4 Takeaways From Jonathan Kozol On Race, Poverty And Corporate Reform In Education

4 Takeaways From Jonathan Kozol On Race, Poverty And Corporate Reform In Education

Jonathan Kozol speaks about what he sees as public education’s most pressing challenges on May 6, 2015 at First Parish Church in Cambridge. (courtesy Lou Kruger)

Jonathan Kozol speaks about what he sees as public education’s most pressing challenges on May 6, 2015 at First Parish Church in Cambridge. (courtesy of Lou Kruger)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In a wide-ranging conversation about race, poverty and corporate reform in public education, the writer, educator and activist Jonathan Kozol spoke on Wednesday evening about what he sees as public education’s most pressing challenges.

In the packed pews of First Parish Church in Harvard Square, roughly 250 people turned out to see Kozol in an event hosted by Citizens for Public Schools. The audience included teachers, education activists, union members, school officials and parents from throughout Massachusetts.

Here are Learning Lab’s four takeaways from Kozol’s remarks:

1. Access to early education is a starting point for school inequality.

School inequalities along race and class lines begin long before children set foot in kindergarten, Kozol said.

Although access to early childhood education is theoretically available to anyone, he noted that there is a large difference between availability and actual recruitment and enrollment. While early childhood education may be available, low-income, predominantly black and Latino families often lack representation in “real, developmental pre-K,” he said.

According to recent data, about 30 percent of Massachusetts’ approximately 225,000 preschool-aged children (3-5 years old) are not enrolled in any formal education program. Of the rest, one quarter of preschool-aged children in Massachusetts have publicly financed early education and care, and about 43 percent attend programs their families pay for completely out-of-pocket, the same data shows.

Commonly families in affluent school districts will have access to early childhood education seats or can pay for private care, Kozol said. The same private care can be a luxury that low-income, predominantly black and Latino families often cannot afford.

While low-income families may receive state subsidies to pay for early education and care, just under 15,000 children are on waiting lists for that aid in Massachusetts, according to the Department of Early Education and Care.

2. Unequal access to early education has lasting effects.

Kozol noted that school segregation is illegal now, but cited tracking patterns into prestigious exam schools as a “post-modern version of a dual track system.” The same populations who are not afforded access to early education are not adequately represented in exam schools, he said.

A recent report of Boston Public Schools found that black and Latino males are indeed on a separate, lesser educational track and lack representation in exam schools.

For example, at Boston Latin School black and Latino students currently make up about 9 and 12 percent, respectively, of the student population. Conversely, black and Latino students make up about 34 and 41 percent, respectively, of the overall Boston Public Schools population.

3. A focus on testing pushes schools toward takeover, which can benefit businesses more than students.

When students have less developmental early education, they start off school without the same advantages as other peers. However, all Massachusetts students are required to take the same standardized state assessments in third grade.

It begins what Kozol termed a “testing mania” — an intense focus on test scores forcing school curricula to increasingly become tightened to reflect test materials.

However, if scores are lower in urban centers, where students often haven’t received early education, Kozol said, state officials point the blame at teachers, principals and other school staff.

When confronted by continual low scores, officials often turn outside of the district and toward the business and nonprofit community to find a solution, he said.

This has certainly been the case in Massachusetts. Two years ago, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester ordered seven schools deemed “underperforming” to hire an outside partner to turn around student performance.

The state dedicated more than $1 million in federal school-improvement grants to support the partnerships, but after two years none of the seven schools had achieved dramatic gains, according to The Boston Globe.

Yet, it’s a solution continually employed in an effort to turn around urban schools. Kozol cited the English High School and Dever Elementary School as two Boston schools run by outside partners.

Additionally, the nonprofit company BPE, which operates the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School, was given the contract to run Roxbury’s Dearborn Middle School in December. And Holyoke schools are currently waiting for the state to choose an external operator to run the district.

4. Corporate interests now have a larger role in education policy discussions.

As more schools are partnered with business-minded organizations, Kozol has seen a shift that he called his “ultimate concern”: Increasingly business CEOs are invited to participate in policy making for public schools, especially schools with black and Latino students.

He claimed the aims of school education is no longer cultural, intellectual or community-oriented. Instead, Kozol said, education is used simply to prepare minds for markets.

As he spoke about the shifts that he says reflect business influences in education — the change from the term “principal” to “building CEO” in many schools; tightly timed lesson plans that align with mandated outcomes; the free market nature of increased competition, instead of collaboration, between schools to produce best student results; and more public schools being run by private organizations — teachers in the crowd voiced their approval.

Kozol pointed toward charter operators, business tycoons and bankers as people in more control of public education than ever before.

“Instead of ‘Occupy Wall Street,’ ” Kozol said, “this is Wall Street occupying the mentality of children.”


  • Tasha

    I was in attendance. Awesome lecture! It’s high time that we include the families and community stakeholders in a conversation about what “they” want to be included in their advocacy. I agree with Mr. Kozol but standing for public school doesn’t seem like enough… are there enough high quality public schools ? Even before the charter $$$ drain….developmental kindergarten programs ARE absolutely key and will hook children onto learning. All early education programs should be following the child not feeding the test.

    • Michael Gordon

      Tasha, unfortunately I think many high quality public school teachers have become disillusioned with public education’s “test mania,” to use Kozol’s term. Loss of good teachers = loss of good public schools.

      • tasha

        Good point Mike. We need a pipeline to rescue damn good teachers from bearing the bruises of the race to the top. How can we begin to inform policy and reclaim our love of teaching?

  • shirley_kressel

    It was a profound message, and a warning. This is not really about the quality of public schools, as the reformies are framing it. It’s about hardening the segregation and stratification of our citizenry along the lines that serve big-money interests, the decimation of the strongest remaining labor union to make way for a teaching corp of cheap, obedient temps and machines, and the capture of one of the biggest remaining pots of public money by private profiteers.