TBR: The Shame of the Nation

This week, I’m writing about Jonathan Kozol’s latest book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.  I guess I should begin by saying that I agree with probably 90 percent of what Kozol says in this book.  I agree that the inadequate education offered to the vast majority of inner-city students is a national embarassment and should be a source of outrage to all Americans, not just those whose kids are stuck attending those schools.  I think it is absurd to take the kids who come to school with the least family resources, put them in overcrowded underfunded classrooms with the least experienced teachers, and then blame them for their failure to pass standardized tests.   I share Kozol’s deep skepticism about the "scripted" teaching programs that are being offered as panaceas to lift up those test scores. 

And yet, I found myself repeatedly arguing with Kozol as I read the book.  He pushes his argument to such extremes that I couldn’t follow him all the way.  Yes, it’s terrible that kids are attending schools with asbestos coming out of the walls and stopped up toilets.  But Kozol seems to be equally outraged over kids going to classes in trailer classrooms — which aren’t ideal, but aren’t terrible, and are common in a good number of solidly middle class school districts too.  He talks about the beautiful and expensive new building provided for Stuyvesant High School in New York, while other schools in the city were falling apart, and points out that only about 3 percent of the students at Stuyvesant are black or Hispanic.  But he doesn’t acknowledge, even in passing, that about half of Stuyvesant students are Asian, many from low-income families.

I was also frustrated that Kozol never made a clear case for why he thinks that it’s so important for black and Hispanic students to have white classmates.  He devotes a lot of effort to proving how segregated many urban classrooms are — most notably, observing that if you want to find a segregated school in America, you should look for one named after Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King.  But is the problem that the schools are (largely) segregated, or that they’re lousy schools?  Is integration worth fighting for in its own right, or only as a means to improving schools for poor minority kids?  Kozol clearly believes the former, but he doesn’t provide an argument for it that will convince anyone who doesn’t already share his views.

I’m actually scared that Shame of the Nation will set back Kozol’s goal of integration.  If you want to convince middle-class parents to send their kids to integrated schools, publicizing the worst case scenarios of dreadful inner-city schools isn’t the way to do it.  I’m not saying we should give up on Brown v Board of Education, but if we somehow managed to provide truly excellent public schools to all students, I think a good bit of educational and residential segregation would fade away without a massive government intervention. 

13 Responses to “TBR: The Shame of the Nation”

  1. jen Says:

    I have to admit, I’ve read other reviews of this book, and as a parent my response was a combination of shame and fear. Yes, it’s horrible that the schools are so bad. We live in Chicago — Kozol is talking about our schools, in large part, when he talks about crappy public education. But I’m not sure what I as an individual can do about that.
    In the meantime Kozol’s stories are so horrifying it just reinforces my decision to send my kids to private school. I can’t even imagine how the Chicago Public School people must feel. They spend oodles of effort trying to coax people back into the system. This kind of press certainly is not helping.

  2. landismom Says:

    I haven’t read this book yet, but have read all his other books. I saw him speak about a year and a half ago, and he was fascinating. The thing about him is, yes, he makes extreme arguments. But he’s one of the few people that’s still raising the idea, over and over again, in public, that our current system of public education is entirely unfair. And that’s not good for any of us.

  3. amy Says:

