The Shame of the Nation: A Summary, and Analysis

Jonathan Kosol’s interest for teaching profession and activism was triggered after the killing of three young civil rights activists in Mississippi in June of 1964 while he was working as a grade four public school intern teacher in Boston, Massachusetts. His experience as a teacher in one of Boston’s urban segregated schools gave him an insight to the plight of children of minorities, which motivated him to address the issue of segregation, and inequities that exist in public schools that has continued to plague the nation till the present day.

School Segregation

According to him, he visited approximately 60 schools in 30 districts in 11 different states. Most of his visits were in the South Bronx of New York City, Los Angeles – California, Chicago, Detroit – Michigan, Ohio, Seattle – Washington, Boston – Massachusetts and Milwaukee. In the schools he visited, he observes that the conditions have grown worse for inner-city children in the 15 years since federal courts began dismantling the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. He notes that the number of white students in urban public schools have increasingly declined with the shifting pattern of white middle class families from urban to suburban communities since the 1960’s (white flight). He talks of the irony of school population in relation to the leaders of integration, which the schools bear their names, like Thurgood Marshal Elementary School in Seattle Washington with 95% minority students. According to him, the overwhelming majority of students in urban public schools in the United States are students of color. In Detroit for example, 95% of students in public school are either black or Hispanic. In Chicago, the figure is 87%, Washington is 94% while New York is 75%. He pointed out the cynicism in the “The small school initiative” like the Center School in Seattle that was perceived as a “tie-breaker” of school segregation that “attracted 83% white and 6% black enrollment when it opened in 2001, in a city where whites are only 40% of high school students district-wide”. (p 277). In comparing the Center School with African/American Academy in another section of the city where black students make up 93% and whites make up 3% of the enrolment, the location of the center school and its curriculum offers many opportunities to students. “The Center school which is sited in a cultural complex known as the Seattle Center, offers an impressive academic program to prepare its graduates for college while also provides a wide array of opportunities for students to participate in science projects, theatrical productions, music, ballet, and other cultural activities”, (p.278) while such opportunities are lacking in the African-American Academy. “The school in a sense represents a local version of ‘your own Liberia ‘… the African American Academy is using a highly directive method of instruction that, in some respects resembles the approach used in Success for All” (p. 279). He argues that after decades of persistent struggle against school segregation by educators and civil right activists, social and economic policies have continued to aid the growing trend of school segregation.


Kozol laments the lack of basic resources and amenities in the urban public schools – restrooms, clean classroom, hallways; appropriate laboratory supplies, up-to-date books in good condition and classroom supplies and material. According to him, this lack of resources moves some teachers to spend between $500 -$1000 of their own money every academic year to purchase the supplies and materials in the case of Winton Place elementary school in Ohio. He argues the overcrowding of students in a classroom. For instance in Chicago, it’s not uncommon to see classrooms with as many as 54 students coupled with the fact that most of the teachers are unqualified.

Kozol also points out the issue of lack of pre-school opportunities for a large number of students because the federally funded head start programs were denied them. He also shows the disparity for money spent on a student, and its effect on state testing. In the case of New York State, the average spending on a student in the city is $8,000 while that of the suburb is $18,000. Also in New York, the inequities in expenditure between 2002 and 2003 are: NYC $11,627, Nassau County $22,311, Great Neck $19,705. The salaries of teachers in poor and wealthy school districts follow the same pattern. While the average salary of school teachers in poor communities is $43,00, the salary of teachers in the suburb like Rye, Manhurst and Scarsdale in New York ranges from $74,00 to $81,000. Even the issue of fundraising is a factor in the disparities among schools in poor and wealthy communities. Whereas schools in wealthy neighborhoods could raise up to $200,000, schools in poor districts could only raise $4,000.

Adaptive Strategy Curriculum

Kozol questions the rationale behind the scripted programs that has been adapted into the minority school system. “Authentic Writing”, Active Listening”, “Rubric for Filing”, “Accountable Talk”, “Zero Noise” etc., according to teachers account, they are meant to follow the scripted lesson to bring formality and structure to the learning environment which raises the anxiety levels of both students and teachers. The high standard language and higher expectations with little support, has taken over the moral and ethical values that use to be the integral part of the curriculum. According to Kozol, the “auto -hypnotic slogans” used by most schools has become part of the daily rituals and practices that are fashioned to boost students moral. Students from the under-performing schools are encouraged to memorize phrases like “I am smart”, “I am confident” to raise their self-confidence and academic performance. This according to him has formed the framework used to identifying the causes of the under-achievement of students of color. He argues that teachers are treated as “efficiency technicians” who are encouraged to use “strict Skinnerian controls” to manage and teach students in their classrooms, and whose job it is to pump some “added-value” into undervalued children. (p. 285)

