“Separate but equal” -- the doctrine from the 1896 Plessy
v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling that solidified the system of racist segregation
-- was always a lie. The reality of schools under Jim Crow was always separate
Now, 50 years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that
struck down “separate but equal” as inherently unfair, schoolchildren
in the U.S. are again suffering the consequences of segregation -- an all the
more odious reality because segregation has been outlawed on paper.
In his new book Shame
of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (Crown,
2005), Jonathan Kozol rips the veil off of America’s “apartheid
Schools have been re-segregating for the past dozen years, Kozol explains,
so that “the proportion of Black students in majority-white schools has
decreased to a level lower than in any year since 1968.” Gary Orfield
and the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University show that 2 million students
attend these “apartheid schools” (a term Kozol uses for schools
where the student body is more than 99 percent non-white). Overall, almost three-quarters
of Black and Latino students attend schools that are predominantly minority.
Kozol says that “the four most segregated states, according to the Civil
Rights Project, are New York, Michigan, Illinois and California. In California
and New York, only one Black student in seven goes to a predominantly white
The apartheid schools, driven by the politicians’ mania for testing and
standardization, emphasize obedience and order. Kozol describes elementary schools
where silent lunches have been implemented -- and where students spend at least
30 minutes a day “lining up.”
Teachers become managers. Students must be labeled “Level Ones”
at worst or “Level Fours” at best, according to their reading abilities.
These schools are run on the corporate model of efficiency, and stress teaching
corporate concepts to young children -- students are given jobs like Homework
Collection Manager, and paid in fake money for correct answers.
“‘ALL CHILDREN CAN LEARN!’ the advocates
for this [testing and accountability] agenda say hypnotically, as if the tireless
reiteration of this slogan could deliver to low-income children the same clean
and decent infrastructure and the amplitude of cultural provision by experienced
teachers that we give to the children of the privileged,” Kozol writes.
“If the officials who repeat this incantation honestly believe all kids
can learn, why aren’t they fighting to make sure these kids can learn
in the same good schools that their own children attend?”
Kozol tells how students are told that they can reach their potential if they
and their teachers just try hard enough. “At an early morning assembly
in Seattle’s Thurgood Marshall School,” he writes, “the entire
student body stood and chanted, ‘I have confidence I can learn,’
exactly 30 times. Similar sessions of self-exhortation are familiar at innumerable
inner-city schools: ‘Yes I can I know I can!’ ‘If it’s
to be, it’s up to me’. In some schools, these chantings are accompanied
by a rhythmic clapping of the hands or snapping of the fingers or by stamping
on the floor.”
Shame of the Nation is filled with stories about the psychological impact of
the accountability craze. Kindergartners cry and throw up out of fear if they
don’t understand the tests they are supposed to take. Administrators ruin
their health trying to live up to promises to meet “Annual Yearly Progress”
testing benchmarks. Kozol talks about a New York administrator who dies from
an asthma attack exacerbated by an extreme level of stress to meet “measurable”
The book is compelling because it also gives examples of teachers, students
and administrators fighting with dignity (and frustration) not to let these
policies rip joy and art out of the school setting.
Kozol’s research method is refreshing. He talks to the people who really
know how schools work -- above all, teachers and students -- and then describes
public education in their voices.
Kozol visited my classroom one afternoon and had the following conversation
with my students, which is related in his book:
Mireya suddenly began to cry. “I don’t want to take hairdressing.
I didn’t need sewing, either. I know how to sew. My mother is a seamstress
in a factory. I’m trying to go to college. I don’t need to sew
to go to college. My mother sews. I hoped for something else.”
“What would you rather take?” I asked. “I wanted to take
an AP class,” she answered.
Mireya’s sudden tears elicited a strong reaction from one of the boys
who had been silent up to now. A thin and dark-eyed student, named Fortino,
with long hair down to his shoulders who was sitting on the left side of the
classroom, he turned to Mireya.
“Listen to me,” he said. “The owners of the sewing factories
need laborers. Correct?” “I guess they do,” Mireya said.
“It’s not going to be their own kids, right?” “Why
not?” another student asked. “So they can grow beyond themselves,”
Mireya answered quietly. “But we remain the same.”
“You’re ghetto,” said Fortino, “so we send you to
These conversations with children and educators contain more truth than all
the combined studies of the Department of Education.
Politicians justify the regimen of testing and drilling in the worst urban
schools by claiming that “no excuses” approaches will narrow the
achievement gap between white students and students of color.
In fact, though, while drill-and-kill methodology has been dominant, since
about 1995, there is a “widening achievement gulf in math and reading
levels between minority high school students and their white contemporaries
-- a devastating five-year gap between the races...”
The book ends by posing answers to two questions.
First, how did it get this bad? Kozol answers this question by pointing out
the fact that education is essentially a “states’ rights”
issue. Education and civil rights advocates have largely reduced the fight for
education to a state-by-state legal strategy.
In the most recent legal cases involving schools and civil rights issues --
such as the Williams case against the state of California filed by the ACLU
and settled in 2004 -- plaintiffs have not demanded desegregation, nor even
equity in segregated education. Things have gotten so bad that the best that
can be hoped for, say civil rights advocates, is some kind of a floor beneath
which segregated schools aren’t allowed to fall.
With his typical honesty, Kozol reports on conversations with people who are
trying to grapple with solutions to the crisis in education.
“A political movement is a necessary answer,” says Gary Orfield.
“We cannot look to courts to do it in the present age. We cannot look
to the two political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, to do it. We
need to reach out to a broader section of the nation to initiate a struggle.”
A columnist for Time magazine calls for “a radical proposal...revive the
civil rights movement.” A teacher says, “We need our teachers marching
in the streets.”
Kozol implicitly endorses these approaches, as well as everyday resistance.
School administrators, teachers and parents can collectively decide to try to
step “out of the box” of the testing and accountability mania. Some
neighborhoods and schools could be desegregated relatively easily voluntarily.
After all, 60 percent of young adults surveyed report that “the federal
government ought to make sure that public schools are integrated.”
Shame of the Nation rejects the idea that desegregation is unrealistic and
unnecessary. It cites several examples of small-scale voluntary desegregation
programs that, when fought for, enjoy community support.
Prince Edward County, Va.; Boston; Milwaukee; and St. Louis have integration
programs and boast higher achievement for students of color within these programs.
“[The St. Louis program] works, so it will be killed,” says Kozol.
“Unlike charter schools, which do not work and will be expanded.”
When the real problems with education are exposed, it becomes obvious that
a number of solutions being proposed right now are fake fixes. Currently in
Los Angeles, district officials are cramming one such solution, “Small
Learning Academies” -- which, despite the name, don’t reduce class
size -- down the throats of “failing’ schools.”
“When school boards seize upon this concept as a panacea for systemic
problems and begin to stamp out small academies without the long preliminary
groundwork...they end up making little more than fashionably smaller versions
of the unsuccessful large schools that they’re replacing,” Kozol
Access to decent education is one of the most visibly decayed edifices of the
American Dream. Undocumented workers, people of color, working class Americans
-- all hope, no less than the white middle class -- that education will open
up not only doors of opportunity for their children, but also doors of enlightenment
Kozol quotes W.E.B. DuBois: “‘It is a hard thing to live haunted
by the ghost of an untrue dream’ to know ‘something was vanquished
that deserved to live. All this is bitter hard.’” The fight for
education will be a huge arena of struggle, and Shame of the Nation helps equip
us for that struggle. It’s a must-read.