Sunday, February 14, 2010

Heavy lifting for your book list

A couple of months ago, I read Johnathon Kozol's Letters to a Young Teacher, and I promised myself I would read more of his sobering work.

So, I read Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. (It came out in 2005, so I bet many of you have read this.) I thought while reading, why haven't I heard this perspective more frequently, from more quarters? Why aren't we talking about this? Indeed, it's a question that Kozol poses himself toward the end of the book. "It's hidden in plain view," he says.

In brief, his point is this: too many black schoolchildren go to schools that are nearly 100% African American, with very high rates of poverty, with extremely low graduation rates and even lower college admission rates, with over-crowded classrooms and decrepit facilities. This has the effect of cutting them off from the mainstream of American society, which carries over from their school days into limited opportunities in their adult lives.

While I was reading this book, someone saw the cover and said to me, "Apartheid? Well, that's overstating it a little, isn't it?" I didn't say anything at the time, as I had just begun, and I honestly wasn't yet sure if I thought Kozol was overstating his case or not.

Now that I have read it, I do not think Kozol is overstating the separation of the races in American public schools today, nor the negative impact of that separation. "Apartheid" is a razor-sharp word, and makes readers extremely uncomfortable--a reaction, no doubt, that Kozol and his editors were specifically going for when they chose the title and stark cover design for this book.

Interestingly, though, the prose within doesn't match the cover. Kozol is an excellent writer and debater, highly skilled at probing points and dismantling opposing viewpoints, but he is not shrill or coarse as this cover might lead you to expect. Instead of being hammered with angry discourse, I found passionate but polite discussion. It's a really good read, and vitally important to anyone interested in a macro view of the American public education system.

Which should be every American citizen, you know what I mean?

I am really interested in how much Kozol's position on how to intercede for black schoolchildren is in direct contrast to the ideas laid out by Mike Feinburg and Dave Levin (founders of KIPP schools), and other educators who have created highly structured curricula for inner-city children living in poverty. I also recently read Jay Matthews' book Work Hard, Be Nice, which chronicles the development of the KIPP system of schools. I thought that was a fascinating must-read, too. I love the accomplishments of the KIPP schools, and I admire the work and determination of the KIPP educators. But how excited can I get about a program in which I would not want my own two children to enroll? I want nurturing education for my kids. I want open-ended exploration of ideas, and I don't get that impression from KIPP or other programs that are similar to it. Do I think that the needs of inner city children in poverty are really so different from my suburban kids?

Kozol is emphatic that their needs are not different, and that poor black children should get the same forward-thinking education that administrators and teachers tend to arrange for their own children.

I'm thinking this over. I know I have much to learn. I feel a heady level of discomfort talking about the educational needs of inner city children, as I have just a little direct experience (I used to teach a parenting class for teen mothers in an alternative high school in west Dayton). But I also feel that my discomfort is a pretty good indicator that I should read and think more about race, poverty, education, social justice, where they intersect and where they don't and what is our next step.

Read it and let's talk!


  1. I haven't read The Shame of the Nation (although it is on my bookshelf awaiting my attention). I have read Mathews' book and found myself quite frustrated. I completely agree with you that I would not want my own children attending a KIPP school so why would I want it as a model for others?

  2. When I was entering 4th grade in Columbia, SC, the courts ordered the public schools desegregated. While many of the white kids in our neighborhood were shifted to private schools, my parents put me on that bus. Then, as today, SC's public schools were not considered particularly good, but that first year was an amazing one for me. The extracurricular lessons I learned about race a poverty have remained with me to this day. I don't really recall what we learned in science or social studies class, but what I learned from arm wrestling, climbing on the monkey bars, and talking in the lunchroom are as fresh for me today as if they happened yesterday.

    I had dinner last night with a high school teacher who mentioned that about 75 percent of his students are "mixed race." It's big pubic school in a low income neighborhood. He said they had a recent classroom discussion about why Barack Obama was considered "black" even though he had a "white" mother.

    I don't know where I'm going with the comment other than to point out that we still have a lot of conversations to have about race and poverty in our country.

    I understand why poor families might appreciate hard-core standardized curricula like KIPP, which is essentially job training, not the kind of nurturing, inquiry-based education we want for our own kids. In this case, I can't be entirely opposed to it because developing the skills to get and keep jobs are very important -- and not intuitive -- to children who grow up in poverty. I'm not saying I support it, just that I understand it in a "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs" kind of way.

  3. Tom, we talked about Kozol's book in my policy class last night, and I brought up your reference to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Really good point. Thanks for sharing your personal story and your insights.

  4. Hi, Jenny, I remember your post on your blog about Jay Matthew's book, and you make a good point. Thanks for your comment!