In close semblance to the above is the business-like outlook “work related themes” that is being created in these schools, “market driven classrooms”, “sign contract”, “take ownership of their learning”, “pencil manager”, “classroom manager”, “building managers”, “learning managers” etc. This kind of corporate outlook portrays students as “assets,” “investments,” ‘productive units,” or “team player” according to Kozol. The knowledge and skills, which the students acquire, are seen as “commodities” and “products” to be consumed in the “educational market place.” Kozol argues that educational administration should in no way be equated with factory production line, and advices that “teachers and principals should not permit the beautiful profession they have chosen to be redefined by those who know far less than them about the hearts of children.” (p. 299)

High stake testing

The issue of teaching for testing has replaced the essence of teaching for learning in public schools. According to Kozol, “In some schools, standardized testing begins in the kindergarten. Courses that are not included in the high stake testing are often not taught any more or they are completely removed from their school curriculum, like arts and music. In some schools, naptime and/ or recess has been reduced or taken out completely to allow more time for the preparation of state standardized test. Even teachers meetings are geared towards the discussion of effective strategies to prepare students for quarterly assessment tests or reviewing state and district standards. Teachers are encouraged to attend workshops and conferences in regards to the testing to acquire more knowledge on how to integrate their teachings to the state testing standards.

In the bid of all the educational superficiality imposed on the students, they are also tracked and labeled. Labeling the children from level one (lowest) to level five (highest) places them into categories supposedly for further instructions. Instead of being given adequate attention regarding their labels, it is used as a description of their academic stance. “She’s gone down to level two,” “She’s a level one.” The issue of academic tracking and labeling in these schools poses a huge obstacle in creating equity and democracy in a learning environment. According to Kozol, learning is taught as “a possession” not something one “engages” in. Students are encouraged to select “a career path” during their freshman year, so as to tailor their course work. Nevertheless, there is little encouragement on the career path of college education. For example, the case of Mireya who attends Fremont High in Los Angeles, while she aspires for a college education, she is rather placed into vocational classes – sewing and hairdressing. She tells Kozol “I hoped for something else.” “Why is it that students who do not need what we need get so much more? And we who need it so much more get so much less?” She questioned.

In view of all these structured teaching strategies imposed on the urban public schools by the administrative body, both teachers and students exhibit robotic behaviors in order to achieve the set goals of the planners. Teachers who tend to veer out on these stipulations face disciplinary actions and could possibly lose their jobs. Students who do not adhere to the rules and follow the stipulated pattern face the risk of not passing their tests. Overall, there is loss of creativity and ingenuity in the classroom. Kozol points out that it would rather take a reformation than a miracle to set the schools on the right track again. He argues that desperate schools cannot be turned around by the arrival of a charismatic, tough talking principal. “There are hundreds of principals in our urban schools who are authentic heroes… But there is a difference between recognizing the accomplishments of able school officials and marketing of individuals as saviors of persistently unequal system”.

Ray of Hope

After questioning and critiquing the re-segregation of urban public schools in America, Kozol pointed out a few schools, teachers, principals, administrators and human rights activists he had met in the course of his study that gives hope to the possibility of school integration. According to him, “Virtually all the truly human elements of teacher motivation have been locked out of the market misperceptions that control so much of education policy today. But when we go to the schools in which these market ideologies have been valiantly resisted, we are reminded of a set of satisfactions and devotions that are very different from the ones that dominate the present discourse about urban education.” (p. 297)… “These are the schools I call “the treasured places.” They remind us always of the possible.” (p. 300).

He acknowledges the modifications made in most school districts since after his visits over three years. At PS 65, a new curriculum that focuses on the need of the children had been introduced. The hand-held timers and scripted lesson plans have been taken out, and actual writings of children are displayed in the walls. He also recalls the efforts of some school districts in Milwaukee and Louisville where school leaders have promoted desegregation across district lines.

Kozol sees every hope in teachers and administrators like Louis Bedrock (whom he dedicates this book to), Miss Rosa the retired principal of P.S. 30, Fern Cruz the new principal of P.S 65 and others for their dedication and persistence in fighting for the right course of education for the minority. He also acknowledges the contribution of black activists like Congressman Lewis who have voiced out publicly and written books that expose the persistence of segregation in America.

In his epilogue, he wrote “A segregated education in America is unacceptable”. “Integration is, it still remains, the goal worth fighting for” (p. 316).

The Shame of the Nation: An Analysis

I find this book very revealing, intriguing, insightful, and at the same time one sided and opinionated, but in summation, it is very educative. This book is an outcome of a good ethnographic researcher who not only puts energy in his work but also has passion in the subjects of his work – the students. The empirical analysis of this book rests in the inequality that is salient in the American society. Race, class, culture, gender and economic status which have formed the measuring tape of individuals’ worth in the American society have become the bedrock of the administrative bodies in the formulation of policies. Policies like education, housing, income and property taxes, transportation etc. have been so carefully formulated to include and exclude some members of the society. These policies of course favor the dominant group, which are whites and disfavor the targeted group which is mostly blacks and Hispanic.