    I’ve liked Kozol’s books for a long time, but I share your worries, Elizabeth. Though I don’t think he’s gotten less fulminating or broad-brush…I have _The Night is Long_ in the bathroom, and I think he wrote that in the early 70s. Maybe I get the “oh be careful, you’re moving out of ‘take him seriously’ range” vibe because I’m too tired and played out for righteous anger. Or maybe because he’s getting old, and on TV he begins to sound like a crazy old coot, dazzled by the Kennedy-era civil rights movement, and on his way out.
    I agree that the Stuyvesant omission is a serious error and weakens his case, but I don’t think it was really necessary as an illustration anyway. I’m thinking of a graph a sociology prof showed us once, charting poverty rates among old and young over the last few decades. Geriatric poverty has dropped like a rock, thanks to universal support programs; childhood poverty’s up substantially over the same period. There are other items in budgets, but still, it’s a powerful illustration of where the money goes and what the consequences are, and it points out the bizarreness of the situation. What other society spends massively on its dying while neglecting its children? It’s a picture of suicide.
    I guess Kozol likes more flesh/blood illustrations, though.
    I was an enormous fan of public education (even though mine was awful and I fled after 10th) until my daughter was born. Now, we live in one of the best school districts in the country, and the schools and neighborhoods are ridiculously safe, clean, nurturing, etc. We regularly approve school-bond issues, and our schools have palatial grounds, theatres, media centers, etc. (And trailers; the bonds lag the pop growth.) Thanks to Iowa’s quiet state-level school-tax redistribution system, the schools in general are quite good, and we don’t have the million-dollar-mortgage effect you see other excellent school districts. But this kid’s quite bright, and gifted education has never been the long suit of public schools, except in cities where you do get special schools like Stuyvesant (my family went there and to other NYC special schools, and have terrific stories about them. It hit me last week, reading a review of a Frank McCourt book, that he might’ve been the English teacher in some of my dad’s stories. My grad-program director was also a working-class Stuyvesant grad). I’ve talked to district psychologists and teachers who confirm my fears that they’re stretched thin enough helping kids who aren’t making it; they don’t have time for on-the-fly gifted ed, let alone qualifications. My husband and I emphatically do not want her repeating our experience of killing boredom, misbehavior, window-staring, and drifting through years and years of K-12. I spent most of a year peeling glue off my hand & sketching trees in minute detail. Part of another avoiding a teacher who accused me of plagiarizing a report an encyclopedia.
    With my husband’s illness, though, it’s unlikely we’ll have the dough for private school. So one day I found myself arguing in favor of vouchers. Shocked me. It still shocks me. But there’s the reality: we have this kid who’ll need something, public school likely won’t be able to deliver, but it won’t let go of the tax money so we can try someplace else. It’s a hell of a thing to find myself supporting. I’m sure I’ve made some conservative somewhere very happy with this story.
    My Stuyvesant-educated father (as a kid, Jewish working-class) flipped almost 20 years ago, after singing the praises of public schools my whole childhood. He even worked in teacher ed for a while to try to improve the situation. Decided it was a lost cause, started campaigning aggressively for vouchers & more competition, & was an early supporter of Channel One.

  4. jen Says:

    Amy indirectly poses a question that has been brewing in my head for a while: is gifted education a right? Most of us agree, I think, that a special needs student has a right to support services. But I find myself on shakier ground when it comes to advanced education.
    Like Amy, I spent my elementary years believing school was nothing more than boring. And I am doing what I can to keep my kids from the same fate. But is it within my rights to demand that from the state? I’m not sure what to think.

  5. Sandra Says:

    It’s a shame if people read the book and then assume all city schools are undesirable. My kids went to an ordinary neighborhood public school in Chicago, and it was fine. In my opinion, it was in many ways better than the elite, overpriced international school they now attend overseas. Teaching methods were more progressive and the teachers were better educated and more experienced. Take a look around, Jen, there are great public schools in Chicago, especially on the north side. Of course, for people who can’t wiggle their way into one of the many decent schools, CPS can be a disaster, I wouldn’t deny that at all.

  6. amy Says:

    Jen, you probably know all this, but as far as legal rights go, it depends on how your state classes gifted ed. Unfortunately, if the schools aren’t set up for it, you’re likely to spend a lot of time banging your head against walls even if they owe your kid gifted ed. If the teachers aren’t very sparky or are resentful about taking the time, you’ve got few options; grade-skipping can work sometimes (if the district’s open to it), and it looks like there are good supplementary online courses now through Johns Hopkins, Stanford, a few other places (incl. a TAMU nationwide public school district)(I think it’s TAMU, anyway). That at least mitigates the problem of sending a kid off to do “advanced” work no one wants to or is able to check. But looking back, I realize that my district really did try to accommodate me and my parents’ wishes. I got reading corners, weird setups where I got taught separately in the next grade, freedom to leave class and go to the library, student-senate gigs that mostly involved joyriding around NE PA, and we did have a gifted track that started in 4th grade. But I still had teachers who were more interested in tidy notebooks than anything else. My parents are still incredulous.
    If you’re talking natural rights? I dunno, I’m more a Burke woman than that. That there aren’t any. Like billg, I think it’s a serious strategic error to ignore the gifted kids, and to fail to identify them in the first place. (But — and again, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but — I’d much, much rather pay Bill to figure out how to find and teach them than pay any state or federal admin, or the NEA, or any college of education.)
    I’m guessing the problem is not so much funding as it is pedagogy and the bureaucratic lock on the schools. I’d guess you need a high-wattage, agile mind, interest, some academic chops, tolerance for mood swings, and powerful mentor streak, and a strong ego to teach bright kids well. Not fancy classrooms and UN-project-style buildings. But I think you’d have to be a masochist or a missionary to be that kind of bright & teach in public schools now; there’s no intellectual freedom to speak of, no time for your own work, the pay is crap, the rubrics look stultifying, there’s the blackboard-jungle business, and your colleagues come from the bottom of the academic ladder, and after all that it’s very hard work. I’m guessing it’s freedom more than money that would bring good gifted teachers, but I don’t see school administrations on any level giving up the control.

