« Broad Prize finalists announced | Main | Public employees' freedom of speech »

April 3, 2009

Jonathan Kozol on "separate and unequal" schools

I had a great conversation with Jonathan Kozol before his talk last night at the University of Baltimore law school's Urban Child Symposium on the dropout crisis. He says the heart of the problem is segregation. Of Baltimore, he told me, "this is one of the most segregated school systems in America... this must be one of the closest to absolute apartheid." (I told him there are some schools in the city that are an exception to that. Folks at City Neighbors Charter had wanted to give him a tour of their well-integrated school, but it didn't fit into his schedule.)

Kozol quoted a recent speech by President Obama who said high school dropout rates have tripled since the early 1980s -- when, Kozol says, the schools began to "massively resegregate" and Brown vs. Board of Ed was effectively dismantled. He says black and Latino children are more segregated now than they have been since 1968, the year of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

"I'm utterly out of fashion these days in that I actually believe Dr. King was right," said Kozol, 72, who doesn't use a computer and had hand-written notes for the address he was about to deliver to more than 100 people in a university auditorium. He says segregated schools convey the message to the children there that "you have been sequestered in this institution so you will not contaminate the education of white people." Children get this message from the condition of the buildings (often "squalid surroundings") and from dispirited teachers who have to "give up joy and creativity to become drill sergeants for the state." (Kozol went on a hunger strike in 2007 to protest No Child Left Behind.) He says the most successful African-Americans he's seen -- including Obama and Kurt Schmoke (a student of Kozol's once upon a time at Yale) -- did not have to attend segregated inner-city schools.

So what's the solution? Kozol likes what Dr. Alonso often says in jest about closing down all the private schools of the city. And he supports cross-city busing to integrate schools. But clearly, those things aren't going to happen anytime soon. Kozol says that when he began his work in education decades ago, he thought he could effect change. Now, he says, he's just a witness.

On another note: Kozol is also on the same page as Alonso in saying that good schools don't resort to suspension or expulsion as punishment for truancy and other non-violent offenses. "Nothing could be more Orwellian in its absurdity," he told the crowd at UB. He also says that full-day pre-kindergarten (preferably for multiple years before kindergarten) is essential, and holding children back for failure increases their chances of dropping out of high school exponentially. We're willing to hold an 8-year-old accountable for her performance, he said, yet we don't hold government leaders accountable for their failure to give inner-city children the same resources as they insist on for their own children.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (30)
Categories: School Diversity/Segregation


I wish I could have been there to hear Kozol speak. I remember reading his books "Amazing Grace" and "Savage Inequalities" as a teenager and feeling so outraged at the condition and quality of urban schools. (Buying a house precluded me since the process isnt nearly as easy as shows on HGTV make it seem-but thats for another blog. :) )

I do agree that our schools have seen massive re-segregation. I take umbrage though that something like "cross-city busing" would do anything in Baltimore. What might that look like if the goal is a more integrated school population? Black students from the westside going to the eastside, or vice versa. The focus should be less on integration and more on working within the demographic realities of our city to affect meaningful change. Integration is a relatively empty ideal if the quality of school infrastructure, instruction, and access to opportunity remains at a sub-standard level.

This is by no means an advocacy of segregation. I just think we need to re-orient that philosophical paradigm and shift our thoughts to what we can do given the current district realities.

Since I am new to Baltimore, I asked my students where the white kids go to school, and the answer is simply "the county." It definitely is segregated here.

Also, it is disparaging to hear Kozol refer to himself as a witness in education and no longer bringing change. Was anybody else reading this struck by that?

Finally, is there any way to be notified when guest speakers are in Baltimore? I would have loved to attend this conference.

Segregation (economic and racial) of City Schools is appalling, but what's a real solution?

From a parent's perspective it seems like the first goal has to be making the school system's racial makeup match the population, then maybe look at the diversity of the state. Getting rid of private schools would make it happen automatically, but that's never going to happen. Given that private schools and moving to the county are always going to be options, the City Schools have to look attractive to middle class families (black or white) to get some racial and economic diversity into city schools. Make the schools safe, get more arts, give the kids gym...That's what Roland Park Elementary and City Neighbors (both schools that my kids didn't attend in case you think I've got an agenda by citing them) have done. They reflect the diversity of Baltimore. You can't strong-arm people into failing schools. If you do they'll just find a way out.

I too heard Jonathan Kozol yesterday. He is, in my opinon, a great american hero. I would like to point out that one of our city's first New Schools and now a charter school, Midtown Academy, was concieved as a school whose mission is to bring together children and families from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. As a founder of that school I was pleased to be able to tell Mr. Kozol in person that he was in large measure the inspiration behind Midtown. To my knowledge, it is the only charter school in the country with this as primary part of its mission. We should celebrate and acknowledge the success of such a school and its broader implications.

Wonder how this happens? How do some schools become showcases while others deteriorate within the same county school system? Skip over to Montgomery County and you can watch as the County Council this month approves numerous "upgrades" to one elementary school that can "afford" more. In this case, the "more" is Terrazzo tile, stone columns, message boards, upgraded sound system...

During his talk, Kozol also criticized Obama's "infatuation" with the contemporary charter school movement. Kozol recognizes that the original idea of charter schools (perhaps embodied by Baltimore's Midtown Academy) has been greatly sullied and become largely a model that is dependent on wealthy funders who focus solely on test scores. Others, such as Deborah Meier, see this as a bureaucratic-business model of education. Meier herself was an early proponent of charter schools before they became the latest playground for hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, and CEOs to promote their ideas and spend their excess wealth.

Interestingly, similar allusions were made during Paul Tough's (author of Whatever it Takes, a book detailing the successes and failures of the Harlem Children's Zone) conversation earlier this week at Johns Hopkins. Marc Steiner served as mediator for the question and answer session, and his first question for Tough was about the sustainability of "public" charter schools dependent on the "charitable largess" of the super-rich. He cited a recent article in the Wall Street Journal that detailed the cut backs made within the HCZ (10% of the staff has been let go) due to lower than expected contributions. Tough avoided answering the question directly, but reinforced the claim he made in his book, stating that successful inner-city models require extensive philanthropy partnerships with governments and public school districts. This model, he believes, is the only one that provides the accountability and flexibility needed to close the achievement gap in urban schools. Tough also stated that the HCZ has the unique benefit of having a single contributor that pays for a large portion of HCZ's budget, former hedge fund hawk and billionaire, Stan Druckenmiller.

The economic downturn and recent embrace of corporate-backed charter schools should leave us wondering: Is it in the long-term interest of the children who are the least well-off to build a 21st century educational system founded on the whims of the rich? Charter schools have been shown to be more segregated than regular public schools, and Kozol fears that this will be intensified as our educational system attempts to meet the Plessy v. Ferguson precedent of "separate but equal." Equality, evidently, will be narrowly measured through high stakes test scores, unless Obama can deliver on diversifying the way we assess students.

But the current conventional wisdom in education reform entirely lacks frank acknowledgements of segregation or plans to increase integration. Last night, Kozol's anger provided a fresh repreive from business-minded bureaucracies, like Teach For America and its cheerleaders, Chancellors Rhee and Klein. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, appears to be more in this camp than the man who appointed him. Time will tell.

Charter schools and other schools of choice are quietly changing the segregation we see in City Schools. When parents have a choice to attend quality schools with education programs they believe in and feel vested in, they don't make their decisions based on racial makeup. That is one of the keys to changing the de facto segregation that occurs in Baltimore: providing more educational opportunities that parents feel confident about. A number of Baltimore's charter schools reflect greater diversity, with charters having average minority enrollments of 86% versus the City Schools average of 90%. In fact, some charter schools, like Patterson Park Public Charter School, are seeing significant Hispanic enrollment, leading to a field of diversity greater than Baltimore's traditional questions of race.

86% versus 90% is hardly anything to brag about. And I think Kozol would likely say that greater diversity in terms of wealth and whiteness is what is needed. In his books, he now discusses the problem of black and brown students being lumped in schools bereft of white kids. Perhaps we should talk more about integration along class lines, which, inevitably, would include racial lines. It's sort of sad to see this not be part of the discussion. Separate and unequal is still very much alive.

"I wish you could have been there too." Both MSU dean of education Ms. P. Welch, MSDE gifted and talented education director Ms. J. Paynter attended.

