Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools Book Review

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

I’m a voracious reader, and it’s not my intention to write a review of every book I read. Having just completed Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools, however, I am moved to record some thoughts here. It turns out I have a lot of thoughts, so I’m going to post this in smaller chunks. As most of you know, I’ve done a lot of work, both paid and unpaid, in the Chicago and Boston Public Schools. Racial and economic justice is very important to me, particularly in the context of education. I’ve rarely encountered anyone who articulated the importance of these issues as well as Kozol, nor anyone who could so deftly expose the most common justifications for the educational disparities that exist in US public education. The book is a lot heavier on outrage and indignation than on solutions, but from what I’ve seen, that is sadly appropriate. There is much to be outraged about in urban public education, and when it comes to systemic reform, more than 100 years of effort have not yet produced a solution to the dual problems of institutional neglect and racism. Savage Inequalities weaves history and policy criticism with narratives of the author’s visits to urban public schools and conversations with students, teachers and administrators. Despite a century of legal and legislative action, Kozol argues, America maintains a separate and unequal public education system in which poor, largely minority children, arguably those who deserve the most resources, receive an education that is qualitatively different from that of their whiter, wealthier counterparts. These inequalities persist within urban public school systems and between urban and suburban districts, the dividing lines of which were often drawn with explicitly racialized intent. Kozol’s narrative approach is valuable because of how much reality is lost, often deliberately obscured, by the policy debates that surround public education. One common argument that the author addresses repeatedly is the claim that urban students receive an “adequate” education and that more money is not the solution to whatever problems may plague their schools. Leaving aside for a moment the question of what “adequate” really means, Kozol’s recounting of bathrooms without stall doors or toilet paper, cafeterias that are routinely closed because of sewage overflow, asphalt playgrounds studded with broken glass, and classrooms without textbooks and in some cases even teachers fly in the face of any definition of the word. It is equally laughable to suggest that money is not a solution to these problems nor that solving these problems would not make education a more positive experience for the children who attend these schools. This is not to say that more money is a magic-bullet solution to the problems of urban public education or that education is such a solution for larger problems such as poverty and drugs that confront these communities. It is often argued, both by amateurs and by education professionals, that family and cultural problems contribute to an environment where academic skills are not valued or nurtured. Indeed, there is little doubt that children in wealthier school districts would do better in school whether or not that wealth were directly channeled into their schools. Their parents would generally play a larger role in their education and their privilege would afford them more time for study and academic work without the distractions of a rumbling stomach or neighborhood violence. As Kozol points out, however, “The family… differs from the school in the significant respect that government is not responsible, or at least not directly, for the inequalities of family background. It is responsible for inequalities in public education.” It violates any interpretation of justice for a public resource to be provided in greater amounts to those least in need, yet this is exactly how public education functions in the United States. Next: Part 2

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