This is quintessential Kozol. No one familiar with any of Kozol's other work will fail to recognize the crusading journalistic stance that Kozol typically takes in his work. He does a lot of observation and describes what he sees. He also delves into the history, statistics and other backstory material behind the stories he presents. He moves from example to example, trying not to let too much commentary get in the way of letting the story present itself. But he makes no pretences of being "objective" or "unbiased". He clearly has an agenda, perhaps even a mission - one to expose the seamy underside of how the richest country on earth treats "the least of these my brethren".
This time Kozol's focus is on the educational system and the de facto return of segregated schooling, especially in urban areas, and the failure of the dream of Brown v. the Board of Education, despite the fact that Brown is still nominally the law of the land. Kozol shines his spotlight on how it is that 60 years after the landmark Supreme Court case, many schools are nearly as segregated as they were the day the decision as handed down. In fact, segregation is once again worsening, as funding cuts are disproportionately impacting "low-performing" (usually high minority population) schools, leading the more affluent (white) to pull their children out. