The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America
Kozol, Jonathan (2005).
New York: Crown Publishers; 404 pages. $25.00. ISBN 1400052440.
Jonathan Kozol’s newest book on education in the United States stands as a vivid counterpoint to the U.S. Department of Education’s message of “No Child Left Behind.” Kozol argues that while federal and state policies are moving to an accountability system that measures how well individual schools are doing in improving their students’ learning, no one is standing outside the system and examining the playing field. In the U.S. over the last 15 years, schools have become increasingly segregated. Kozol asserts that segregation by race and class creates a separate and unequal education system that cannot right itself without dealing with this fundamental issue. In its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, the Supreme Court established the doctrine that separate is not equal (Smith and Kozleski 2005). Yet, 52 years later, U.S. schools remain segregated.
Unlike many of Kozol’s other books where his own interactions, experiences, and interpretations of events shape the narrative, in The Shame of the Nation Kozol uses data from state and local education agency websites, the Harvard Civil Rights Project, interviews with researchers and policy makers, as well as his own review of the literature to make his case. He begins by examining the nature of learning and opportunities for students in inner-city schools. He notes the overwhelming presence of students of color in inner-city schools across the country. The data that he presents from Boston and New York are mirrored in schools in the hundred largest schools systems—representing more than a third of all public school students in the United States (NCES 2005). Black and Latino students account for up to 95 percent of the students served in inner-city schools in most of these cities. They often attend physical plants in disrepair and with only one or two dial-up lines to access the Internet for all the computers in the school. Kozol observes that too often, these schools offer curricula unrelated to the lives of the children who attend them, and disregard the unique knowledge that students bring with them. Across the nation, students who are African-American and male are more than four times as likely to be placed in special education than any other group (NCCRESt 2005). Kozol’s first chapters portray these conditions through the eyes of children as they entered school. When he follows up as they leave elementary school and move into middle and high school, their eagerness has been replaced by cynicism about the chance to get an education that expands their understanding and connection with the world beyond their own experience.
Kozol links the experiences of children to the curricula in their schools. The teachers whom he observes and interviews, like the children, have been asked to implement highly structured learning experiences in which not only what is taught but how it is taught is regimented. Descriptions of teachers carrying out reading and writing curricula in which specific hand gestures are used for crowd control are reported in multiple settings. The rote nature of the curriculum seems to depress the natural curiosity, spontaneity, and joy of young learners. Kozol’s premise is clear: reproducing patterns of behavior is not learning but some other form of human programming. Learning is altogether another activity that does not seem to appear in the classrooms he observes. Further, he notes the effect that this kind of teaching has on the teachers themselves rather than being exciting and challenging teaching becomes a process of regimentation and habit development. It makes for a grim relationship between teacher and students.
Kozol goes on to explore leadership in these schools, and here the narrative gets downright spooky. The leadership focus seems to be on managing the standardization of teaching and focusing student development on producing good workers. School reform is depicted as a business enterprise with goals, action plans, implementation targets, and productivity measures. This reflects policy makers’ views of schools as instruments of the marketplace, rather than as the tools of a democratic society committed to emancipatory educational opportunities for every child. Kozol notes, “It is harder to convince young people that they can learn when they are cordoned off by a society that isn’t sure they really can.”
Kozol’s work is an essential read for school reformers because it reminds us all about the difference between tinkering and building. When we ignore the context in which children are being educated, where even basic necessities like toilet paper are not provided, and focus our work on increasing performance on tests, we bastardize the entire notion of what an education means. If some children in our country attend schools where light pours in, where playgrounds are inventive places for children to play games they create together, we cannot accept any less for some groups of children. However, too many institutions give children the message that they deserve to sit in classrooms where paint peels off walls, the windows are hung with bars, and their minds are regimented into narrow compartments and filled with information disconnected from the world around them.
Addressing segregated schools and the segregated expectations that come with them requires reaffirmation that the roles of federal and state level policies are to protect the common good, ensure equity, and engage the greatest number of citizens in a participatory democracy. Reading this book engages the urgency with which we need to act to ensure that the privilege of education is afforded to all children by reminding us that separate is not equal.
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (2005). “Characteristics of the 100 Largest: Public Elementary and Secondary School Districts in the U.S. 2001-02.” August. Accessed April 8, 2006 from http://nces.ed.gov/Pubs2003/100_largest/index.asp.
National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems (NCCRESt) (2005). “Disproportionality by Race and Disability.” Accessed April 8, 2006 from http://niusi.eddata.net/data/index.php?id=47
Smith, A. and Kozleski, Elizabeth B. (2005). “Witnessing Brown: Pursuit of an Equity Agenda in American Education.” Remedial and Special Education 26: 270-280.
School of Education and Human Development
University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center
Elizabeth Kozleski is the Associate Dean for Research of the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center. She is also the Director and Principal Investigator at the National Institute for Urban School Improvement. Finally, in addition to being the UNESCO chair for Inclusive Education Research, she is the co-principal investigator of the National Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems (www.nccrest.org). Her research interests include urban school reform, special education, and inclusionary practices in education.