Tag Archives: Arne Duncan

Black History Month: Obama on Education and Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities.

Jonathan Kozol shows the immoral inequities in school funding in this poignant book.

Jonathan Kozol shows the immoral inequities in school funding in this poignant book.

In his speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, President Barack Obama cited the “urgent need to expand the promise of education in America,”

 “In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity – it is a pre-requisite,”  he said.

Unfortunately,  America is eons away from realizing its promise to the country’s children-especially to black youth.

Former Rhodes Scholar Jonathan Kozol has been writing about educational inequality for more than 40 years.  His first book, the National Book Award-winning Death At An Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools, depicted his experiences teaching in a predominantly black section of Boston.  Kozol eventually was fired for teaching the Langston Hughes poem A Dream Deferred, but not before he had gathered sufficient material to write a stinging indictment of what he saw.

Most recently, he has written The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid, which shows the increasing segregation of America’s schools, the ascendence of neo-conserative ideology and the abandonment of any real commitment to meet the promise of an equal education.

Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools came in between these two works.  Published in 1991, the book takes a devastating tour through the country, showing repeatedly, as the title suggests, the glaring inequalities between children’s education depending solely on where they lived and the concomitant betrayal of the promise to which Obama referred Tuesday night.

The book opens in East St. Louis, Illinois.  One of the best features of Kozol’s work is his ability to create vivid, if depressing portraits of the conditions in which children must learn as well as of the intersection of race, health, education and inequality.  In East St. Louis, for instance, he cites the city hazardous environmental conditions that impact students’ learning. 

The vast majority of the students in the city’s schools are black.

Of course, the bottom is just one part of the equation.  In Savage Inequalities Kozol also shows the contrasting facilities and conditions in which largely white, more affluent children learn.  Thus, his chapter on Chicago talks about city schools like Du Sable High School and suburban schools like New Trier High School, which was recently the target of Sen. James Meeks’ opening day boycott to highlight the enduring inequity.

Kozol’s tour through the country’s schools includes stops in Camden, New Jersey, New York City, San Antonio, Boston and Washington, DC.  The themes, portraits of children’s betrayal by the educational system, and deep-rooted inequities are depressingly similar.   Kozol does note that several of the cities have magnet schools, but also talks about how few children those schools reach compared to the whole school age population.

In addition to the vignettes, Kozol talks at some length about local property tax, which, especially at that time was the major vehicle to fund schools in the majority of states throughout the country.  He illustrates both that wealthier districts generate more money than poorer ones, with the result that poorer and blacker districts whose children have greater needs receive far less money per pupil than their wealthier and often whiter counterparts.  He includes an appendix that shows the existing and widening gap in per pupil school funding. 

Kozol also shows that wealthier districts actually generally have lower property tax rates than their poorer counterparts, with the result that it is essentially impossible for those districts to reach funding equity.

Kozol ends the book with a plea for America to stop the inequality:

 ‘Surely there is enough for everyone within this country.  It is a tragedy that these good things are not more widely shared.  All our children ought to be allowed a stake in the enormous richness of America.”

Savage Inequalities, and Kozol’s educational writing more generally, have been a major contribution to advancing public dialogue, if not action, on this issue.  His willingness to take a repeated and unflinching look at America’s educational inequities are laudable, while his writing skills are admirable. 

At the same time, Savage Inequalities actually understates the system’s brutal inequities through an insufficiently rigorous look at the property tax.

First, Kozol only does a comparison of school funding on a single-year and individual basis.  The gaps that he finds grow exponentially when one looks at them over time and for the life of a district.  In Illinois, for example, we at The Chicago Reporter found a nearly $160,000 difference between the amount of money spent on a student in Lake Forest’s Rondout district during her K-12 years compared with the amount spent on a child in a downstate district. 

Multiplied by a classroom of 20 children, the gap grows to $3.2 million.

For a district of 2000 children, the difference increases to $320 million.

