March 11, 2007

The Dream Deferred... again

I'm nearing the end of Savage Inequalities. As I am not affected in the slightest by what happens in US schools, I was mainly reading it in order to gain some understanding of the mindsets of the people involved. The first third or half of the book is mainly descriptions of schools Kozol visits, starting with the horrific East St Louis schools. The latter half of the book has more facts and figures, including quotes from court cases, and tries to explain why the horrors not only came about but also why they are allowed to persist, and (even worse), why they are being exacerbated.

When I first came across Pissed Off (Teacher)'s blog, I couldn't believe my eyes. This is NYC???!!? After reading Kozol's book, I can now well believe it (he describes much more horrific schools), tho I can't accept it. I asked, as does Pissed Off Teacher, how can people tolerate this injustice as acceptable?
Nationwide, black children are three times as likely as white children to be placed in classes for the mentally retarded but only half as likely to be placed in classes for the gifted: a well-known statistic that should long since have aroused a sense of utter shame in our society. Most shameful is the fact that no such outrage can be stirred in New York City...Even the most thorough exposition of the facts within the major organs of the press is neutralized too frequently by context and a predilection for the type of grayish language that denies the possibilities for indignation. Facts are cited. Editorials are written. Five years later, the same facts are cited once again. There is no sense of moral urgency; and nothing changes.
In an earlier post, I quoted Kozol's description of the complicated system by which schools in the US are financed. But why no outrage?

There seems to be a deeply-rooted belief amongst US citizens that "equality" is a dirty word because it involves taking away from those who have and giving it to those who have not and that this is unacceptable. One newspaper derided this policy as that of "Robin Hood". I always thought Robin Hood was the good guy, but he is not in the US, apparently. To justify this justification of inequality, people go through amazing mental and semantic gymnastics. Big budgets don't boost achievement trumpets the Wall Street Journal. It is not money spent by parents, but the value system that impels them to spend money, which is the decisive cause of high achievement in [the affluent districts'] schools. The Journal does not explain how it distinguishes between a parent's values and the cash expenditures that they allegedly inspire.... In disparaging the value of reducing class size in the cities, the newspaper makes this interesting detour: "If deep cuts can be made - reducing large classes by perhaps half - solid benefits may accrue, and research suggests that even smaller cuts can help the performance of young children in particular. But, as a universal principle, the idea that smaller classes automatically mean more learning doesn't hold water." Huh?

There seems to be a huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality.
According to our textbook rhetoric, Americans abhor the notion of a social order in which economic privilege and political power are determined by hereditary class. Officially, we have a more enlightened goal in sight...
Officially.
The crowding of children into insufficient, often squalid spaces seems an inexplicable anomaly in the United States. Images of spaciousness and majesty, of endless plains and soaring mountains, fill our folklore and our music and the anthems that our children sing... It is a betrayal of the best things that we value when poor children are obliged to sing these songs in storerooms and coat closets.


Kozol refers to the profoundly rooted American ideas about the right and moral worth of individual advancement at whatever cost to others who may be less favored by the accident of birth. Perhaps as a kind of explanation, Kozol points out how, while reading is measured against a standard, most other tests are norm-referenced, meaning that for some to do well, some must not do well. This seems symptomatic of a majority of people's thinking.
If Americans had to discriminate directly against other people's children, I believe most citizens would find this morally abhorrent. Denial, in an active sense, of other people's children is, however, rarely necessary in this nation. Inequality is mediated for us by a taxing system that most people not fully understand and seldom scrutinize.


Another common theme that comes up in the book is the thinking that welfare, charity, or simple human compassion are somehow bad. Kozol asks some NY school children if they can explain the [appalling] physical condition of the school. Hey, it's like a welfare hospital! You're getting if for free... You have no power to complain, says one boy.

The quotations Kozol uses from newspapers, governors, politicians, etc, to justify the continuation of the injustices are fully of generalities, talking of "principles" and concepts. They never speak in terms of specifics; it's all lost in generalities. It is hard to imagine these people speaking with such confidence if they were taken to the schools and places Kozol visited, brought face to face with the children and teachers there, and required to explain to them face to face why they will be denied basic materials and safe environments.
Frequently, says a teacher at another crowded high school in NY, a student may be in the wrong class for a term and never know it. With only one counselor to 700 students system-wide in NYC, there is little help available to those who feel confused. It is not surprising, says the teacher, that many find the experience so cold, impersonal and disheartening that they decide to stay home by the sad warmth of the TV set.... Listening to children who drop out of school, we often hear an awful note of anonymity. I hated the school... I never knew who my counselor was, a former NYC student says. He wasn't available for me... I saw him once. One ten-minute interview.. That was all.
We have children, says one grade-school principal,who just disappear from the face of the earth. This information strikes one as astonishing. How does a child simply disappear in NYC? Efficiency in information transfer - when it comes to stock transactions, for example - is one of the city's best developed skills. Why is it so difficult to keep track of poor children?
The unspoken answer is obviously, because people don't care; the poor children don't matter. Who cares if they come and go?

Janice, who is soft-spoken and black, speaks about the overcrowding of the school. I make it my business to know my fellow students. But it isn't easy when the classes are so large. I had 45 children in my fifth grade class. The teacher sometimes didn't know you. She would ask you, 'What's your name?'
You want the teacher to know your name,
says Rosie, who is Puerto Rican. The teacher asks me, 'Are you really in this class?' 'Yes, I've been here all semester.' But she doesn't know my name.

This shines a different light on the conversation about care and its importance for teachers (a conversation going on over here). Quite clearly, the message being given (and received) in many inner-city and other poor schools is You don't matter, you're not important, we don't care about you, there's no reason why we should because you don't have much value. So it's ok if you have no gym, if the doors don't hang straight or close properly, if you have to share your textbooks with 3 other classes, if there aren't enough chairs to go round, if your school has 6 computers for 600 children.

I read that Philadelphia School District is facing $67 million in cuts.

The critical reviews on Amazon for this book are enlightening.

2 comments:

Doug Noon said...

Very interesting, reading a reaction to this book - and our social inequities - from a viewpoint outside the US. I haven't read this book, though I did read Shame of the Nation, Kozol's more recent effort. And I heard him speak here a few months ago. He was both compassionate and angry as he described, and commented on the state of affairs here in the Home of the Free.

It strikes me, reading your reaction to this, that we may be one of the more ironic nations in the world. Democracy and justice are only words, after all, until you begin to inquire into what people mean by them.

I picked up Savage Inequalities at a used book store a while back. You've prompted me to give it a higher place on my to-read list. Kozol's more recent book documents effects that current school reform efforts are having on many of these urban schools.

Pissed Off said...

I had a kid one term--September, October, November and then,,,right before the winter break.."Ms. POd...I think I passed this class last term." He was correct, unfortunately he lost the whole semester since it was too late to change. Another kid passed in summer school but we couldn't get the record so he too had to repeat.

I had a guidance counselor angry at me because I told him about a potential suicide of one of his students and he had to...get ready for this one...get up from his desk and do something. NYC is wonderful for kids.