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November 2005

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NEA Asks Kozol
Questions asked of author Jonathan Kozol on this page:
»  What do you mean by apartheid?
»  Do students learn better in integrated schools?
»  Are minority-only schools at a disadvantage?
»  Can we maintain the status quo?
»  What's your take on NCLB?
»  How does NCLB affect schools?
»  What can teachers do?

Resegregation in America's Schools

An angry Jonathan Kozol goes beyond the statistics to show the human costs of resegregation.

Jonathan Kozol has been writing about the terrible and wonderful things that happen in low-income, minority schools for four decades. He was fired from his first public school teaching job in Boston for using a book by Black poet Langston Hughes. Since then he has written 11 books, several of which have won national awards. In researching his latest book, "The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid" Schooling in America, Kozol visited 60 schools in 11 states over the past five years. He spoke recently with NEA Today's Alain Jehlen.

Let's dive right in, what's the central point of your new book?

Kozol: In the year 2005, Black students are more segregated in public school than at any time since 1968. And the inequalities between school districts remain, and, in many cases, have increased.

But this book is not only about school apartheid. A great deal of the book is devoted to the extraordinary decency and courage of wonderful teachers, especially the delectable beauty of wonderful elementary school teachers who are in love with little children, and who thrive in their presence, and who share their sense of mischief and their sense of curiosity about the world.

"Apartheid" is very strong language in America.  Apartheid was legally required segregation. Isn't that different from what happens here today?

Kozol:  It's a distinction without a difference. Look, the school district in the South Bronx in which I've spent so much of the past 15 years has 11,000 students in elementary and middle schools, of whom 26 are White. That's a segregation rate of 99.8 percent. Two-tenths of 1 percent mark the difference between legally enforced apartheid in Mississippi 50 years ago, and socially and economically enforced apartheid in New York today. To the children we cordon off from the mainstream of America, it doesn't matter a single jot whether this is the consequence of a state law, or state and city demographic practices and policies. It makes no difference at all.


Jonathan Kozol's latest book explores America's inner-city schools.
Excerpt: Kozol talks with 3rd grader from South Bronx
Excerpt: Efforts to promote integration
Order a copy of The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America

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 them.

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 school system.

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 up. 

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.

Jonathan Kozol

VIDEO: A furious Jonathan Kozol speaks about abysmally low reading levels among minorities.
Broadband or  56K  
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One of the worst forms of isolation that these inner city kids undergo is isolation from the full smorgasbord of options that a rich society can offer to its citizens.

I have spoken of the kids I know in the South Bronx who had a vague yearning to go to college but have never heard of Columbia, which is 20 minutes away on the bus. When I mention NYU, they’re not sure what that is. They have no knowledge of what courses you ought to be taking in seventh grade if you want to be able to get into an AP course in eleventh grade.

They kept asking me if Massachusetts was in New York. These kids were 12 to 14 years old. They’d had no social science because that was not tested; it didn’t count. Finally, I said, what country do we live in? Three children said the Bronx. The rest said New York. And one said, Massachusetts, because I’d mentioned Massachusetts. They were just guessing.

Kids pick up lots of this by osmosis, when they’re among other children who, for reasons or sheer accident of birth and good fortune, have picked up this kind of familiarity. Then when they get into middle school, they hear about careers that they’ve never contemplated. And, they begin to hear from their classmates what it takes if you want to go on to this particular career. Sometimes, in the best integrated schools, kids I’ve known, Black and White, have ended up choosing colleges together.

Some people say integrated schools would be better, but this is what we’ve got. Let’s do the best we can for these kids.

Kozol: Keep them where they are, but make it better. Virtually, the entire education discourse today represents a series of efforts by which to demonstrate that segregated schooling is perfectible.

Visit Jonathan Kozol Extra for:
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More Kozol video clips
Audio from the Q&A
Excerpts from the book

So from year to year, we are provided with new promises of new programs, usually with clever acronyms, which are guaranteed to turn it all around.

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 failure.

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 expectations."

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 "competency-based-criteria."

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 face. 

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 youngsters.

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 87B.”
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 career.

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 teachers.


Related NEA Today Articles:

Kids Who Beat the Odds: An NEA Today Interview with Jonathan Kozol

On Segregation: Then and Now : An NEA Today Interview with Janell Byrd-Chichester