Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Shame of a Nation, Jonathan Kozol

Several years ago, I read Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities. While I wouldn't say that book is what made me go into teaching, it sure didn't hurt. Savage Inequalities chronicled the inequities that existed in the American public school system, particularly the contrast between urban and suburban districts. Often the discrepancy on spending on a per student per year basis exceeded $10,000, often more than the urban districts were spending in their entirety. It was an eye opening book to be sure. Students in urban district had to suffer through conditions that made it nearly impossible to succeed. Dilapidated buildings, inexperienced teachers, and lack of access to educational resources were just some of the problems urban students had to face. Any paraphrasing I do would only pale in comparison to the horrors these students were forced to endure. So I'll just leave it at that. But one thing has nagged at me all these years: the lack of a realistic solution.

Over time I was able to convince myself that, like Upton's The Jungle, a mere chronicling of the conditions could be enough to spark change.

Kozol's Shame of a Nation essentially describes the status of public education since then. We've seen sweeping education reform at the federal level in Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. The goal was to close the gap between rich and poor students by stringent standardized testing enforcement. There wasn't much of a road map, but the message was clear to troubled schools: perform poorly and we will shut you down. Kozol contends in Shame that opposite of the intended effect has taken place. Students in troubled schools are now forced to cancel art and music to ensure better test scores in Reading and Math.

Republicans in Texas, and I assume across the nation, contend that a slight uptick in test scores at the elementary level indicate real progress. While I do believe that even poor accountability is better than no accountability, Kozol is absolutely right in his assertion that the quality and breadth of education is suffering under NCLB. Teachers are handicapped and students in troubled and generally urban schools, aren't afforded the "extras" anymore.

The problem with Shame is essentially the same problem I had with Savage Inequalities: Kozol spends so much time telling the reader how awful things are, he rarely introduces a reasonable solution. Shame goes a bit farther in Kozol's editorializing however. Occasionally, he'll go on three or four page rants, posing hypothetical question after hypothetical question. And as a reader who agrees with him on probably every major issue, I find myself combative and defensive while reading it.

Kozol is skeptical of every means of education reform he puts forth: small schools, technical schools, charter schools, etc. His contention - and I wholeheartedly I agree mind you - is that schools are as segregated now as they were before Brown v. Board of Education. So his solution is to reinstate mandatory integration.

As simple as that sounds and as effective as it would be, I simply don't see how that could ever happen in today's political landscape. Kozol's solution is to attack the problem politically, restocking the federal courts with progressive judiciaries. That would be great mind you, but that will take years, and possibly generations to do. He contends that it's taken us 40 years to reverse the progress made by Brown and I intend it will take us at least 40 more to get us back on track.

Until then? I believe our only near term solutions are in these education reforms. Right now there's loads of money out there from the private sector (read: Bill and Melinda Gates) for schools willing to try something different. I am a part of the New Tech High network of schools, trying something different to make education more relevant to today's students. Much of the funding we're receiving is from the private sector, which Kozol seems wary of.

Don't get me wrong: Kozol's books are groundbreaking, eye-opening, and on rare occasions, life affirming and I respect and admire him more than maybe any author in America. I just wish he would not dump on education reform. And perhaps he did not intend to, but the fact is, he puts every implementation of reform in a negative light, while not presenting the reader with instances of success. While many of these innovations may not succeed, the alternative is to keep doing what we're doing. And Kozol has now written two books telling us how that's not working.


jo said...

A+, an excelent book report.

gk said...

Wow Miss Dowis! You're the bestest!

I hope it met the word requirement.