Kozol, Jonathan

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23: Jonathan Kozol

Excerpt from "Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid"

    Published in Harper's Magazine, September 1, 2005; also available online at http://www.mindfully.org/Reform/2005/American-Apartheid-Education1sep05.htm

The public school system in the United States began taking shape in the mid-nineteenth century through the work of reformers like Horace Mann (1796–1859). But African American children in free states (those states where slavery was illegal) usually attended schools for black children only, and no schooling was available in slave states. During the Reconstruction Era (1865–77), states that had left the Union and had fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War (1861–65) were supervised by the federal government. At that time, the U.S. Congress established the Freedman's Bureau to help educate and protect former slaves. After Reconstruction ended, however, many southern states began to enact "Jim Crow laws." These were laws that enforced racial segregation, which allowed for separate facilities for blacks and whites. Under segregation, for example, blacks and whites attended separate schools; sat in separate sections in restaurants, trains, buses, and other places; and used different restrooms and water fountains.

"There is no misery index for the children of apartheid education. There ought to be; we measure almost everything else that happens to them in their schools. Do kids who go to schools like these enjoy the days they spend in them? Is school, for most of them, a happy place to be?"

Racial segregation in education was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). That court case legalized segregation as long as each race enjoyed parity, or equality, in the quality of education. This principle became known as "separate but equal." However, equal education in terms of quality and facilities was rare. The concept of "separate but equal" was later overturned in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate schools for blacks and whites were inherently unequal and unconstitutional. Over the next several decades, numerous laws were enacted to desegregate school systems throughout the country. Such desegregation efforts usually involved allowing black students to attend schools that were once only open to white pupils.

Inequalities in education remained, however, reflecting the economic divide in America: as a whole, more wealthy students received a higher quality of education, while poorer children received a poorer quality of education. Jonathan Kozol (1936–) began writing about inequalities in education during the 1960s. His book, Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools (1967) describes a year he spent teaching black fourth graders in a poor Boston, Massachusetts, neighborhood. The work depicts students hampered by out-of-date and racist textbooks and poor facilities. The work won the prestigious National Book Award and launched Kozol's career as a writer and education reformer.

Beginning in 1999, Kozol visited sixty schools in eleven states during a five-year period. He found that many schools serving African American and Hispanic children lacked clean classrooms and restrooms, had out-of-date textbooks, and inadequate laboratory supplies. Many teachers and administrators used lessons that stressed memorizing information that would appear on local and national tests, rather than encouraging creativity or critical thinking skills. Kozol had found little improvement in America's public education system since his first book was published almost forty years earlier. His findings were published in 2005 in a magazine article, "Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid," and in a book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (2005).

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid":

  • Southern school districts were most affected by the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ruling and were the center of desegregation efforts for the next decade. Beginning in the late 1960s, attention turned to other parts of the nation where statistics indicated that there was a racial imbalance in schools. In some racially mixed school districts, white students attended virtually all-white schools while blacks mainly attended all-black schools. Many cities and towns faced court orders to integrate their schools, to open the schools to people of all races and ethnic groups without restriction.
  • Kozol cites statistics that show improvements in student proficiency, or skill levels, during the 1980s following years of desegregation and integration efforts. Those levels of proficiency in many major cities began declining in the 1990s. Kozol cites economics: most schools in poorer sections of cities are largely attended by African Americans and Hispanics and the school systems face budget problems that result in poor school facilities and learning materials. He calls this situation "resegregation," comparing the modern educational system to the segregated system that had existed fifty years earlier.
  • In the excerpt, Kozol mentions "Skinnerian instructional approaches." This is a philosophy of education, based on the work of American psychologist B. F. Skinner (1909–1990), which focuses on rewarding students when their vocal responses and actions match what group leaders expect them to say or do.
  • In the subtitle of his essay, Kozol uses the word "apartheid" to strongly emphasize his objections to problems in education that exist in the sixty schools he visited in eleven states. Apartheid was a government-sanctioned legal system of racial discrimination that existed in South Africa from 1948 to the early 1990s.

Excerpt from "Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid"

Many Americans who live far from our major cities and who have no firsthand knowledge of the realities to be found in urban public schools seem to have the rather vague and general impression that the great extremes of racial isolation that were matters of grave national significance some thirty-five or forty years ago have gradually but steadily diminished in more recent years. The truth, unhappily, is that the trend, for well over a decade now, has been precisely the reverse. Schools that were already deeply segregated twenty-five or thirty years ago are no less segregated now, while thousands of other schools around the country that had been integrated either voluntarily or by the force of law have since been rapidly resegregating.

