It may be over 50 years since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision ended segregation within public schools, but according to renowned educator and writer Jonathan Kozol, this country still has miles to go to achieve equality within the education system.
Kozol, a former Rhodes Scholar and Harvard graduate, began his career as a teacher in 1964 teaching low-income students in Roxbury. Three years later, he published the National Book Award-winning Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools. As a life-long teacher and advocate for educating all children, he was a natural choice to serve as the inaugural speaker for the 2010 Civic Discourse Series, Literacy and Democracy.
At the series kick-off event on Feb. 23, Joy and Justice: A Challenge to the Young to Serve the Children of the Poor, Kozol spoke to a sold-out crowd at the C. Walsh Theatre about the crisis of injustice currently facing school-aged children.
Discriminating against the poor
According to Kozol, great inequalities continue to exist in our country’s schools, as evidenced by statistics showing that the average black and Latino 12th grader nationwide reads at the same level as a white 7th grader. Other statistics show an alarmingly high dropout rate for black and Latino males. These numbers, when combined with the disparity of school spending between poor and affluent districts, show widespread racial isolation and a public school system that is leaving behind the children of the poorest communities.
“In Pennsylvania, I saw a district where a pitiful $9,000 was spent yearly on students compared to $19,000 being spent in the Swarthmore district,” Kozol said. “You see the same thing here in Massachusetts. There is a great difference on what is being spent on students in places like Lawrence and Holyoke compared to Lincoln and Sudbury.” With a national education system that relies on local property taxes to fund schools, variations in quality are inevitable, as communities with high property values can typically generate more money for schools than economically struggling communities. Kozol proposes shifting to state or national funding sources to create a more unified and just public school system.
Teaching to the test
Kozol raised another issue facing the current education system: the troubling tendency for some school districts to eschew personal methods of teaching in lieu of teaching children solely for the purpose of elevating their standardized test scores, as score results are directly tied to federal funding incentives and penalties.
“We see across the country a tendency for children to be treated as economic units rather than as children,” Kozol said. “I’m not opposed to testing when it is useful and diagnostic and can show where weaknesses are,” Kozol said. “But I oppose rigid, standardized, authoritarian techniques that rob children.” In contrast, Kozol offered the example of Francesca, a Boston-based elementary school teacher and the subject of his most recent book, Letters to a Young Teacher, who refused to drill standardized testing methods and instead “filled the room with jubilation” by teaching her students how to enjoy what they read, causing her first-graders to fall in love with school.
Kozol explained that teachers like Francesca are all too rare, as most educators are compelled to teach to the standards and have little time for personalization and creativity.
“You see teachers who teach for the purpose of pumping up scores,” Kozol said. “They are teachers who stick to the minutes they have been allocated to teach each specific skill. They are teaching like they are being watched by a curriculum cop.”
Kozol continues his work on these and other public school issues as the founder of Education Action, a non-profit dedicated to the grassroots organizing of teachers across the country.
The next event in the Literacy and Democracy series, Adult Literacy in the Digital Age, will be held on Thurs., March 11 at 6 p.m. at the Boston Athenæum, with Joanne Appleton Arnaud, executive director of First Literacy; Wick Sloane, professor at Bunker Hill Community College; and James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing Academy. All events in the series are free and open to the public by advance registration. Please call 617-720-7600 to reserve seats.
The Civic Discourse Series is an annual series of presentations devoted to a topic of national significance, sponsored jointly by the Boston Athenæum and the College of Arts and Sciences at Suffolk University.
by Andrew Clark, Sherri Miles