Jonathan Kozol And His Opinion Concerning The Quality Of Education In Savage Inequalities

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Johnathan Kozol is one of the most prolific names in American education for almost 50 years. A passionate supporter of public schools, Kozol has spent the majority of his life fighting and advocating for equal educational opportunity so that all American students can be afforded an equitable education. He is a well known writer as well having authored over 10 books. He has been awarded numerous award for his books including the National Book Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Award among others. This report will describe Kozol’s ideology and highlight the thinking behind his theories. In addition, this paper will also speak to the matters he is most passionate about and suggestions he has offered to the American education system regarding reform, social justice, and school improvement.

Jonathan Kozol

The plight for equal and equitable education for all students in American public schools has been a debated issue in this country for years. Some believe that the current education system provides an equal and equitable education for all, while others would vehemently deny the idea that this exists in our schools. One of the most vocal advocates that believes the American education system does not equally and equitably provide for all students is Jonathan Kozol. Mr. Kozol has been one of the most outspoken critics of the American education system in modern times, championing the need for educational equality and social justice. Starting in the 1960s and still active to this day, Kozol has served as an educator, an author, and an activist against the inequalities he believed existed in the education system. Owens & Valesky (2015) described Kozol as a critical theorist who worked to expose how poverty affected children in U.S. schools with inadequate funding and how a lack of highly qualified teachers hindered student’s ability to meet educational goals. This paper will discuss Kozol’s ideology and the tenets of his theories. In addition, this report will also address the issues and solutions he proposed for the education system, and the effects these issues present to society. Kozol was born in Boston, Massachusetts to a privileged family, with his mother being a social worker and his father was a psychiatrist and neurologist (Stebbins, 1999). After graduating from high school, Kozol studied at Harvard University and attended Magdalen College Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In 1959, he resigned his scholarship at Magdalen and moved to Paris where he wrote his first book, The Fume of Poppies (1958), a novel about his Russian grandparents (Michalove, 1993). In 1963, he returned to the United States where he took a job as a substitute teacher in Boston Public Schools, particularly at the inner-city Gibson School in Roxbury. This is where he crusade for educational opportunity and equity began and helped shape his ideologies and beliefs.

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While substitute teaching, Kozol was first introduced to the inequalities that existed in Boston Public schools. He served as a fourth grade teacher where he was a direct witness to the type of conditions the schools were in. He noted issues including the schools administration’s refusal to recognize the problems and an anti-Negro prejudice among society as a whole and among other teachers in the segregated schools filled with African American students (Kozol, 1967). Kozol observed rampant racial prejudice and racism in a school where it was considered fair for African American students to read books about white children, but unfair for White children to read books about African American children (Michalove, 1999).

He believed this to be an injustice and was soon going out of his way to provide African American students with crayons, offering them rides home, meeting their parents, and showing them personal attention, and deviating from the required curriculum by using books written by Black authors (Michalove, 1999). This behavior eventually led to his dismissal, but his experiences here show his devotion to students and his will to change the status quo in public schools regarding the experiences of African American students. After his dismissal, he went on to teach in a wealthy suburban school in Boston, where the conditions were far superior to those at Gibson. Kozol (1991) wrote that “The shock of going from one of the poorest schools to one of the wealthiest cannot be overstated”.

Kozol’s experiences in the Boston public schools shaped his ideological beliefs that all students deserved an equal and equitable education and lead him to write his second book, Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools, which was awarded the 1968 National Book Award for Science, Philosophy, and Religion (Tozer & Senese, 2014). Kozol believed that students prospered from a social environment that was interrelated which provided a context where they could meet high expectations. He also believed that children needed access to their most basic needs before learning could occur before they could learn effectively (Bove, 2011), which wasn’t the situation he witnessed in the inner-city Boston public schools. In Death at an Early Age, Kozol discussed problems such as the harm segregation in schools cause as well as the importance of having strong parental values (Michalove, 1999). Kozol (2000) wrote that he believed children in underprivileged locations in the United States needed access to variety beyond the cage that society has built around them.