In Chicago, by the academic year 2002–2003, 87 percent of public-school enrollment was black or Hispanic; less than 10 percent of children in the schools were white. In Washington, D.C., 94 percent of children were black or Hispanic; less than 5 percent were white. In St. Louis, 82 percent of the student population were black or Hispanic; in Philadelphia and Cleveland, 79 percent; in Los Angeles, 84 percent, in Detroit, 96 percent; in Baltimore, 89 percent. In New York City, nearly three quarters of the students were black or Hispanic.

Even these statistics, as stark as they are, cannot begin to convey how deeply isolated children in the poorest and most segregated sections of these cities have become. In the typically colossal [huge] high schools of the Bronx, for instance, more than 90 percent of students (in most cases, more than 95 percent) are black or Hispanic….

Perhaps most damaging to any serious effort to address racial segregation openly is the refusal of most of the major arbiters of culture in our northern cities to confront or even clearly name an obvious reality they would have castigated [scorned] with a passionate determination in another section of the nation fifty years before—and which, moreover, they still castigate today in retrospective writings that assign it to a comfortably distant and allegedly concluded era of the past. There is, indeed, a seemingly agreed-upon convention in much of the media today not even to use an accurate descriptor like "racial segregation" in a narrative description of a segregated school. Linguistic sweeteners, semantic somersaults, and surrogate vocabularies are repeatedly employed. Schools in which as few as 3 or 4 percent of students may be white or Southeast Asian or of Middle Eastern origin, for instance—and where every other child in the building is black or Hispanic—are referred to as "diverse." Visitors to schools like these discover quickly the eviscerated meaning of the word, which is no longer a proper adjective but a euphemism for a plainer word that has apparently become unspeakable.

School systems themselves repeatedly employ this euphemism in describing the composition of their student populations. In a school I visited in the fall of 2004 in Kansas City, Missouri, for example, a document distributed to visitors reports that the school's curriculum "addresses the needs of children from diverse backgrounds." But as I went from class to class, I did not encounter any children who were white or Asian—or Hispanic, for that matter—and when I was later provided with precise statistics for the demographics of the school, I learned that 99.6 percent of students there were African American. In a similar document, the school board of another district, this one in New York State, referred to "the diversity" of its student population and "the rich variations of ethnic backgrounds." But when I looked at the racial numbers that the district had reported to the state, I learned that there were 2,800 black and Hispanic children in the system, 1 Asian child, and 3 whites. Words, in these cases, cease to have real meaning; or, rather, they mean the opposite of what they say….

Many educators make the argument today that given the demographics of large cities like New York and their suburban areas, our only realistic goal should be the nurturing of strong, empowered, and well-funded schools in segregated neighborhoods. Black school officials in these situations have sometimes conveyed to me a bitter and clear-sighted recognition that they're being asked, essentially, to mediate [settle differences] and render functional an uncontested separation between children of their race and children of white people living sometimes in a distant section of their town and sometimes in almost their own immediate communities. Implicit [implied] in this mediation is a willingness to set aside the promises of Brown [v. Board of Education] and—though never stating this or even thinking of it clearly in these terms—to settle for the promise made more than a century ago in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in which "separate but equal" was accepted as a tolerable rationale for the perpetuation of a dual system in American society.

Equality itself—equality alone—is now, it seems, the article of faith to which most of the principals of inner-city public schools subscribe. And some who are perhaps most realistic do not even dare to ask for, or expect, complete equality, which seems beyond the realm of probability for many years to come, but look instead for only a sufficiency of means—"adequacy" is the legal term most often used today—by which to win those practical and finite victories that appear to be within their reach. Higher standards, higher expectations, are repeatedly demanded of these urban principals, and of the teachers and students in their schools, but far lower standards—certainly in ethical respects—appear to be expected of the dominant society that isolates these children in unequal institutions.

"Dear Mr. Kozol," wrote [an] eight-year-old, "we do not have the things you have. You have Clean things. We do not have. You have a clean bathroom. We do not have that. You have Parks and we do not have Parks. You have all the thing and we do not have all the thing. Can you help us?"

