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Why are America's schools more separate than ever?

Forty years later, Jonathan Kozol continues his crusade

By Stacy A. Teicher / September 20, 2005



Americans have long celebrated the brave children who faced down fear and hatred to integrate schools after the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. But where is the zeal to finish the project of educational equity?

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Jonathan Kozol, a onetime teacher and longtime children's advocate, continues to use every conscience-gripping word in his arsenal to try to revive such zeal.

The title of his new book - The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America - is just the beginning of Kozol's excoriations of a system that cuts certain children off from the most basic of opportunities. He goes on to use such eye-popping terms as "totalitarian" and "internment," and quotes someone describing a racially isolated school district as America's "Soweto," the South African township in which children standing up to apartheid schooling were massacred by police.

Despite the shame - or defensiveness - it may evoke, the book is alive with the compelling voices of students and educators Kozol has come to know in countless visits to inner-city schools - voices many of us otherwise would not hear.

Isabel, a 15-year- old in Harlem, describes the way she and her classmates feel in their segregated environment: "It's as if you have been put in a garage where, if they don't have room for something but aren't sure if they should throw it out, they put it there where they don't need to think of it again."

Kozol surrounds his anecdotes with data on demographics and funding inequities in a wide range of urban areas. But his glimpses inside America's second-class schools tell the story that numbers can't.

Buildings are falling apart, classrooms are overcrowded with students who sometimes share their space with rats. Teachers have to use heavily scripted lessons, silencing spontaneous questions with a regimen of hand signals, moving on to new topics at the buzz of a hand-held timer.

For children and adults alike, the pressure of this march toward better results on standardized tests sometimes erupts in tears, illness, and even violence.

Or it squeezes out other essentials, Kozol suggests. He visited a school in New York where geography and history had been so neglected that fifth- and sixth-graders didn't know Massachusetts was a state. They didn't know if Martin Luther King lived before or after the Civil War.

"Leaving these kids so utterly adrift in time and place seemed like an act of cognitive decapitation," Kozol writes. It's the type of observation he's made ever since he spent time as a teacher in inner-city Boston in the 1960s. His subsequent experiences visiting students and educators have been chronicled in bestselling books such as "Savage Inequalities" and "Amazing Grace."

In "Shame of the Nation," we meet Mireya, a Los Angeles student who's frustrated because she's required to take a sewing class. While many other schools allow students to fulfill the "technical arts" credit with computer or pre-engineering classes, hers has her making pillows, even though she already knows how to sew.

When Kozol asks what she'd rather take, she says tearfully that she wants an AP course and hopes to go to college. Another student interjects cynically, "You're ghetto, so we send you to the factory."

The starkest numbers in the book are the graduation rates in some inner-city neighborhoods: Walton High in the Bronx started with 1,275 ninth-graders in the fall of 1999. By 2002, it had only 400 12th- graders. By the spring of 2003, only 188 of them graduated.

Too often, Kozol notes, kids who are clustered in ill-equipped schools are blamed, along with their parents, for such dismal outcomes. He calls it hypocritical for people to argue that more money isn't the solution for struggling schools, when many move mountains to get their own children into better-funded schools.

The strength of Kozol's case may also be its weakness if it leaves readers feeling helpless. He conveys so vividly the structures - legal, social, and political - that he sees as responsible for creating an entrenched set of circumstances, but it's not until Chapter 9 that he begins to focus on solutions.

He quotes educators and civil rights leaders who say that racism needs to be addressed openly rather than hidden behind the more in-vogue topic of class.

He also describes a few attempted solutions already under way - lawsuits that have resulted in mandates for more equitable funding in a number of states, for instance, and a proposal by US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois that would make educational equity a fundamental human right under the Constitution.

But Kozol struggles to muster optimism. With the big picture so overwhelming, he ends where he started, in ordinary classrooms, this time the ones where brave teachers offer resistance to their numbing surroundings.

In Durham, N.C., he witnesses children taking pleasure in learning about worms and helping each other to spell. The teacher says she has high expectations and a reputation for enforcing discipline with one stern look.

But she also works to maintain the soul of her classroom. "With the pressure coming down to ratchet up the scores, you have to struggle to protect that part - the sense of joy inside yourself. If not, you can't create it for the students," Kozol quotes her saying.

Such classrooms are "the treasured places," Kozol writes, places that "remind us always of the possible."

But the weight of the book suggests that readers who are determined to keep their focus on hope and possibilities will have their own work to do - and their own epilogues to write - if these treasured places are ever to be the rule instead of the exception.

Stacy A. Teicher is a staff writer for the Monitor.

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