Jonathan Kozol and the Pernicious Underfunding of Inner City Schools

Civil rights activist and education reformer Jonathan Kozol has been working with children in inner city schools for more than forty years. His primary focus is the pernicious under funding of schools that primarily serve minority students. In the talk below, he uses New York City as an example. In the year 2000, a child attending a Long Island school received average funding of $18,000 a year, while one attending school in the South Bronx received average funding of $8,000.

In the 1960s, Kozol worked as a primary school teacher in inner city Boston. He left classroom teaching to focus on teacher training, educational research and social justice organizing. His best known books are his 1967 Death at an Early Age: the Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools, his 1988 Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America, his 1991 Savage Inequalities, his 1995 Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation and his 2000 Ordinary Resurrections. The last two refer to his extensive work in South Bronx public schools and the students he came to know there.

In my view, his most powerful presentations are those in which he talks about Pineapple and Anthony and other students he worked with in the South Bronx.

The talk below is divided into six 8 minutes segments.

Part 1 – Kozol talks about getting his start in a Roxbury (Boston) church freedom school following the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.

Part 2 – Kozol addresses the severe disadvantages inner city school children start out with, including the highest rate of asthma in the country (due to constant exposure to polluting industries sited in their neighborhoods), periodic episodes of homelessness and the fact that more than one-fourth have fathers in prison.

Part 3 – Kozol addresses  discriminatory funding patterns in inner city schools.

Part 4 – Kozol laments the devastating impact of high stakes testing on inner city students, teachers and principals. Introducing Pineapple and other South Bronx students he has worked with, he explains how pressure to train students for high stakes testing destroys genuine motivation for learning.

Part 5 – Kozol talks about his depressing efforts to lobby Congress to improve funding for inner city schools. He also describes the time Mr Rogers came to visit the South Bronx after school program where he volunteered.

Part 6 – Kozol talks about how teaching in the ghetto politicized him, especially after he was fired by the Boston Public Schools for teaching his African American students about the African American poet Langston Hughes.

Education Spring: Parents, Teachers and Students Fight Back


more than a score

The Education Spring uprising against corporate education reform began in Seattle at Garfield High School (my daughter’s former high school) in January 2013. It started with the entire school (teachers and students) walking out rather than take the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP). The latter is standardized test mandated under Obama’s Race to the Top and Common Core initiatives.

The Obama administration has used this heavy emphasis on high stakes testing (a leftover of Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy) exactly as his predecessor did. Low test scores are frequently used as an excuse to demote or fire teachers, to cut the budgets of low performing schools, and even to even close them and replace them with private charter schools.

As Garfield teachers explained in a January 2013 press conference, the MAP is neither an appropriate or useful tool in measuring progress. For numerous reasons: it’s unaligned to the Seattle high school curriculum, it’s biased against English-language learners and special education students and it’s high margin of error makes it statistically invalid at the high school level. The makers of the test caution not to use it to evaluate teachers, as many school districts have been doing.

Common Core standardized tests like MAP are also racially biased. As Garfield history teacher Jesse Hagiopian, author of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High Stakes Testing states, “they’re a better indicator of a student’s zip code than their aptitude.”

All agree the biggest problem with high stakes testing is that it forces teachers to spend so much time teaching kids to regurgitate on multiple choice bubble tests that there’s no time to teach them valuable analytic and decision-making skills.

The Opt-Out Movement Catches Fire

The boycott against standardized testing quickly spread to other Seattle schools. Over the coming months, Portland students initiated their own boycott of the OAKS tests, some 10,000 parents and students marched in Texas against the overuse of high-stakes tests, and kindergartners and their parents staged a “play-in” at the Chicago School District headquarters against the replacement of the arts with high stakes standardized tests. In Rhode Island , members of the Providence Student Union dressed as as guinea pigs and lab rats to march on the State House.

The Seattle School District initially threatened to punish teachers with a 10-day suspension without pay. They eventually backed off owing to the unanimous support of the Garfield High School PTSA and student government, and after hundreds of phone calls and emails from parents and teachers around the country. After months of rallies, teach-ins, call-ins, and opt-outs, Seattle School Superintendent Jose Banda announced Seattle high schools could legally opt out of standardized testing.

The Education Spring has continued to spread. According to the New York Times , 20% of 3rd through eighth graders (more than 200,000) opted out of New York standardized tests this year. In Washington State more than 62,000 (and approximately half of 11th graders) opted out of the SBAC in 2014-2015.

A Broad Spectrum Populist Movement

As a populist movement, the Education Spring seems to be gaining momentum across the political spectrum. Obama Secretary of Education Arne Duncan initially blamed growing opposition to standardized testing to “Tea Party extremists.” When he could no longer deny the phenomenal strength of the opt-out movement, he blamed it on “white suburban moms who—all of a sudden—their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

Hagiopian’s book More Than a Score is a collection of essays, poems, speeches and interviews from teachers, grassroots education activists and education researchers. He talks about his book in the following video:

There’s also a great clip of Jesse suggesting a more reasonable and reliable method of assessing students on NBC News

He blogs at I Am an Educator