Jonathan Kozol, my first education hero, was coming to Regis Jesuit University in Denver for a three day event, and I had been asked to be a participant on a panel with him. For a public education wonk like me, it really doesn’t get much better than that.  Jonathan Kozol and me!

Capturing the essence of Jonathan Kozol, his beliefs and his continuing fight for educational equity has been more difficult than I would have imagined. The reason is this: the United States is seeing growing educational inequities for children in poverty. This gap is larger than when Mr. Kozol first started exposing it in the mid-1960’s, and today’s policy makers are unwilling to make the changes necessary to reduce it, or as “reformers” like to say, “Eliminate the achievement gap.”

Mr. Kozol has been writing and documenting inequities in public education for decades, but what really struck me as I reread his 2006 book, THE SHAME OF THE NATION, was how prophetic he was as he viewed public education’s future in this country. He meticulously documented longstanding inequities, predicting how the current “reforms” would only lead to greater inequities, culminating in the failure of the corporate “reform.”

THE SHAME OF THE NATION shows how the business model has become the blueprint for education “reform.” Education “reformers” use business jargon to describe their activities: “rewards and sanctions,” “return on investment,” “time management,” “college and career ready,” “maximizing proficiency,” “outcomes,” “rigorous,” “managers and officers,” “evaluation,” “accountability,” “portfolios of schools” (like a portfolio of stocks – get rid of the losers, keep the winners).

Mr. Kozol describes the infiltration of business into education this way:

 “Business leaders tell urban school officials…that what they need the schools to give them are “team players.”…Team players may well be of great importance to the operation of a business corporation and are obviously essential in the military services; but a healthy nation needs it future poets, prophets, ribald satirists, and maddening iconoclasts at least as much as it needs people who will file in a perfect line to an objective they are told they cannot question.” (p. 106)

Here is how Denver Public Schools has adopted this business tenet.  Every email sent by a DPS employee is signed and sent with the statement at the bottom, My name is Jeannie Kaplan, I’m from Youngstown, Ohio… and I play for DPS!

Further business verbiage: In DPS principals are no longer principals but building CEOs or building managers. At the district level there is a chief executive officer, a chief financial officer, a chief operating officer, a chief academic officer, a chief strategic officer, and within the school buildings themselves there are managers for everything under the sun. You get the picture. And with all of these managers and officers DPS has witnessed increases in facility and resource imbalances and increases in segregation while academics have remained stagnant. Corporate reform is a failure in the United States. But politics, money and lies will not allow it to go quietly into the night, and Denver’s students and communities are paying the price.

In his address to Regis community on September 30, 2014, Jonathan Kozol spoke to a filled chapel at the University. The surroundings were quite appropriate for the gentle, genteel man who has spent decades fighting for equity in public education and who personifies the Jesuit core belief of social justice. Mr. Kozol explained some reasons for the growing gap in the United States:

  • We now have an apartheid curriculum . Because teachers and principals in the inner city are so test driven, inner city children who are mostly students of color are not allowed to have their voices heard through stories and questions, while white students are given that flexibility, opportunity and creativity.
  • Test preparation is driving out child centered learning. Testing mania has become a national psychosis, driven by business.
  • Racial isolation/segregation which does terrible damage to young people, is on the rise. In SHAME, education analyst Richard Rothstein points out how important it is for children of color to become comfortable in the majority culture and how devastating this new segregation is in the long term: “It is foolhardy to think black children can be taught no matter how well, in isolation and then have the skills and confidence as adults to succeed in a white world where they have no experience.” (p. 229).  That Tuesday night Mr. Kozol referred to the new segregation as a “theological abomination.”
  • And finally, of course, Mr. Kozol believes small class size, enriched curricula, and equitable resources and facilities would offer an equitable education for all children.  This recent article in the Huffington Post clearly and disturbingly describes the safety and health hazards brought into Chicago public schools because business has invaded public schools. Bugs, moldy bread, trash left for days, leaks left unfixed.  You can bet the East coast decision makers who are driving this “reform” did not attend schools under these conditions.

For the panel discussion on Wednesday – my REAL time with Jonathan Kozol (and others) – each panelist was asked to come with a forward-looking solution for public education. “In other words, given Mr. Kozol’s depressingly thorough critique of the vast and growing inequities in American K-12 education, what can we do to improve things?  So our very basic request is that each of you come prepared to speak for just a few minutes on the single initiative or action you’d want to take to improve inequity in K-12 education. “ Followers of public education beware. This is “reform” speak for:  We now need to change the conversation and look for solutions for ten years of education “reform” failures. We need to find a solution to today’s public education problems without looking back. What has been, has been. (What is that old saying about those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it?)