I attended the event, hosted by the BCPSS Office of Enrichment the theme brand "Evening of Enrichment" program at the Poly/Western complex with the citywide general public and many invited education related and academic vendors showed up with fully well stocked tables with "free" take away items. The gifted and talented district public school education event show-cased students in the primary and secondary schools academic skills, arts talent, experiences.

@oh c'mon -
If 4% isn't good enough for you, what's your solution? Considering the constant movement in the opposite direction I think we should celebrate anything that turns it around. The only approach I can think of that would have more radical improvements would be eliminating private schools and having forced busing across district lines. That's just not going to happen in our society, so if charters are making progress let's applaud them.

David: It's hard for me to list all education speakers coming to town, but I try to get the big ones. I mentioned Kozol coming in two blog posts and a few Tweets ( over the past couple of weeks. So keep checking back with me.

Thanks to everyone who attended Mr. Kozol's talk, part of the University of Baltimore School of Law Center for Families, Children and the Courts' inaugural Urban Child Symposium. By mid week next week, the web cast for the day's entire events, including Mr. Kozol's talk, will be available at To learn more now about the symposium agenda, visit It was a day filled with wonderful, rich conversations about school attendance/dropout issues and potential, viable solutions. We at the Center for Families, Children and the Courts are most grateful for the participation of all our panelists and over 200 attendees, and we are most appreciative of Dr. Andres Alonso's contributions to the day's discussions.
We hope to see all of you who are interested at next year's Urban Child Symposium. Barbara Babb, Associate Professor of Law and Director, Center for Families, Children and the Courts, University of Baltimore School of Law

We should be focusing on values and not race. The bottom line is that, overall, education is not valued as much in Baltimore City as it is in the surrounding counties. A parent who has a car more expensive than their house is usually not going to be too concerned about their child's education. Far too much value is placed on material things in poor urban areas. Look at how many parents go to Back to School Night, PTA meetings, or parent conferences at a high achieving county school compared to a low achieving city school. You'd be amazed.

I think that Kozol's comments about providing more for children before kindergarten are right on the mark. There's lots of research saying that kids from low-income families come to school far behind middle class kids (I saw a statistic recently saying they are 32 million words behind). Providing universal preschool for all children or adopting the Harlem Children's Zone Baby College concept seems like it could help kids begin to start at similar places. Of course, all of that takes money.

I would love to see BCPSS less segregated but I'm not sure that alone will fix the academic needs of struggling kids.

The main part of this symposium was during the day on a school day. This was incredibly disappointing, and maybe was not done intentionally, but if the voices of teachers are truly valued, it would have been on a weekend day or PD day so that a teacher who wanted to attend the full day would not have had to take time away from his/her students. It may be more convenient on a weekday for non-educators, but I would hope that a weekend would be considered for next year, if the topic is going to be education-related again.

"So what's the solution? Kozol likes what Dr. Alonso often says in jest about closing down all the private schools of the city. And he supports cross-city busing to integrate schools..."

Neither of those would work, and you will never be able to legally shut down private schools anyway. You can't force people to integrate. The best idea I've seen would be for the federal government to link extra no-strings-attached $ to low-income kids. As it stands, rich people don't want poor people living in their communities because poor people don't pay much property tax and they use more local government services. By segregating themselves, rich people can keep their tax rates low. But if the feds give extra cash to pay for poor kids education, rich people may not be so resistant to having them in their schools.

It isn't really about 'race', it is about $$$. You only have to look at a generally homogenous 'racial' population to see that inequity and inequality will still exist when black, white or brown is removed from the equation. Diversity across socioeconomic lines is needed in the city. A stronger middle & upper class who send their children to city schools is needed. Property taxes fund the schools and right now we barely have a revenue source. With the economy the way it is, and layoffs impending, it seems it will only get worse. It also appears that Dr. A cannot avoid biting some of the hands that feed him. When many of those employees at North Ave lose their jobs next month wont he will also lose some of his revenue source?

I wish I could have made it but I am one of those poo folks that have to work to feed my children..

I wonder if there was any reflection on the past when segregated schools produced the leaders in the black community. Mitchell, Marshal and King all attended segregated schools and where able to do great things.

This historically recent phenomenon that to be right it has to include white, undermines the work of our ancestors.