Another ideology Kozol promoted is the importance of literacy in our society and our education system. He is a staunch believer in the idea that the ability of all to read and access to education were necessary for living an informed life (Bove, 2011). He decried the idea that underprivileged urban children do not have the same learning opportunities to compete with children in suburban schools. In his book Illiterate America (1991), he wrote that “Literacy is the very bedrock of our civilization” and regarded literacy as a survival skill needed for daily existence (Kozol, 1985). In his book Prisoners of Silence (1980), he wrote “The goal was not to find out how many people lacked the skill to write or read, but rather how many people lacked the skills with which to manage and survive.” He advocated for school libraries to be filled with books, but hated the fact that many of the libraries in segregated and low income schools did not have the appropriate resources for students (Kozol, 2000). He believed that families in wealthier White neighborhoods were able to provide books and other resources for their children outside of the school, which African American and Hispanic parents were not able to provide for their children. Kozol believed that schools and society were solely to blame for the illiterate. Kozol (1985) wrote the following: “Illiteracy among the poorest people in our population is a logical consequence of the kinds of schools we run, the cities that starve them, the demagogues who segregate them, and the wealthy people who escape them altogether to enroll their kids in better funded, up to date, and more proficient institutions. Illiterates cannot make informed choices, cannot order from a menu, cannot read television listings to decide what to watch. They cannot form lobbies to fight for the rights that have been denied them because the cannot write the organizing letters them.” (pg.89)

Kozol believed that many of the illiterate hid their inability to read to avoid the shame of not being able to read or write. It is obvious that his belief in the power of literacy was one of the major visions that drove his insistence of equality in public schools.

In 2006, Kozol wrote that many students are sitting in classrooms where they don’t understand any text and are unable to bring their ideas to life through writing. He continued by arguing that some students are able to decode phonetically, but they read without any enjoyment or authentic comprehension when asked to read a literacy text. His vision for a literate society still exists to this day, and illiteracy still remains a problem in our educational system and society. According the National Center for Education Statistics (2016), an estimated 32 million people in the United States are considered illiterate. Kozol has been a long time vocal critic of the inequalities he has witnessed in American public schools. Kozol believed in equal educational opportunity for all students, so it saddened him to see huge disparities between privileged and underprivileged schools regarding the buildings, faculties, curricula, class sizes, and funding. In 1991, he published Savage Inequalities which discussed the his travels through public schools all across the country where he saw a disparate quality of education that existed between poor and rich school district in the United States (Schugurensky, n.d). He traveled to inner city St. Louis where he saw schools with cheaply built roofs, not enough books for students, lacking of materials and resources, and toxic mold growing in places in the schools. In New York, suburban schools received double the funding of inner city schools and school administrators were unaware of the number of students who had dropped out of their own schools (Kozol (1991). He continued by writing about classes that were held in bathrooms, plumbing issues that caused flooding in school stairwells in poor and economically disadvantaged schools districts. He noted seeing saw newly constructed auditoriums, computer labs, and libraries full of books in the wealthy, mostly White school districts. He believed a separate and unequal system, lead to these inequities, which were directly tied to the less than ideal opportunities afforded to poor children.

Kozol believed that lack of equitable funding in low socioeconomic schools lead to the many problems these schools faced, and he served as an outspoken advocate for equal funding in schools. Schugurensky (n.d.) argued that the economic inequities between the distribution of monies to fund schools were gross and inexcusable agreeing with Kozol’s beliefs that the wealthy are afforded better access to education and knowledge, while poor citizens were segregated in schools receiving little to no funding. Kozol believed that the funding a school received was directly tied to what students learned and where they would end up in life, arguing that disenfranchised students received enough knowledge to be able to function in low skills job, or worse become unemployed. In a speech in 1997 at DePauw University, Kozol told the audience the following:

“If you live in a destitute community, you can tax yourself at the highest rate and still get no money for your schools because no one wants to live there. With such a system, it’s not just that it cheats the poor; in a way it cheats the children of the rich. A lot of these children are very decent kids and they have a sense of social conscience and the advantages they receive bother them”. (DePauw University, n.d.)