  7. Jennifer Says:

    I don’t believe that school vouchers would fix the problem of bad state schools. I’ve blogged about this early this month, but the Australian system is more similar to a pure school voucher system than any other system I know about (the funding follows the child to some extent, depending on how rich the school is) and it just has the effect of weakening the state schools even more as more and more parents abandon the effort and go private because they can afford it.
    What it does is widen the escape hatch to be available to the reasonably well off, not just the very well off. Because, let’s face it, if the reasonably well off are getting a good education while paying a bit, why are they going to vote for spending more on other people’s kids?
    From the outside (and feel free to shoot me down if I have no idea) – it seems as if one of the US problems is the local nature of the school funding – at least ours is state wide, so the variance between poor and rich districts is only up to the parents’ ability to fund raise in the community. But we still do have a wide range, which is partly about infrastructure and partly about which teachers are likely to volunteer in the poorer lower class areas (answer – the ones who get sent there for their first job).

  8. amy Says:

    I don’t believe vouchers will fix the public schools either. I imagine vouchers will wreck the public schools further. And because of the tiny-patchwork way schools are set up here, I’d guess what they’d mean is a collapse of public schools in some areas, narrower focus for public schools in other areas, not much effect in other areas, and a field open even wider to charlatans of all stripes. And a big boost to the relatively small group of kids who are like mine.
    ;) You can count on me to think in broader terms in about 15 years.

  9. jen Says:

    Sandra, just wanted to respond to your comments. We did look extensively into public schools in Chicago. There have always been a handful of good schools in the city, available to those with connections. But two things put me off CPS schools.
    First, a recent wave of middle-class families remaining in the city has put immense pressure on the few buildings that have good reputations. The true hustler moms that I know out there, the ones who managed to miraculously get their oldest children into Bell (the best non-exam elementary on the north side) are no longer getting results. The competition for those discretionary slots is ruthless.
    Secondly, there have been a series of lawsuits against CPS recently around things such as sibling preference and the legitimacy of a school just like Bell that does not match the racial profile of the city. While I was searching for a school for my oldest daughter these lawsuits had not yet been settled; some still haven’t. I am unwilling to roll the dice and wait to see if the courts allow Bell, or Hawthorne, or Newbury Math & Science, or the language academies, or any of those good schools to continue on their current course.
    I am extremely committed to staying in the city, but I am pretty torn up about the school thing. Even my friends who work for CPS won’t send their kids to just any CPS neighborhood school — I don’t regret that decision. But my stance of remaining in the city seems to lose some of its force when I bail on public school.

  10. Jennifer James Says:

    I hate that I’m a week late on this discussion!
    I read mid way through the book and then abadoned it because although Kozol’s intent is in the right place and his evidence is solid, I’ve heard it all before.
    The best thing about this book is it further assured me that as a black mom I’m doing the right thing by home schooling my girls.

  11. CPS TEACHER Says:

    As a CPS teacher in a segregated school KOZOL hits a homerun with his book , I can’t stop reading at.
    It seems I holding a conversation with myself.

  12. CPS TEACHER Says:

    I mispelled at for it Thank GOD for spell check.

  13. amy Says:

    Oh boy.

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