In a PBS documentary on school desegregation, one of the leaders of the movement stated that their goal wasn't to integrate but to get the same resources that the white schools had. It never happened and we are still in this battle.

Integration weakened the black community because the fortunate moved to areas that were once closed and never looked back.

The solution... we need to get back to "community" and stop asking the school system to rear our children.

Baltimore doesn't really want diversity in it's schools. My child applied to Baltimore's Midtown Academy this year and was rejected. We live within three blocks of the school and are white. We had to enroll in private school out of desperation. If you play the lotto in a city with 90% blacks, then thats who wins the drawing 90% of the time. The real problem with this city is that HUD money seems to encourage all of the black people to stay in the city, together, where there are not any jobs or future. It seems a little like the county uses the city as an unsupervised prison. The blacks think this is great because they feel that they needs to cling together since they rely on the welfare system to survive. The city politicians think its great because for the most part they are small town blacks who want to get reelected and it keeps their voting block segregated. The counties think its great because it keeps the blacks away from them. I think its sad because it keeps people down.. and they go along willingly.

So you're saying separate but equal is the goal? That would probably help with the quality of education, which is pretty important. On the other hand, it does nothing to foster understanding and acceptance in society. And down the road are we going to have to pick our mechanics and doctors and shops based on race? You can say that I don't understand being in the racial minority (though I think I might have an idea as one of two female electrical engineers in my graduating class of 100 in 1984). I do know that I want my autistic child to be accepted by society as an autistic adult. I think a big step in achieving that is an education system that includes autistics and doesn't ship them off to special schools.

Reply to Posted by: Louis Mason:

Assumptions Overload!!!!!!! dude. Your in the free market education system for secondary schools created by AAAlonso.

Embarssingly you may have failed your child and yourself by writting this post, secondly limiting your own choices of schools to only one this school year was a mistake. Do your homework better my white brother.

@Mr. Mason: Baltimore wants and needs diversity BUT either-
a) does not know how to get it, or
b) has not yet began to think strategically about how to get it.
Please, don't take it so personal. Did you write the school? The CEO? The Board? and explain how you'd like to be a part of the solution? I bet you didn't!

I'm sorry your child did not get into your school of choice but the fact that you could 'afford' to send him/her to a private school clearly means you had options. Not all of our fellow citizens are as fortunate.

I will not comment on your statements about 'race', HUD money, welfare, or the motives of city politicians except to say that they are blatanly ignorant and stereotypical. There are lots of communities where ethnic groups "stick together" in Baltimore and they are not all black.

Your comment about the county using the city as an unsupervised prison is very interesting. You have provided some insight into the devious mind of the white man.(I hope that last sentence was ignorant enough to stir your ire)

I attended this talk and thought it was delivered with passion and understanding. Jonathan left me hanging on one key point, though – and I’d love to see this explored in the Sun: If Brown v. Board has been dismantled ("destroyed" was his word, I believe), who did it, or allowed it to happen? Who are the people to blame? Most of us would look at past presidential administrations, and that would not be an unwise choice when it comes to assigning blame. But something so insidious, so stupid, probably could not happen with intent. The judicial and executive branches could not work together to lay waste to this singular case – a conspiracy like that could not be crafted let alone carried out. So, is Kozol talking more about what some would call "benign neglect"? In his view, is it a massive systemic failure, brought on by a lack of political will? Or, in my view, is it simply another byproduct of the economic abandonment of our basic institutions – cities, local government, and so on? "Cities and the schools within them are hard to manage. So, let's punish them for their failures." BRILLIANT strategy.

In a big way it’s up to local and state governments to enforce this case and make it live for us everyday. It would almost be worth polling our lawmakers to get their views on Brown, and how they see their roles in enforcing its tenets.

And please – don't tell me this is a matter for the courts. Yes, when Brown is violated people should be sued. But that should be the exception, not the rule. Legislators, school administrators, teachers and parents should ensure that desegregation is preached – and practiced.

If Maryland adopted a two-way voluntary integration program like we have up in Hartford, more children from Baltimore could attend economically and racially integrated schools (it is not "just" about racial integration, it is also about allowing children to attend schools that are not poverty-concentrated). So far, only about 16% of Hartford children are attending integrated schools, but the program is growing slowly, with suburban children coming in to magnet schools and city children go out to suburban schools. In Connecticut, this started because of a lawsuit under the state constitution, but there is no reason the state of Maryland couldn't start this kind of program without a lawsuit. It is completely voluntarily in terms of parent and child participation.