The solution about which I spoke was HONESTY. (MGP, CHUTZPAH, STOP – previous posts addressing this).  Without honesty no meaningful solutions will be found. With honest conversations we could have among other things:

  • A reduction in testing because that creates winners and losers, low self esteem, a demoralized work force.
  • A consistent definition of academic proficiency so an excellent school has the same proficiency outcomes whether it have high numbers of children in poverty, high numbers of second language learners, high numbers of children of color. Anything less is being dishonest.
  • An inclusionary collaboration of decision makers. Who is making decisions and for whom are they making these decisions?
  • An experienced professional work force, stopping the two years in and out model which produces great chaos and churn for our children who can least afford it

Ironically, a few short days after Mr. Kozol’s appearance in Denver, Pasi Sahlberg, former director general in the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, currently visiting professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, wrote an opinion piece for CNN on-line news . I was reminded of Mr. Sahlberg’s March appearance in Denver at a United Opt Out conference where he explained how and why Finland has been successful achieving educational equity (using many of the strategies and beliefs Jonathan Kozol has fought for over the years) while the United States (ignoring similar strategies) has not.

  1. Co-operation, not competition. Teachers have time to work together, have a lighter teaching load than teachers here, have time to really share ideas and best practices. (Think teacher evaluations and bonuses based on student scores and doing better than other teachers).
  2. Creativity not standardization   The more you standardize, the less creativity you have, the fewer new ideas you produce and the less risk-taking you see. In Finland, each school does its own thing. (Think Common Core of State Standards about to be implemented in the U.S. and the concomitant tests PARCC and Smarter Balance).
  3. No test-based culture. There is no word for accountability in Finnish. Responsibility is the word Finns use, and it means an enhancement of trust between teachers and the rest of society. Mr. Sahlberg believes accountability is something that is left when you take responsibility away. Finnish students take one standardized test and that is given in the final year of high school. (Again, think CCSS, PARCC, Smarter Balance)..
  4. Equity, not choice. More choice leads to more inequity. (Think 51 charters, choice, chaos, churn).

Approximately 40 years ago Finland witnessed an increasing educational gap based on socio-economics. It took note and became singularly focused on one goal: EQUITY as illustrated and measured by a good school system for every child. Forty plus years ago Jonathan Kozol recognized INEQUITIES in American public education and has been fighting to eliminate them ever since. Forty years later look at what Finland has accomplished regarding equity, then look at the this country’s track record. With all of the “managers” and “officers” in place the “outcomes” here are terrifying,  particularly as we “evaluate” the equity gap. Who is being held “accountable” for this horrors? It is past the time to listen to Mr. Kozol. If we do not start acting on his strategies, all of us are responsible for promoting and condoning THE SHAME OF THE NATION.





2 thoughts on “JONATHAN KOZOL (and me)

  1. Reblogged this on REVOLUTION5280 and commented:
    I continue to appreciate the thoughtfulness with which Mrs. Kaplan continues to see the reality of our current condition. As her eyes are opened she is educating the masses. We can’t continue to look the other way. What is happening is not equity. What is happening is affirmation that some are considered and conditioned for less than living.

    I can reach back beyond Kozol and share the prophetic words of King, Gonzalez, Douglass, my grandparents, and many others who were living the harsh reality of a rigged system. Kozol was right, on so many levels. We have been admonished as a culture for a long time. Those admonishments have been conveniently ignored because the system counts the oppressed as inconsequential. The truth gets talked about in comfortable ways not in transformative ways. As empty FYIs not as LOUD DEMANDS to end unjust practices and policies.

    Kozol warned but who heeded his warnings? King warned? Who listened? There have been voices crying in the wilderness forever, who has listened? Ears are plugged by privilege. Eyes glazed over with power. Hands polluted by corrupt profits. Lives paralyzed by prejudice. If we ignore the truth maybe it won’t be the truth.

    That these things are now important to folks that have profited from the system as it is, is the root of our rage. That the dominant can dominate and then control the dialogue about that very domination is deplorable. That the dominant sits in the driver’s seat and dictates our pathway to “healing” and a more perfect union, absolutely disgusting. That folks would double dip as oppressor and liberator, diabolical.

    Now we talk about it? How about we DEAL WITH IT? How about the time for continued rhetoric has ended? Revolutionary action…transformation of people and institutions! That the system that my grandparents and elders struggled through, the system that bussed my parents, aunts and uncles from their community, that it has only realized cosmetic changes is absolute proof of our continued dance with insanity!

    Read Mrs. Kaplan’s thoughts. Hear more admonishments and warnings. What will we do?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.