In addition, Kozol did not truly explain the cyclical nature of overreliance on the property as a mechanism for funding schools.  While he did note that there are spending gaps between districts and that wealthier districts tend to have lower property tax rates, he did not explore the consequences for business in the communities.

We did.

The results showed an even greater gap between the amount of per pupil property value in commerical property than in residential property between districts with low property tax and high property tax levels.  This showed that businesses, unsurprisingly, are more likely to choose a wealthy district with lower property taxes to set up shop in compared with a poorer district with higher property tax levels.

It means, in essence, that poor districts can never come close to catching up to their richer counterparts.

Kozol also does not look at the levels of achievement of black children in richer districts.  This topic falls outside the focus of his work, but is an important topic to consider because it complicates the dualistic picture he has painted in the book.

Still, nearly 20 years after its publication, and with former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan now heading the Obama adminstration’s effort to meet America’s promise to its children, Savage Inequalities is worth a read.   Even if the economic analysis is slightly understated, the inequalities Kozol depicts are savage indeed. 



Black History Month: Mary Pattillo’s Black on the Block


Happy Black History Month!

I’m back after a three-day hiatus during which Dunreith and I had a terrific time in Northern California.

Here is my plan.

In honor of Black History Month, founded by Carter G. Woodson in the late 1920s, I am going to write this month about books that in some way deal with black history.

Today, the work is Northwestern University professor Mary Pattillo’s book, Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City.

Full disclosure: Pattillo has written a letter in support of The Chicago Reporter, the magazine for which I work.

Pattillo’s first book, Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class, dealt with the issue of urban, middle-class black communities.  She devotes her second work to an analysis of the composition and changes in the North Kenwood-Oakland community on Chicago’s South Side.

A central focus of Black in the Block for Pattillo is the intra-class interactions between poor and middle-class black people within the community. The title of her second chapter, “The Truly Disadvantaged Meets the Black Bourgoeisie,” pays homage to works by scholars  E. Franklin Frazier and William Julius Wilson, who taught her during graduate school at the University of Chicago.

Pattillo writes in the introduction that instead of a monolithic block of people, the often fractious discussions between these groups are what make up the black community:

“Disputes between black residents who have professional jobs and those with no jobs, between black families who have been in the neighborhood for generations and those who moved in last year, and between blacks who don fraternity colors and those who sport gang colors, are simultaneously debates about what it means to be black.  Choosing participation over abdication and involvement over withdrawal, even and especially when the debates get heated and sometimes vicious, is what constitutes the black community.”

Pattillo shows how these conversations and debates play out in chapters about schools, public housing and crime.  In each chapter, she demonstrates through the often animated conversations and judgments that sharing physical space is not synonymous with sharing a community. Her description of middle class residents’ reactions to poorer folks barbecuing in public spaces is particularly well done, for example.

Beyond these individual issues, Pattillo cloaks her analysis in the context of the neighborhood, and, ultimately, Chicago’s history.  She shows how the neighborhood experiences racial discrimination in housing, a post-World War II heyday, and a period of decline as the manufacturing and industrial economies trailed off and received an infusion of public housing residents.

In addition to developing this context and pushing against the idea of a  one-dimensional black community, Pattillo devotes significant amounts of space to the concept and complex reality of the “middlemen” – those middle class black people like aldermen who serve as bridges between the neighborhood and the larger community.

These middlemen and women –  Pattillo identifies herself as one such person  – are in a tricky position of speaking for the community’s need while not denigrating its residents; of being able to bring in, but not single-handedly supply, resources to the neighborhood; and of helping to improve, but also possibly displace, long-term residents.

Pattillo’s honesty in describing her own situation in the community and discussion of the middleman are just two of the book’s many strengths.  Her first chapter, in which she recapitulates the history of the home  in the neighborhood that she purchased in 1998, is fascinating, well-researched and innovative.

Through exploring the story of one home, on one block in one community, Pattillo uncovers the city, and, on some level, the nation’s uneasy and complicated racial history, replete with racial restrictive covenants, crime drama and racial transition.