The letter, from a child named Alliyah, came in a flit envelope of twenty-seven letters from a class of third-grade children in the Bronx. Other letters that the students in Alliyah's classroom sent me registered some of the same complaints. "We don't have no gardens," "no Music or Art," and "no fun places to play," one child said. "Is there a way to fix this Problem?" Another noted a concern one hears from many children in such overcrowded schools: "We have a gym but it is for lining up. I think it is not fair." Yet another of Alliyah's classmates asked me, with a sweet misspelling, if I knew the way to make her school into a "good" school—"like the other kings have"—and ended with the hope that I would do my best to make it possible for "all the kings" to have good schools.

The letter that affected me the most, however, had been written by a child named Elizabeth. "It is not fair that other kids have a garden and new things. But we don't have that," said Elizabeth. "I wish that this school was the most beautiful school in the whole why world."

"The whole why world" stayed in my thoughts for days. When I later met Elizabeth, I brought her letter with me, thinking I might see whether, in reading it aloud, she'd change the "why" to "wide" or leave it as it was. My visit to her class, however, proved to be so pleasant, and the children seemed so eager to bombard me with their questions about where I lived, and why I lived there rather than in New York, and who I lived with, and how many dogs I had, and other interesting questions of that sort, that I decided not to interrupt the nice reception they had given me with questions about usages and spelling. I left "the whole why world" to float around unedited and unrevised in my mind. The letter itself soon found a resting place on the wall above my desk….

There is no misery index for the children of apartheid education. There ought to be; we measure almost everything else that happens to them in their schools. Do kids who go to schools like these enjoy the days they spend in them? Is school, for most of them, a happy place to be? You do not find the answers to these questions in reports about achievement levels, scientific methods of accountability, or structural revisions in the modes of governance. Documents like these don't speak of happiness. You have to go back to the schools themselves to find an answer to these questions. You have to sit down in the little chairs in first and second grade, or on the reading rug with kindergarten kids, and listen to the things they actually say to one another and the dialogue between them and their teachers. You have to go down to the basement with the children when it's time for lunch and to the playground with them, if they have a playground, when it's time for recess, if they still have recess at their school. You have to walk into the children's bathrooms in these buildings. You have to do what children do and breathe the air the children breathe. I don't think that there is any other way to find out what the lives that children lead in school are really like….

It has been more than a decade now since drill-based literacy methods like Success For All began to proliferate [grow rapidly] in our urban schools. It has been three and a half years since the systems of assessment that determine the effectiveness of these and similar practices were codified [listed, included] in the federal legislation, No Child Left Behind, that President [George W.] Bush signed into law in 2002. Since the enactment of this bill, the number of standardized exams children must take has more than doubled. It will probably increase again after the year 2006, when standardized tests, which are now required in grades three through eight, may be required in Head Start programs and, as President Bush has now proposed, in ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades as well….

The elements of strict accountability, in short, are solidly in place; and in many states where the present federal policies are simply reinforcements of accountability requirements that were established long before the passage of the federal law, the same regimen has been in place since 1995 or even earlier. The "tests-and-standards" partisans [staunch supporters] have had things very much their way for an extended period of time, and those who were convinced that they had ascertained "what works" in schools that serve minorities and children of the poor have had ample opportunity to prove that they were right.

What, then, it is reasonable to ask, are the results?

The achievement gap between black and white children, which narrowed for three decades up until the late years of the 1980s—the period in which school segregation steadily decreased—started to widen once more in the early 1990s when the federal courts began the process of resegregation by dismantling the mandates of the Brown decision. From that point on, the gap continued to widen or remained essentially unchanged; and while recently there has been a modest narrowing of the gap in reading scores for fourth-grade children, the gap in secondary school remains as wide as ever.

The media inevitably celebrate the periodic upticks [upward turns] that a set of scores may seem to indicate in one year or another in achievement levels of black and Hispanic children in their elementary schools. But if these upticks were not merely temporary "testing gains" achieved by test-prep regimens and were instead authentic education gains, they would carry over into middle school and high school. Children who know how to read—and read with comprehension—do not suddenly become nonreaders and hopelessly disabled writers when they enter secondary school. False gains evaporate; real gains endure. Yet hundreds of thousands of the inner-city children who have made what many districts claim to be dramatic gains in elementary school, and whose principals and teachers have adjusted almost every aspect of their school days and school calendars, forfeiting recess, canceling or cutting back on all the so-called frills (art, music, even social sciences) in order to comply with state demands those students, now in secondary school, are sitting in subject-matter classes where they cannot comprehend the texts and cannot set down their ideas in the kind of sentences expected of most fourth- and fifth-grade students in the suburbs. Students in this painful situation, not surprisingly, tend to be most likely to drop out of school.

