Kozol, Jonathan. (1991). Savage inequalities: children in America's schools. New York : Crown Pub.

Review by: Harman Singh, Wayne State University, HarmanSingh@wayne.edu 

Jonathon Kozol’s Savage Inequalities explores the inequalities that exist within the American public school system. By visiting schools across America between 1988 and 1990, Kozol delves into inequity students, parents and staff in low socio-economic neighborhoods face as compared to those from more affluent neighborhoods. Kozol takes a qualitative, ethnographic approach in his study and speaks directly to students, teachers, principals, superintendents and parents about their experiences with education. While the book was written more than a decade ago, it is still applicable to the challenges the American school system faces today. Issues of overcrowding, understaffing and underfunding were present throughout the schools Kozol visited in the 1980s and 1990s, and is still relevant to inner-city and rural schools in America today. By highlighting the experiences of students in low socio-economic situations and contrasting it with the experiences of students in upper/middle class socio-economic situations, Kozol aims to awaken the reader and stun them into action.

Kozol begins the book by describing his experience as a schoolteacher in a segregated Boston school in 1964. The classrooms were overcrowded and the teaching positions were revolving doors, with substitute teachers sometimes teaching courses for an entire year. As a result of many of the poor conditions Kozol discusses, his students were operating below their necessary reading/writing/math levels. In hopes of connecting to his students and inspiring them to read, Kozol assigned his students Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred”, as opposed to the writings of Robert Frost. Kozol was promptly dismissed from his position because he did not follow the established curriculum and because Hughes was “inflammatory”. In contrast, Kozol then begins teaching in a suburban school system in Boston and notices a great difference in the performance and opportunities for his students. This initial introduction to inconsistency in education serves as the backdrop for Kozol’s book.

After writing of his own experiences as a teacher who noticed very apparent and unjust inequity in education, Kozol turns his attention to East St. Louis, Illinois, a city that that is “98 percent black, has no obstetric services, no regular trash collection, and few jobs.” A third of the city’s families also live on “less than $7,500 a year” and “75 percent of its population lives on welfare of some form.” As one can gather from the city’s socio-economic profile, the schools were operating below acceptable standards. In this section of the book, Kozol introduces the concept of “environmental racism”, which refers to low- income and minority communities being subject to environmentally hazardous and dangerous waste, pollution and decay. Kozol provides numerous examples of the way in which the city’s students are exposed to harmful situations which alter and affect their education. This includes fumes that “pour from the vents and smokestacks at the Pfizer and Monsanto chemical plants”, resulting in “one of the highest rates of child asthma in America.” In addition to the issues of asthma, chemical spills are common among the railroads that run through East St. Louis, water is tainted with arsenic and mercury raw sewage seeps into residents’ homes, and garbage piles up on the streets due to a lack of city services. Kozol argues that these environmental issues directly impact students’ performance in school. Children who are exposed to early medical problems are often at a deficit due to time missed in school, the inability to focus in class and a general feeling of hopelessness due to their surroundings. This is supported by studies which showed that “of 66 cities in Illinois, East St. Louis ranks first in fetal death, first in premature birth, and third in infant death.” Kozol further explores hopelessness by discussing the ways in which fiscal shortages resulted in the school not having basic necessities, resulting in poor nutrition and medical care. As Kozol visits East St. Louis High, he notices the lack of opportunity for students. Classrooms are left without a teacher, students are without books and supplies and the building is falling apart. Kozol is sure to address the fact that the problems in East St. Louis cannot be separated from issues of racism and segregation. Kozol points to the overwhelming majority of East St. Louis High School’s students being black and shows how racism is a common factor in many underperforming schools. Decades of segregation, restriction to opportunity and denial of basic human rights has certainly affected the school systems in black neighborhoods. Kozol asserts that these issues are not lost on the black students. While meeting with a 14 year old black student, Kozol learns how the students find the curriculum to be racially biased and how black students realize the irony of reading Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech while attending a school “full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains.” The students realized how they are not valued by society and the ways in which their education is not a priority to the American public as a whole. This segues into Kozol’s chapter on “Other People’s Children”.

In this chapter, Kozol explores why the American public has allowed innocent American children to become victims of racial, economic and social injustice in a time of prosperity. While many schools have creative, compassionate and exceptional teachers like Ms. Hawkins (a woman who teaches in Chicago), most students are forced to deal with instability. At Du Sable High in Chicago, students lament how they “can’t find us a teacher”, while other students just want to learn basic life skills because they believe most of them won’t be going to college anyway. While many schools promise change and restructuring, there is generally little improvement on the whole. One can argue that this is partially due to a refusal to truly analyze the public school model and revolutionize aspects that are failing. The school funding model (partially based on local property taxes) is inherently unequal and directly leads to inequality. For example, the public schools in Camden, New Jersey have per capita spending of $3,000, while the Great Neck, Long Island school system has a maximum expenditure of $15,000.

Next, Kozol takes on the idea of “tracking” head on. He explores how tracking has become a pervasive and malignant tool used by educators to maintain the status quo. Kozol writes of the ways in which schools track poor and minority students into various fields/paths based on their family income level and standardized tests (which are notoriously biased and faulty). Kozol argues that schools circumvent the negative attributes of tracking by calling it “homogenous grouping” and by arguing that students should be helped based on their ability. While it is true that higher achieving students can benefit from a more rigorous curriculum, it should not come at the expense of opportunity for lower performing or average students. There is also the race factor, which clearly affects tracking. Kozol shows that black students are more likely to be classified as “special needs”, which tracks them away from higher education. The extreme disparity in spending can affect schools in multiple ways. Funding can be used for staffing, facilities, after-school activities, books/supplies and enrichment opportunities. Without directly addressing funding, one cannot truly change the school system. Additionally, schools must acknowledge issues of racial disparity. After decades of unequal treatment and oppression, students need not receive equal funding, but under-performing schools should receive more funding. In the words of Kozol, “equity, after all, does not mean simply equal funding. Equal funding for unequal needs is not equality.” Schools should also develop curriculum that is relevant to the students and have staff/administration that reflects the demographics of the student body.

While Kozol’s book does a great job showing the disparity in education between the lowest funded/performing schools and the highest funded/performing schools, it doesn’t reflect the overwhelming majority of schools that fall in the middle. And I believe this is part of the reason Americans don’t act on enacting educational change. Most parents in America do not see the horror students in the worst schools in America endure, nor do they see the privileges the students in the highest income group benefit from. Therefore, they are lulled into inaction. This book does a great job trying to reach the average American who may be entirely unaware of the challenges many of these schools face. Sadly, much time has passed between Kozol’s publishing of Savage Inequalities and today, but we are faced with many of the same issues.

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