Jonathan Kozol has been writing about education and the lives of poor and minority children since 1967, when he published Death at an Early Age, the story of his year as a teacher in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. For his latest book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, released this month by Crown Publishers, Mr. Kozol visited some 60 schools in 11 states. He discussed his findings with Staff Writer John Gehring.
Q: You have written about the plight of poor children and the conditions students in many inner-city schools have faced for several decades. Your new book seems to conclude that we have completely abandoned the fight for school integration. What has happened since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954?
A: Contrary to the myths that keep popping up in the media, integration was a spectacular success throughout most of the country for 30 years. During that period, the achievement gap between black and white students narrowed dramatically. Since 1990, the federal courts have progressively dismantled the implementation of Brown so that today, in 2005, the proportion of black kids who go to segregated schools is back to the level where it was in 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. If you look at a photograph of a class in a typical inner-city school today, it would look like a class from Mississippi in 1945.
Q: Are you more or less hopeful today about the fate of urban schools than when you began your career as a teacher in Boston in the 1960’s?
A: I’m far less hopeful. The only real sign of optimism is the quality of teachers going into these inner-city schools is infinitely higher today than it was 30 or 40 years ago. There are thousands of young idealists. They tell me they don’t want to teach in a privileged school like the one they went to. They want to go into inner-city schools and they want to change the world. They are steeped in civil rights tradition, and these young people are some of the most idealistic teachers I have ever met. The real tragedy is because of the pathological testing agenda we force on these schools, the best of these teachers don’t stay.
Q: You point out that in cities like New York and Los Angeles, it is rare to see white students in urban schools. But given the changing demographics of cities, and the persistent housing segregation in this country, aren’t these factors out of the control of education leaders?
A: Education leaders do have the power to achieve far more integration within city limits than we see today. One way they can guarantee a higher degree of integration is to refuse to permit upscale neighborhoods to establish their own ritzy little boutique schools or charter schools that serve only the interests of people in their neighborhood. There is a curious phenomenon today I call the gifted evasion of the central point, which is that we have restored apartheid schooling in America. You never see this discussed, even in the best education journals. The Shame of the Nation is not another recipe book to help polish the apple of apartheid. I want to see its abolition. Segregated schools are never equal to the schools that serve the mainstream in America. They never were in the past and they never will be in the century ahead.
Q: Why do you think people are not talking about segregation?
A: Big-city superintendents, including a number of black superintendents who I have become close with over the years, are very honest about the situation they face. They know they have an unwritten job description to mediate the separation of the races while putting their best face on a situation they know they are stuck with.
Q: But the No Child Left Behind Act was a bipartisan effort to hold schools accountable for the performance of racial and ethnic subgroups that for years schools were able to ignore. Isn’t that a sign that there is a growing national commitment to addressing the achievement gap and some of the inequalities in schools you have written about for years?
A: No. It’s a preposterous claim that only with the advent of NCLB did we discover suddenly that segregated, minority children have never received the education white, middle-class children receive. Teachers don’t need this sociopathic regime of nonstop testing to tell them these students are being cheated. The main function of the accountability regime is to humiliate inner-city principals by telling the public in graphic terms what all of us already knew. President Bush would do more good if he would save all the money wasted on these pathologically repetitive, high-stakes exams and give large financial incentives to good suburban school systems surrounding every major city that would provide powerful inducements to open up their doors to inner-city children.
Q: You point to vast differences in per-pupil funding levels between students in wealthier, suburban districts and poorer, inner-city districts. But is lack of money the main reason for the failure of many inner-city schools, when we see examples of high-performing, high-poverty schools that do better than schools with greater funding levels?
A: Conservatives who don’t want to spend more money have an insidious way of distorting the argument I make. Of course, money is not the only solution to the problem. Simply finding the most gifted teachers in America, who have the most contagious excitement about learning, is a lovely solution, too. But to entice those teachers into the inner city and keep them there and pay them enough so they stay a lifetime costs real money. Conservatives love to say you can’t buy your way to a better education. I typically ask them where they send their kids to school. They send them to prep schools like Andover and Exeter that cost over $30,000 a year. And they have the nerve to ask whether you can buy your way to a better education. I don’t know why the education press is so polite. No one asks these conservative politicians hard-hitting questions. Sure, you can always find schools with a handful of charismatic wizards and principals, but you can’t base a good school system on miracles. The truth is this country does not value black and Latino children the way it values white, middle-class children.
Q: How can we make sure that the voices and impressions of students play a greater role in shaping education policy?
A: If education writers or policymakers want to know what is really going on in schools, they should stop turning reflexively to alienated experts who have not been in inner-city schools for years. They should go directly to the teachers on the front lines and say: ‘I want to talk to your students.’ And don’t just talk to these kids in what I call interview style, but stay there long enough—maybe even stay after school—so the kids can really open up. If there is one thing I hope this book will accomplish, it’s to enable America to hear the voices of these wonderful kids I hear in every city.
Q: You write that the funding of education should be a federal, not a state or local, responsibility. Why would this be a better approach?
A: The present system of school finance is a hopeless mess and utterly inequitable. It depends on local property wealth, which makes it impossible to have a meritocracy. Even the state formulas that allegedly equalize funding never work. It’s archaic and not in our national interest to leave the educational well-being of American citizens up to the whim or wealth of the village elders in some impoverished or wealthy town. We should scrap the entire system of school finance. All money for education in a democracy ought to come from the federal government. That’s the only fair way to do it because districts and states are unequal. Kids don’t go to school to be citizens of Oklahoma or Arkansas. They go to school to be Americans.
Q: What is the most effective way to begin challenging the status quo of segregated schools in our nation’s largest cities?
A: The only way that this will ever change is by the mobilization of millions of ethical Americans, whatever their political positions. The young idealists who I meet at colleges don’t want to do something sweet like mentor an inner-city student. That’s fine, but charity is not a substitute for systematic justice, and they know it. I want to see an upheaval of decent young people who have the courage to call reality by its real name, and then go out and fight like hell to change it.
This is an extended online version of the Education Week interview with Jonathan Kozol. An abridged version appears in the September 21 print edition of the newspaper.
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2005 edition of Education Week as Writer Laments ‘Apartheid’ Schooling