In 2009, historian Raymond Wolters published Race and Education, 1954–2007, a book remarkable for eschewing moral sermonizing about desegregation in favor of recording its actual effects, both positive and (more often) negative. The Long Crusade, just published by Washington Summit Publishers, is a kind of companion volume to Race and Education, dealing with the thought of educational reformers in the decades since desegregation. It is divided into four main sections, covering 1) latter day progressives, 2) “back to basics” reformers, 3) Teach for America and its offshoots, and 4) skeptics (including racial realists).
The most emblematic, and probably the most influential, of Wolters’s progressives is Jonathan Kozol, whose books have been a fixture of American schools of education for decades: the author mentions one ed. student of the 1990s being made to read the same Kozol book for three separate classes.
Jonathan Kozol came to prominence in 1967 Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools, a book that purported to describe his experiences during a year of teaching elementary school in the city. The book begins with a portrait of Stephen, “an indescribably mild and unmalicious” eight-year-old Black boy who suffered beatings not only at home but in school, where Kozol’s colleagues sadistically used rattan canes on the children. Stephen made “delightful drawings” in which “he elaborated, amended, fiddled with and frequently added to… pictures which he had copied out of comic books.” “Garbage!” cries the White art teacher, who approved only “the neatest and most accurate reproductions of the original drawings.” She lectured the Black students that “these are the kinds of pictures that the children who came to this school used to do here [i.e., when it was still majority-White]. You children couldn’t do it.” Another teacher pointed to children on the playground and said: “Those are the animals and this is the zoo.” One of Kozol’s colleagues expressed his belief that teaching disadvantaged Black children was a hopeless cause, and the chairman of the school committee declared, “We have no inferior education in our schools. What we have been getting is an inferior type of student.” In brief, the book’s message was that “a powerful anti-Negro prejudice permeates the entire Boston school system.”
A number of reviewers expressed skepticism of some of Kozol’s horror stories, and Boston’s public school superintendent angrily denied that rattan canes were ever used on pupils, but the public ate the book up: two million copies of Death at an Early Age were sold, and it won a National Book Award. Stephen, by the way, ended up doing 20 years for murdering a man confined to a wheelchair; Kozol attributed this to his growing awareness of social inequality in America. […]
Kozol’s concerns later shifted to what he saw as funding inequities. In Savage Inequalities (1991), his most influential book, he
described how inner-city schools in five American cities differed from the best urban and suburban schools in funding, amenities provided, and educational standards by comparing some of the worst schools in Camden, Chicago, East St. Louis, New York, and Washington with the best schools in the wealthiest nearby suburbs.
Since public schools are funded largely from local property taxes, the amenities they offer depend largely on the value of real estate in their vicinity. This can mean that schools in poor neighborhoods receive less money, although Wolters notes that many urban areas contain enough valuable commercial property to make up for low housing prices. Kozol, however, favors replacing this system with funding based on a steeply graduate income tax and government redistribution from wealthy to poor areas.
Many experts were unconvinced. Sociologist James Coleman found substantial equality in the funding of majority White and majority Black schools as early as 1966, and even the poorest school Kozol described—in East St. Louis, Illinois—received more funding per pupil than the state average. But Kozol did not consider this enough: “Equality does not mean equal funds for unequal needs… If funds were allocated according to the real needs of children,… New York City would get $15,000 [per pupil] a year,” and the wealthiest suburbs could “get by on $7,000.”
(Counter-Currents, July 21, 2015).