Kozol (1991) stated a pattern existed in the education system that allowed wealthy White schools to not share funds for funding, and noted that a lack of government involvement prevented poor and disenfranchised students from recouping these advantages. Kozol has been a strong believer of the power of integration in our schools and has a long history of mentioning how racial segregation in our schools has been a problem since ¬Brown v. Board of Education and he insists that it remains a problem today. Kozol (2005) wrote that urban public schools that were deeply segregated 25 to 30 years ago are still that way now, while thousands of other schools have been resegregated after having voluntarily or having been forced to integrate. In an interview, Kozol stated that 40 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the education system is right back to Plessy v. Ferguson, in that we still have separate schools in almost every city in the nation, but no one who grew up in the suburbs and visited these schools would ever claim they are equal (Raney, 1998). In his book, The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (2006), he wrote that a significant amount of segregation has returned to urban schools in America, with many schools being concentrated and almost entirely composed of Black and Hispanic students. In his book, Death at an Early Age (1967), he wrote that Black schoolchildren are beautiful, smart, resilient, talented, and racist teachers, administrators, and segregation are conspiring to suppress their talents and crush their spirits. Patrella (2017) cited a 2016 report done by the General Accounting Office of the United States government that reported that the proportion of Black and Hispanics students in schools where 75 to 100 percent of students qualify for reduced lunch increased 11 percent between 2001 and 2014. Kozol (2006) wrote that segregated education is the oldest, most failed experiment in the U.S. social history. He believed that no one is capable of fixing this by forcing minority children to conform to a mode of intellection that is noncritical.

Mr. Kozol has also been a long time opponent of choice schools. He believes that choice schooling really breaks down into three separate categories including vouchers that parents to take public money and spend it for private schools, intradistrict choice where students can attend any school within a district, and interdistrict choice where students can attend schools in any district they choose (Kozol, 1992). He insists that school choice separates kids by both race and class. Kozol believes that proponents of choice schools usually are pushing vouchers when talking about school choice, rather than ointradistrict and interdistrict choice. Based on his experience, Mr. Kozol believes that interdistrict school choice does not work because he believes individuals very seldom have equal choice is very seldom seen and when it is, equal access is not provided. Kozol (1992) insisted that because many of the parents of inner city children are illiterate, they are unable to read information and pamphlets created by school districts to promote school choice. Furthermore, Kozol contended that even if school districts provided the information in different languages to address the needs of varying ethnic groups, the wealthy and well-connected were usually the first to hear about such opportunities because word of mouth always favored the well educated and wealthy. Mr. Kozol believed that affluent families put their children into the best schools that have just enough racial integration so as not to raise any eyebrows, and the poorest of the poor children do not attend these schools because they are not wanted there, so they end up concentrated in schools that no one chooses by default (Kozol, 1992).

Kozol believed that interdistrict school choice doesn’t work either because again the wealthy and affluent benefits while poor and disenfranchised students don’t. He referred to a plan in Massachussets that allowed students to attend any school in any district they wanted to. He pointed out that only 2 months into the program, over 800 students had transferred to other districts, with 93% of the students being White and middle class. He continued by stating that not one child transferred from a rich district to a poorer one. Alternatively, he cited another instance where in a working class industrial town in Massuchussets where half the population is poor and nonwhite, under the same school choice initiative, only 5% of the students who transferred into another school district where low income and only a single student was bilingual. This provides proof for his narrative that school choice is bad for poor and minority students. Regarding vouchers, Mr. Kozol’s position is particularly clear in that he opposes them because he believes they will not provide equal opportunity and access for all students across the country. Kozol (1992) wrote that larger cities like Washington D.C. would be able to provide students with vouchers for large sums of money while smaller towns in Mississippi would not be able to provide such large vouchers. He contends that the student in Washington, D.C. could attend an excellent private school with the generous voucher they would receive, however the student in Mississippi would not be able to pay for the same quality of private school education because of the small voucher amount. He believed vouchers to be unequal in funding, thus causing an it to provide unequal access as well. Kozol honestly believed that school choice fragmented the common loyalties people have with one another and will break down ambition, pitting parent against parent with each only having their own child’s interest in mind over the wellbeing of other kids and the community. Kozol firming believed that schools of choice did not increase the educational opportunities of poor minority students and only benefitted the White affluent families.

