Book Review: Shame of the Nation

by Vince

I finished reading this book last week before Thanksgiving and had a brief conversation one night with a friend about some of the material. I had chugged through four of Kozol’s books in a short period of time. The Shame of the Nation was the hardest for me to get through. It was about 380 pages and quite

dense at points. I promised him I would do my best to retain some of my questions and share them somewhere.

I saw a review for SOTN on Amazon before I finished the book and it made me think a bit more about the content. Here is a segment of the review:

“Kozol’s solution to all the problems facing urban schools is simply to fund them at the same level as the wealthiest suburbs. There is no examination of whether that funding target is appropriate, which is a very important question. Perhaps the ritzy suburbs are spending too much and wasting money on frills such as lavish sports facilities and so on. It’s one thing if the residents in that community are willing to pay for those frills but quite another to ask the overburdened taxpayer to provide the same to all schools.”

Kozol does confront the issue of money spent in comparing districts. Those he sees at the finer white schools sometimes say that money doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t matter (these more affluent schools spend almost double on each student) then why don’t these schools bring their spending down to Harlem or inner city Philadelphia levels?

This book, along with the cultimation of all in his previous books material whizzing through my head, has me thinking about school standards plastered on classroom walls. I was teaching today and in one class where I had three boys completing reading remediation I was discussing the differences between inferences and conclusions. I explained each through examples drawn from the vast museum of posters on the wall (this seems to be the trend in many classrooms). I found, of course, a school standard poster on the wall. It was above the white board and almost level with the clock. These posters are quite detailed so their font was very small. I asked the students if they ever read the posters in their room. They simply responded “no”. I wondered out loud if these standards posters were on the wall just to look good for higher ups coming in because I didn’t expect a student (or the teacher) to serendipitously read them as they were in the middle of class.

While I am on state standards, Kozol points out in SOTN the educrat language in these documents.

The teacher cannot simply say, “I read an early lyrical poem of William Butler Yeats with my third graders and discovered that they loved it.” Instead, she must position what she did within a recognized compartment: “I used a poem of William Butler Yeats in order to deliver Elementary Standard 37-A,” or something of that sort, which she must then identify by naming the intended outcome for the reading of the poem, which might be something as specific as “the recognition of analogies” or, depending on grade level, “understanding meter in an unrhymed poem.”

I reflect back now and remember having almost fit into that mold. My lesson and unit plans were full of educational jib jab laced with standards that I had to dig up and include for proper format. I never felt that these standards were caging but they were a bit much at times.

To top it off, how often are these standards written in educational jargon so at distance from reality? Now for SOTN, I had to have a dictionary most of the time near by so to look up words. His words, however, did not consist of educational jargon that went over my head but were simply words a normal literature grad from Harvard College would be expected to have in their repertoire. I believe Kozol goes deeper into this interesting subject in his book Letters to a Young Teacher but this can be attributed in part to those in power wishing to turn teaching from an art into a science. The “art” of naming every single solitary cognitive event within a school is disheartening, pompous, and a waste of sophistication. These “instructional lists” include such terming as “authentic writing”, “active listening”, “accountable talk” et al. How often these words are actually used in a real manner is beyond me.

Kozol brings up a great closing point when thinking about standards and outcomes:

By giving every particle of learning an official name, we strip it of uniqueness. By forcing it to fit into the right compartment of significance or meaning, we control its power to establish its own meanings or to stir the children to pursue a small exhilaration in directions that may lead them to a place the experts haven’t yet had time to name. Fascination and delight, no matter what lip-service we may pay to them, become irrelevant distractions. Finding “where it goes” and what it “demonstrates” and how it can be “utilized” become the teacher’s desolate obsessions.

Much of this educrat/formal talk is present in suburban public schools but also very real and obtrusive in urban school settings. Much of this, in short, is meant as the most direct and sure-shot way for educating those who need clear direction. To unpack my somewhat vague previous sentence, I will use an example from a day of mine teaching. I had a sub-academic class beginning Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Much of the teaching was without emotion. That isn’t fully the fault of the curriculum; the teacher himself admitted to lacking in emotion. The kids were treated like juvenile criminals that needed to be corralled, kept under control, and on a clear path. Mind you, there were no behavioral problems, instances of calling out, or even a clear sense that they weren’t getting the material. Never mind that because, well, most people disregard that, and look to the general direction this is pushing the students. In many urban districts Kozol visited, college was never mentioned as an option. Many of the classes and academic paths were pointed towards business (low end jobs) and the working world. Many of the classes Kozol visited were hyper obsessed with being a manager. The “pencil manager”, “line manager”, “book manager” were jobs enlisted to all aged students, elementary and up.

Back to the class I saw reading A Christmas Carol. A few classes after that, I taught that remediation class and had a fully scripted lesson. It was all found in a book, with every cue written in for me. Sure, I followed most of them but I sure deviated when the time fit. Many of these scripted lessons are meant for a reason. The high turnover for teachers in inner cities brings in many quick unqualified teachers. If they are not fully qualified and if teaching must be done (which is meant for the kids sake but is such a sorry approach I can’t help but sarcastically laugh) there is a program all mapped out for the “substitute”.

Kozol goes at No Child Left Behind. He notes that this law brings testing and standards and “accountability” out the ying yang but it does nothing to address inequalities in funding between urban and suburban schools (for infrastructure, per pupil spending) or the racial isolation blooming apartheid. Authors such as Tim Wise are critical of Barack Obama for letting race and apartheid go unspoken of. Race is such a hot topic that it burns when left untouched and when dug up.

One incredibly neat (and important) educational benchmark is the 1973 Supreme Court decision that holds to this day our education as not a fundamental right. How many citizens, students, and teachers do not know this? I don’t know, but it is sure shocking. Education sure is a fundamental right for it is essential for one to live out their first amendment rights. However, the majority in the case didn’t think so because education is not explicitly spelled out in the Constitution. Justice Thurgood Marshall mentions that “the right to procreate, vote, and criminal appeal are not guarenteed in the Constitution, yet they have been afforded special judicial consideration because they are to some extent interrelated with constitutional guarantees.”

Kozol continues on the path of educational funding: “the top 25% of school districts in terms of child poverty receive less funding than the bottom 25%. In 31 states, districts with the highest percentage of minority children also receive less funding per pupil than do districts with the fewest minority children.” Kozol has charts in the books appendix detailing this in several cities. It just doesn’t make any fair sense. One final note: “when children are shortchanged financially, of course, the individual per-pupil penalty that they incur is greatly magnified because a child is not educated individually but in a class of 20, 25, or 30 or more children.”

This book provided me great thinking material that coincided with my varying teaching districts. It was, as I said, tough at points to get through. I felt that it ran on at points but I appreciate that aspect now because it really hammered home the points of inequality in race, funding, and the true state of shame many schools are in today. I appreciate Kozol’s points on charter schools; they were initiated by fundamentalist racists bent on segregating schools and many of these “new age / tech” type schools today are applied to in advance predominantly by white denizens (they are the ones who know about them early on and aren’t discriminated against by the enrollment tests) and thus advance a segregated agenda.

I will be taking a break from Jonathan Kozol books for a bit but I hope to pick up his other works in the coming year.

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