This type of storytelling marks a departure from Pattillo’s first work, which was converted from her dissertation, and is testament to her intelligence and creativity.

Pattillo demonstrates throughout the book an impressive ability to listen without judgment and wt insight-a skill that one sees through the resident conversations and profiles that populate the work. In consecutive chapters she also exhibits her capacity for scholarly restraint by depicting fairly  the arguments for and against expanding the number of public housing units in the community.

Chicagophiles and those interested in getting a bead on some of President Obama’s top advisers and cabinet ministers will enjoy reading about Valerie Jarrett, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and John W. Rogers, Jr., in whose offices at Ariel Investments much of the Obama transition was planned.

Pattillo’s accomplishments are made even more impressive when one considers the number of scholarly and literary works that have covered the city’s South Side before, let alone factoring in the quality of some of those books.  Some have said that Chicago’s South Side is the most-studied area in the world; luminaries like Wilson, famed novelist Richard Wright, and legendary authors St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton have all written seminal and enduring works about the community.

To find anything new to say about this area is impressive by itself; to forge a new argument and an innovative way of presenting it is remarkable.

Black on the Block has minor flaws.  For example, Pattillo’s discussion of middlemen in other cultures is so brief as to be not particularly helpful and she could do more to expand her discussion of Chicago to other American cities.  But these blemishes only underscore the quality of this thoughtfully-conceived, meticulously documented and skillfully argued work.  At a time of national openness about racial issues, Black on the Block is a valuable and textured contribution to those conversations.

Ron Huberman’s Reading List

CTA President Ron Huberman is slated to become schools chief today; here are some reading suggestions for him.

CTA President Ron Huberman is slated to become schools chief today; here are some reading suggestions for him.

In a surprising move, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley apparently is going to appoint Chicago Transit Authority President Ron Huberman to head the Chicago Public Schools today.

The 37-year-old Huberman, who has no education experience, will replace U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Huberman clearly will not be lacking for things to do in the upcoming days, weeks and months. 

Still, in order to familiarize himself with the field in general, and with inner-city education in Chicago in particular, he might consider reading the following:

1. Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, by J. Anthony Lukas.  Set in Boston, this absolutely classic work traces the lives of three families-one Yankee, one Irish-American, and one black-during the decade that starts in 1968 with Dr. King’s assassination.  In addition to reading like a novel and emphasizing the importance of class, Common Ground has extensive sections on children’s education, the intersection of internal and external social forces, and the factors that promote or hinder achievement.

2. So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools, by Charles Payne.  This recently released book by acclaimed historian Payne provides a ‘guardedly optimistic’ if sobering look at urban school reform during the past 30 years. 

Payne’s central contention is that school reform efforts often do not address the lived realities of students in the hardest to impact schools, and thus have little chance of truly helping those students reach their potential. Heavy in references to the work of the Consortium on Chicago School Research and Chicago Reporter sister publication Catalyst-Chicago, the book is stronger on diagnosing than solving the problem, but is a useful orientation to school reform efforts in Chicago as they relate to the national landscape. 

3.Maggie’s American Dream: The Life and Times of  A Black Family, by James Comer.  Yale psychiatrist Comer has developed a highly successful method of collective adult involvement in students’ lives to boost achievement and build community.  In this book, he tells the story of his mother Maggie, who helped inspire and form his vision.

4. The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, by Jonathan Kozol.  This 2005 book returns to the subject of education, which Kozol first tackled 40 years ago in his National Book Award-winning Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools, and offers a bleak assessment of the state of education nationally 50 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

5. Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing People’s Minds, by Howard Gardner.  The MacArthur Award-winning Gardner pioneered and developed the concept of multiple intelligences.  In this book he writes about how business leaders, politicians and advocates can go about changing public consensus. 

Gardner discusses seven levers to change and six realms in which they occur (Two are classrooms and diverse groups like a city or nation).   Although a bit vague on specifics, the book could be useful for Huberman to consider both in terms of his work within the schools and the public perception of him as having dubious qualifications for his job.