Mr. Kozol has been a champion of equal and equitable education for all, fighting illiteracy in this country, the problems school of choice cause, how the inequities in schools regarding unequal funding and resources, illiteracy, racial segregation in schools, and how societal problems pour over into our schools. Many people have offered solutions to these problems, but the issues remain and some of them seem to have worsened over the years rather than improve. Kozol is perhaps best known for the books he has written, and many of the solutions to the issues he cares most deeply can be found in these books. In his book, Savage Inequalities, Kozol disagreed with government officials that schools didn’t need additional funding. Mr. Kozol insisted that the thousands of additional dollars that were spent each year for White students attending schools in the suburbs should be equal to the amount of money provided to mostly minority schools in urban locations. He believed that the biggest reason for the lack of funding was racism, while government officials insisted that the reason urban schools were failing is because of a lack of good teaching methods.

One approach used to help failing schools was to put White administrators in minority schools, and Kozol wanted the opposite. He proposed putting qualified effective individuals in these positions no matter their race in order to help the schools be more successful. Mr. Kozol wanted the funding system changed because he believed it to be unfair to parents and children who lived in low-income areas. Kozol wanted the tax-based school finding systems that were in place at the time to be modified so that the funding would be more equitable among suburban and inner city schools. Kozol proposed that equity would be attained by doing away with property taxes, raising income taxes, and then having the state distribute the money, but not equally, to all school districts (Michalove, 1999). Mr. Kozol believed that the needs of students across the country were different based on the communities and the environments in which they lived in. Even where systems where set up where all businesses and homeowners are taxed at the same rate with the federal government making up the difference, White schools tended to get more of this money providing them with more funding over low income schools. He believed the laws needed to be changed so that the schools were more equally funded.

Kozol was against minority and inner-city schools and he proposed the creation of what he termed “free schools”. By “free”, Kozol meant these schools would be free from the inherent prejudices he saw in public schools he visited all over the country. Kozol wanted the free schools to be located in urban neighborhoods and serve as alternatives to public schools. Michalove (1999) argued that Kozol wanted the free schools to operate outside of the public education relam, operate outside the White man’s counterculture, and be connected to the needs of disenfranchised students that have been victimized by public schools. Michalove continued stating that Kozol wanted the free schools to be small, managed under local control, and received little to no publicity. In his book, Free Schools (1972), Kozol proposed funding free schools through the use of research grants awarded to university professors who were studying free schools, insisting that the researchers needed the free schools more than the free schools needed the researchers.

Having once been a proponent of free schools, or schools of choice, Kozol gave an interview sharing that his views had changed regarding schools of choice. He was now against them because he felt they would only benefit the rich and wealthy, and poor kids would once again get the short end of the stick (Hayes, 1992). In the same interview, Kozol defined the individuals who were pushing school choice in the 1990s as the same people who were opposed to desegregated schools. He believed that some, not all, of these individuals may have had bias against the poor and minorities, and perhaps racism was the reason behind the push for choice schools. Kozol wanted the public schools be funded adequately and did not want schools of choice to be created because he felt they would lead to a resegregation of the public schools. In Illiterate America, Kozol discussed the problems illiterate Americans face and the problems they pose to the larger society. He stressed the need for socioeconomic status to be apart of the solution to addressing the illiteracy problem, believing that food, healthcare, and housing were necessary to help alleviate this problem. In this book, he stressed the important link between education and illiteracy. Kozol discussed how some inner city schools had less than adequate libraries for the students and less then qualified teachers responsible for teaching them how to read. Kozol (1967) wanted to fill the libraries with books, and in many cases, he visited schools and provided children with books himself. Kozol disagreed with individuals who saw the issue of illiteracy as a problem caused by an influx of many people who spoke languages other than English. Kozol wanted the government to provide more money and assistance for literacy programs and less research regarding the issue of illiteracy (Michalove, 1999). Kozol also advocated for a campaign to support the learning of basic education skills, a point he stressed in his book entitled Free Schools (Lent, 1976). Baker (1998) wrote that Kozol believed that individuals should respond to the educational issues by stating that “ Political struggle is the most important thing any of us as citizens in a democracy and that means the old joining with the young to fight for elemental kinds of justice”. He also mentioned that charity was something that we could participate in as a society and that people who are healthy should get out and volunteer. Inside the classrooms, Kozol believed that differing perspectives where necessary through various types of media including films, speakers, and written media (Baker, 1976). Baker continued by quoting Kozol in his belief that “A constant and intensive transformation and continual rebirth was needed in the classroom and outside of it, but it is needed to find the truth”.