It takes a critical mind to understand the game in the policies. Taking for instance the funding of community urban schools from property taxes from the community, one has to first, think of the nature of the properties in such a community, who owns them, what shape, and of what value they are. If the majorities of those properties are individually owned and are of good shape and value, the expectation is that they will yield good tax for the community. On the other hand, when the government owns such properties, little can be realized in property tax in such a community, and that in turn affects the sourcing of the school. This is the game of politics in perpetuating inequality as we have seen in this book.

Who would expect that the administration that tends to speak in favor of equal education has a hand in making it unequal? That the promulgations of “No Child Left Behind” and “Equal Opportunity for All” are only frivolities? Who would imagine that some teachers and education administrators could be so robotic that they question their ingenuity and creativeness in the face of manipulation, except for a revealing book like this? In addition, how can anyone comprehend the damage that has been done by these administrative inconsistencies over the years?

There is an insight into the social, economic, and cultural capital powers of the society in this book. Parents who are more informed, educated, with good jobs and better means have more say in the education of their children than those with little or no education and means. They surf for good schools for their children, organize themselves as the parent bodies of the school, and intervene in matters that are not favorable to their children, for instance, they raise money to employ more teachers and advocate for lesser number of children in a class. They come up with one voice to exclude others from integrating into their children’s schools and sometimes take out their children from a school that are getting more minority enrolment as the case may be. They are less dependent and more challenging to the school administration and government than the parents with fewer capitals. The parents of the minority who have fewer capitals, complain and rely mostly on the school administration and government to make the necessary adjustments in their children’s schools. The system fosters posterity of family status.

In this atmosphere of stratification, while the dominant group acts up to maintain its status, and the targeted, subordinate poor group agitates its position, the children suffer the struggle. A wider gap is created between the rich and the poor. While the children of the dominant group perceive themselves as fortunate, they are less ‘educated’ than the poor children who see it all. They face lesser chances of integrating and facing realities of multiracial society and as such are less likely to accommodate differences in future. On the other hand, the minority poor children get more skeptical and cynical when matters of equity arise. In the case of the little Bronx boy who wrote Kozol, “You have all the things and we don’t have all the things,” and the high school student from California who told his classmate “You’re ghetto, so you sew.” The disparities in their educational experiences raise innumerable questions in their heads, which only the government can comprehend in that while their parents may be ‘guilty’ of not possessing the where-withal, the students are innocent. Kozol’s study goes to predict that going by the present pace in educational strategy in America, inequality will persist; integration will be minimized, and desegregation will not only be a nightmare in schools but would be nipped in the bud in the society in future if they are not addressed now. He goes to say, “This nation needs to be a family, and a family sits down for its dinner at a table, and we all deserve a place together at that table.”

Having enumerated the classical work of Kozol in diagnosing the blatant, ugly passionate inequities in our public urban schools that plagues America today, I need to point out the one-sided, opinionated view of the issue. In a situation as this, no one person can be all right and the other all wrong, there needs to be a balance of ‘a little to right and a little to the left’. In the entire book, Kozol addresses the structural approach to educational inequality that sees the school and government administration as the factor that has perpetuated the problem, little suspicion if any, of the cultural approach to the discourse with parents and students contribution. Though there were a few mentions of all white public schools, there was little emphasis on their interactions, though one might argue that they have all the necessary amenities available for them in comparison to the minority schools that have little amenities.

I call this one sided and opinionated in the sense that the subjects of the matter visa vie poor minority parents and their children, are not addressed as potential input to the problem and as such potential contributory factors to the solution. If in a capitalist society like America where opportunity is laid down for everyone for grabs, the ‘majority’ of the minority group keeps complaining of marginalization of resources, there is a problem somewhere despite imposed limitations. The problem could be in derivation of comfort in dependency or reliability on false sense of security. The core word is value. As regards to the parents, many of them depend on the system and cannot walk their ways out to independence and instill that value of independence in their children. A culture of poverty has evolved among this minority group and they seem very comfortable in such a zone. So who makes the extra money for their children’s comfort?

The children as well due to lack of role models from their parents, do not deem it fit to strive and conquer the inevitable, they embrace violence and they keep on finger pointing like their parents instead of realizing that education not agitation is their only access to high status in the society. I believe that a focus on re-orienting the children of the minority group in exploring educational opportunities no matter the limitations they face would help in getting them back on the right track. On the other hand, if they should be contented, respectful, curtail violence, and love themselves, that would attract more empathy to them from whatever administration that is in place and they can be in their own schools without any white and feel good just the same. Understandably, the structural approach often times shape the cultural, which is unstable based on economic resources that yields self-support and autonomy.

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