Separate And Unequal

How do we fix the poor state of public schools for black children?

Seven out of eight black children in the state of New York attend a segregated school, according to Jonathan Kozol, an elementary school teacher and author who has been studying inner-city public schools for more than 40 years. As a teacher in the Roxbury section of Boston, Kozol saw firsthand that these under-funded, segregated schools were not preparing children for the future.

This year Kozol created Education Action, a national organization dedicated to opposing public school segregation, annual standardized tests, and the voucher movement. The organization is planning a march on Washington in the coming year.

What does it take to turn our public schools around? A new civil rights movement, Kozol says. “A lot of people get mad at me for saying this, but apartheid education is like the elephant in the middle of the room. No one wants to acknowledge it. Plessy v. Ferguson didn’t work. I intend to keep on fighting this issue until my dying day,” he says, referring to the landmark 1896 Supreme Court decision in favor of separate public facilities for blacks and whites.

In his recent book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (Three Rivers Press; $14.95), Kozol recounts spending five years at 60 inner-city public schools.

New York, Michigan, Illinois, and California have the highest numbers of segregated schools, according to the Harvard Civil Rights Project (see “Progress Undone,” Newspoints, August 2006).

These schools also receive less government funding than their suburban counterparts, says Kozol. “Typically, on a national basis, a predominantly black school receives about $1 million less than a white school of the same size,” he explains. “The kids in the South Bronx that I write about receive about $11,000 [in per pupil expenditures] per year. In suburban Bronxville, New York, she or he would be getting $19,000 per year.”

Since the No Child Left Behind Act took effect, public school students are tested annually in reading and math from third to eighth grade and at least once in high school. A consequence of this policy, according to Kozol, is that some schools have instituted a “drill-and-kill curriculum” — constantly preparing students for standardized tests instead of educating them — which he says leads to an artificial boost in test scores. “In suburban schools, children are taught to ask questions, to think critically,” says Kozol. “In the drill-and-kill curriculum, there is no time to let the children ask questions.

“For African American children — even middle- and upper-income students with well-educated parents — [schools don’t] provide the positive sense of self and racial identity that is needed to counter the negative messages in society,” agrees Dr. James Comer, psychiatry professor at Yale School of Medicine and author of Leave No Child Behind: Preparing Today’s Youth for Tomorrow’s World (Yale University Press; $18).

“[It’s possible to] improve academic and social performance if you integrate what is known about child and adolescent psychology and development with the academic work,” Comer adds. “There is great resistance because that’s not the traditional way of running schools. People are focused

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