In 48 percent of high schools in the nation's 100 largest districts, which are those in which the highest concentrations of black and Hispanic students tend to be enrolled, less than half the entering ninth-graders graduate in four years. Nationwide, from 1993 to 2002, the number of high schools graduating less than half their ninth-grade class in four years has increased by 75 percent. In the 94 percent of districts in New York State where white children make up the majority, nearly 80 percent of students graduate from high school in four years. In the 6 percent of districts where black and Hispanic students make up the majority, only 40 percent do so. There are 120 high schools in New York, enrolling nearly 200,000 minority students, where less than 60 percent of entering ninth-graders even make it to twelfth grade.

The promulgation [large increase] of new and expanded inventories of "what works," no matter the enthusiasm with which they're elaborated, is not going to change this. The use of hortatory [strongly encouraging] slogans chanted by the students in our segregated schools is not going to change this. Desperate historical revisionism that romanticizes the segregation of an older order (this is a common theme of many separatists today) is not going to change this. Skinnerian instructional approaches, which decapitate a child's capability for critical reflection, are not going to change this. Posters about "global competition" will certainly not change this. Turning six-year-olds into examination soldiers and denying eight-year-olds their time for play at recess will not change this.

"I went to Washington to challenge the soft bigotry of low expectations," said President Bush in his campaign for reelection in September 2004. "It's working. It's making a difference." Here we have one of those deadly lies that by sheer repetition is at length accepted by surprisingly large numbers of Americans. But it is not the truth; and it is not an innocent misstatement of the facts. It is a devious appeasement of the heartache of the parents of the black and brown and poor, and if it is not forcefully resisted it will lead us further in a very dangerous direction.

Whether the issue is inequity alone or deepening resegregation or the labyrinthine [mazelike] intertwining of the two, it is well past the time for us to start the work that it will take to change this. If it takes people marching in the streets and other forms of adamant disruption of the governing civilities, if it takes more than litigation, more than legislation, and much more than resolutions introduced by members of Congress, these are prices we should be prepared to pay. "We do not have the things you have," Alliyah told me

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001

Passed by the U.S. Congress in 2001 and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act sets deadlines for states to expand the scope and frequency of student testing, revamp their accountability systems, and guarantee that every teacher is qualified in his or her subject area. NCLB requires states to be able to demonstrate annual progress in raising the percentage of students that show proficiency in reading and math, and to narrow the gap in test scores between children from financially sound and financially troubled areas.

NCLB was the most ambitious federal education initiative since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). By spelling out tight timelines and high expectations, the results of NCLB were expected to be more easily measured than the ESEA. As detailed by the U.S. Department of Education, the program is built around four major goals: 1) "increased accountability for States, school districts, and schools" on how well students meet learning standards; 2) "greater choice for parents and students, particularly those attending low-performing schools" to move to higher performing schools; 3) "more flexibility for States and local educational agencies (LEAs)" in how they use education funds provided by the federal government; and 4) "a stronger emphasis on reading, especially for our youngest children." The first two goals focus on measuring the success of each school and addressing those that fail to meet the required standards.

  • Increased Accountability: The NCLB Act requires states to implement statewide accountability systems covering all public schools and students. These systems must be based on challenging and demanding state standards in reading and mathematics, annual testing for all students in grades three through eight, and annual statewide progress objectives ensuring that all groups of students reach proficiency within twelve years. Assessment results and state progress objectives must be broken out by poverty, race, ethnicity, disability, and limited English proficiency to ensure that no group is left behind. School districts and schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward statewide proficiency goals will, over time, be subject to improvement, corrective action, and restructuring measures aimed at getting them back on course to meet state standards.
  • Greater Choice for Parents and Students: Local education authorities must give students attending schools identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring the opportunity to attend a better public school, which may include a public charter school, within the school district. The district must provide transportation to the new school, and must use at least 5 percent of its Title I funds (federal money made available to states and school districts to educate disadvantaged children) for this purpose, if needed.

when she wrote to ask if I would come and visit her school in the South Bronx. "Can you help us?" America owes that little girl and millions like her a more honorable answer than they have received.