Many of the same issues we see in the education system today are the same issues Mr. Kozol sounded the alarm about decades. Kozol was passionate about funding and racial inequities between schools, segregation in schools, illiteracy across the country, choice schools, and unequal and unequitable schools for all individuals. During his entire career and still today, Kozol continues to be speak out againt the racial and funding equities he has and continues to see in the American education system. In a study completed by Hope, Skoog, and Jagers (2015) found that African Americans students indicated having at minimum one personal experience at school with a teacher where they felt they were treated unjustly because of their race. The same student concluded that Black students perceived differences in the expectations teachers had for them regarding student achievement and that there was lack of a positive racial climate and institutional support for students of color. Research done by Saft & Pianta (2001) showed that teachers were more likely to have negative judgment regarding classroom behavior for minoritiy students compared to White students. Kozol saw these same issues in schools starting in the 1960s and even though the schools are fully integrated, the negative connotations and stereotypes regarding Black students continue to be present in our schools by the very people whose job it is to educate these students.

Funding inequities are nothing new to the American education system. Kozol called on overhaul of the funding system in his book, Savage Inequalities, over 20 years ago. However, the system has not acted upon the recommendations of Mr. Kozol, and funding inequalities continue to plague schools across the nation. Smith (2017) wrote that in 2012, over 600 Texas school districts sued the state alleging that Texas schools were inequitable and inadequately funded in Texas Taxpayers and Student Fairness Coalition et al v. Morath et al. Initially a judge ruled in favor of the school districts, but the Texas Supreme Court overturned the ruling in 2016, but implored the state to fix and reform the current funding system. Similarly in 2016, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers had failed to equitably fund public schools, in response to lawsuit led by a coalition of Kansas school district (Boles, 2016). The court ruled that the lawmaker’s plans would create “intolerable, and simply unfair, wealth based disparities among Kansas school districts”. Just a few months ago, civil right groups in Delaware sued the state alleging that the current education funding system provides more funding for students who live in affluent and wealthy neighborhoods than it does or children living in poor and poverty stricken areas (Bies, 2018). These funding issues are exactly what Kozol wrote about and discussed in several of his books. As a nation, we still have not fully accepted that these inequities do exist in our school systems nor have we taken any real effort to reform the funding systems in our education systems.

Kozol has long been worried about the resegregation of America’s schools after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. He proposed solutions to this issue, but sadly our schools are becoming more segregated then ever before (Brown, 2016). Brown discussed that reports from the United States Government Accountabilty Office show that minorities, particularly Black and Hispanic children, are more isolated from their White, affluent peers with the number of high poverty schools educating Black and Hispanic students doubling between the years of 2001 to 2014. Frey & Wilson (2009) reported that the United States has been on a road to resegregation for a while now. They argued that the United States Supreme Court ruling in Milliken v. Bradley (1974), where the court released districts from integrating schools based on housing patterns and its rulings in the early 1990s where they declared that district could be labeled “unitary”, meaning they had taken all considerable efforts to eliminate discrimination in schooling, only helped push the moved toward resegregation. These decisions effectively released school districts from the original desegration orders of the 1950s and 60s. Reardon, Grewal, Kalogrides, and Greenberg (2012) reported that schools that were released from federal court desegregation oversight have become steadily more segregated, with the resegegration rate being larger in elementary schools, large districts, districts segregated by residence, and districts with large enrollments of African American students. Failing to listen to the wisdom of Kozol has caused our education system in many ways to still be the same as it was over 50 years ago. The consequences of not heeding Kozol’s suggestions continue to play out in schools and districts across the nation.

Jonathan Kozol has been heralded as one of the brightest minds in the American education system for over 50 years now. He of course has his critics, but he has continued to remain a voice of opposition regarding what he sees and inequities in our schools. Many of the suggestions and considerations he proposed for American schools have been largely overlooked, and many of the same issues he so eloquently depicted in his numerous books on education and poverty continue to plague our system today. It should be all Americans hope that one day we will take real action to reform our schools and erase any and all inequities, so we can truly have a system that is both equal and equitable.


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