"But clearly, those things aren't going to happen anytime soon."

"The focus should be less on integration and more on working within the demographic realities of our city . . ."

"but that's never going to happen . . ."

"Charter schools have been shown to be more segregated than regular public schools . . ."

"That's just not going to happen in our society . . ."

"Neither of those would work . . ."

"Baltimore doesn't really want diversity in it's schools . . ."

In _Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America_ answers many of the questions posed here.

The casual acceptance of extreme inequality is a measure of how lost we are.

To read the Brown decision and the long history of its jurisprudence is also to be struck by the complicity with inequality that gets dismissed in a rhetorical strategy that simply says something else is impossible.

The question Thurgood Marshall and Kenneth Clarke and Linda Brown (in the third grade) and Ruby Bridges and, and, and . . . all of those we insult with our casual acceptence . . . ask is what kind of America do we want? We are responsible for this other kind of America. It's right here in Baltimore.

In response to "shame of city-nation" -
Anybody else tired of the quote/study saying "Charter schools have been shown to be more segregated than regular public schools . . ." while the reality of Baltimore City (and that's the point of this blog, right?) is that some of the charter schools are the bright spots of integration? I have no idea how charters work in other areas, but in Baltimore City some have been able to attract middle-class and white students, while the majority of zoned schools have not. Quit slamming charters and try to figure out what they are doing that the zoned schools are not.

good article.

I too wish I knew about J. kozol visit to the University of Baltimore. Several people constantly ask what is the real solution? I believe one of the real solutions is dealing with the mentality of adults (government officials and other such members) that keep chopping at education and recreation in an effort to reduce budgets and save money. It seems apparent that with every reduction in education funding- thousands of students are further deprived of what is essential for the longevity and sustainment of the country. We can argue about the wasteful spending, special interest, etc.., but little will solve this crisis until all understand that providing a quality, engaging, and proactive education is fundamental to this countrys' global involvement.

For some odd reason, we presist in cutting off our noses to spite our faces. One day, and I pray soon, we will come to realize and make amends for our selfish decisions, and return to making our country great by making those responsible for educating and those being educatated excited about contributing to the longevity of us.

I grew up in Baltimore, received a teaching degree, and taught in Baltimore city. I loved working with inner city children but the trust wasn't always there. I was told by a student that her mom said not to listen to me because I was white. As a young educator, I was devastated. Although I am a committed teacher, I know my limitations. The poor white schools had similar problems due to lack of nourishment, care, and safe surroundings (also attitudes about being educated). You can see the same situations in impoverished neighborhoods around the US. Even in S. California, the schools look like they're in third world countries! These aelfr affluent areas too! President Obama and Mrs. Obama are doing more for Americans of all races just by setting a good example and modeling positive behavior. We also need to be more respectful of students and their time! My kids are tired of school and would hate to be there longer! And STOP cutting sports and arts! Also, I send my kids to private school as well as most teachers in the area. A strong message about the state of public schools everywhere!

"full-day pre-kindergarten (preferably for multiple years before kindergarten) is essential". HUH?

Needless to say, I agree with what Kozol says, except for the above - which seems to me to be a terribly Orwellian suggestion. SImliar ideas are being proposed in Australia (for one year before kindergarten) under the Orwellian term "early learning".

cronos telfer
(richard mullins)

Post a comment

All comments must be approved by the blog author. Please do not resubmit comments if they do not immediately appear. You are not required to use your full name when posting, but you should use a real e-mail address. Comments may be republished in print, but we will not publish your e-mail address. Our full Terms of Service are available here.

Please enter the letter "v" in the field below:

2011 Valedictorians and Salutatorians
Most Recent Comments
Baltimore Sun coverage
Education news
• InsideEd's glossary of education jargon

School closings and delays's school closings database is designed to provide up-to-date, easy-to-access information in the event of inclement weather.

Find out if your school is participating and sign up for e-mail alerts.
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Spread the word about InsideEd
Blog updates
Recent updates to news blogs
 Subscribe to this feed
Stay connected