction. But these practices don’t distort their
personalities nor their instructional techniques. They make their AYP or
they don’t. And the parents don’t freak out. The parents care far more
about the fact that their little girl is suddenly writing interesting
narratives, and now that she’s writing substantial amounts of material,
is learning to punctuate well, and spell correctly. They care far more
about that than they do about any AYP.
Whereas, in the inner city schools, there’s a tremendous difference.
These are schools that have historically been under siege. The principal
feels it. No matter what she really believes is good education, she
starts to toe the line if she wants to keep her job.
So, they’re suddenly diverting public money to teaching kids tricks
for passing tests. The poor principal is forced to consume, as many
principals tell me, at least a quarter of the school year of teaching
time, steal from children, in order to drill them for the tests, and
administer the tests.
And then, in the lowest-performing of these schools, the principals
introduce the rote instructional approach, the scripted literacy
programs, because they are officially claimed to be teacher-proof.
The really scintillating young teachers, who are people with whom
anyone, a six-year-old, or that child’s mother or father, would love to
spend hours of time, who are incandescent in their ability to steer a
child’s fascination, they call me up at night and cry. And they say,
“First of all, it bores my students to death. Secondly, I am offended
having to hold a timer in my hand. I think it’s the worst possible
pedagogy to interrupt a child, just as she’s getting excited about a
subject, because that’s all the minutes that were prescribed for that
mini-chunk of competency prescribed in this handbook.”
These teachers are the ones we are going to lose. They’re not going
to stay in these school systems.
Well, what can we do about all this? What if I’m a first-grade
teacher, or a high school teacher, in an urban area that’s “under siege”
as you put it. What can I do?
Kozol: If you try hard, you will find principals in
every city who will protect you and support you, who have a vigorous
strategic capability for doing what they are compelled to do, but
infusing the school with a healthy skepticism about the gobbledy gook
the government is shoving down their throats.
In their schools, classes are flooded with real books, with lots of
very hungry caterpillars, instead of numbered standards posters on the
wall, written in a grown-up language, that mean nothing to the
Let me say that the worst possible betrayal of childhood, or one of
the worst, is for teachers to go along with the demands in many school
systems, that they write the standard on the blackboard for every
mini-skill they’re going to teach: “ELA standards 27B.” This has zero
pedagogic value to the children. Teachers should refuse to do this, and
good principals should protect them in that refusal.
It’s not done for the children. And, it’s not done for the teacher,
because she could simply have that in her lesson plan. It’s done to
cover her rear end in case some local managerial systems type wanders
into the classroom. And she can tell him, “Oh, see, I’m doing standard
It’s an insult to our profession. We should not allow people who know
nothing about the hearts of children to undermine the nobility of our
But what if I can’t find a special, sheltered school? What can
educators do to make schools better for low-income, minority students?
Kozol: People ask me, are you going to end this book
with a list of things to do? And, I said, I will not play that game. I’m
not going to give you another recipe. Twelve essential ways to run a
good segregated school. I’m not going to propose a small segregated
school. I’m not going to propose a small segregated school with uniforms
and silent lunches. I’m not going to propose a segregated school, even
with slightly higher test scores. I’m too old to spend the rest my life
helping you to polish the apple of apartheid.
This book is not about creating perfectible segregation. This book is
about abolition of a national sin.
And, so, when people say, what do you expect us to do, I say, I
expect you to rise up, as courageous people have done before in American
history, and raise hell, and cause trouble, and make it impossible for
cities to consider going along with these federal pressures without
facing the risk of losing every single one of you.
I want to see our teachers develop a stronger political voice and
find the courage to serve as witnesses to the injustices of which they
are more keenly aware than anyone else in our society. Most teachers go
into this profession because they love children. And I just pray,
especially these younger teachers, will rise to the challenge.
The older generation is weary now, but I want this book to empower
these wonderful young teachers that I’m meeting, (and when I say young,
I don’t mean necessarily 21—young in spirit or young in body) to carry
on the struggle for which so many unselfish people gave their lives.
I don’t know if I’ll live to see it happen. But I do believe there will
be another mass movement in this country, and I’d like to see it led by
Related NEA Today Articles:
Who Beat the Odds: An NEA Today Interview with Jonathan Kozol
Segregation: Then and Now : An NEA Today Interview with Janell