What happened next …

"Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid" was a summary essay of a book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, published weeks later in 2005. Kozol's book received generally positive reviews. Some of his observations were challenged by New York Times reviewer Nathan Glazer, a retired professor of education and sociology at Harvard University. The review by Glazer touched off a series of letters to the newspaper in support of Kozol.

Did you know …

  • The son of a physician, Kozol grew up in a wealthy Boston suburb, attended a private secondary school, and graduated from Harvard University. He lived in Paris, France, before returning to Boston in 1963 at the age of twenty-six. After reading about the murder of three civil rights activists in Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Kozol wanted to do something to help out in society. (The KKK is a group of white supremacists formed after the American Civil War [1861–65] and known especially for its violence toward African Americans.) In an interview with Sally Lodge in Publishers Weekly, Kozol recalled: "I got on the subway at Harvard Square and I rode it until the end of the line, which was Roxbury. I walked into a church and I asked the black minister there if I could be of any use." The minister taught Kozol how to teach reading to children, and Kozol soon became a teacher in a Boston elementary school.
  • Kozol became impassioned about adult illiteracy after meeting large numbers of adults in very poor communities who could not read. In 1980 the Cleveland Public Library asked him to design a literacy plan for the nation's large cities, which became the model for a major effort in California. His book Illiterate America (1985) helped start a national campaign to address adult illiteracy.

Consider the following …

  • Research the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 and consider how it addresses poor performing schools similar to those described by Kozol. Interview a teacher about how NCLB or other federal, state, and local education policies have affected his or her lesson plans and approach to teaching. Write a summary either in support of Kozol's view that the NCLB Act is insufficient, or in opposition to Kozol, stating reasons why the NCLB Act will ultimately prove successful.
  • Discuss the Kozol excerpt with two or more teachers and students. Write an essay comparing Kozol's assessment of education (which was based on sixty schools he visited) with those of the teachers and students you interviewed.

For More Information


Kozol, Jonathan. Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.

Kozol, Jonathan. Illiterate America. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1985.

Kozol, Jonathan. The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. New York: Crown Publishers, 2005.


Bauerlein, Mark. "Missed Opportunities." New Criterion (October 2005).

"Beyond Black, White and Brown. A Forum: Adolph Reed Jr., Pedro Noguera, Robert Cohen, Mari Matsuda, Frank H. Wu, Asa Hilliard III, Patricia Sullivan, Jacquelyn D. Hall and Jonathan Kozol." Nation (May 3, 2004).

Dillon, Sam. "Schools Cut Back Subjects to Push Reading and Math." New York Times (March 26, 2006).

Glazer, Nathan. "'The Shame of the Nation' Separate and Unequal." New York Times Book Review (September 25, 2005). Available online at: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B07E6DD1E31F936A1575AC0A9639C8B63 (accessed on June 6, 2006).

Kozol, Jonathan. "Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid." Harper's Magazine (September 1, 2005).

Lodge, Sally. "Jonathan Kozol—Quiet Times for a Crusader." Publishers Weekly (May 15, 2000).

Solomon, Deborah. "The Way We Live Now: 9-4-05: Questions for Jonathan Kozol." New York Times Magazine (September 4, 2005).

"Why Are America's Schools More Separate than Ever? Forty Years Later, Jonathan Kozol Continues His Crusade." Christian Science Monitor (September 20, 2005).


"Executive Summary of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001." U.S. Department of Education. http://www.ed.gov/nclb/overview/intro/execsumm.html?exp=1 (accessed on June 26, 2006).

Jonathan Kozol Archive. http://www.learntoquestion.com/seevak/groups/2002/sites/kozol/Seevak02/ineedtogoHOMEPAGE/homepage.html (accessed on June 6, 2006).

Arbiters of culture: Influential people on social and cultural issues.

Linguistic sweeteners: Sweet words.

Semantic somersaults: Tricks of language.

Surrogate vocabularies: Unnatural expressions.

Eviscerated: Lacking a vital part.

Euphemism: Substituting a mild or vague term for one that might be considered harsh.

Demographics: Characteristics of a group of people.

Apartheid education: Separate and unequal education.

Structural revisions: Improvements in structure.

Drill-based: Intensely focused on one set of goals.

Head Start: Government-funded education program to help disadvantaged preschool children.

Test-prep regimens: Programs based on preparing for specific tests.

Historical revisionism: Rewriting history.

Skinnerian instructional approaches: A philosophy of education based on the work of American psychologist B. F. Skinner.

Appeasement: Effort to calm or quiet.

Litigation: Using the courts to challenge laws.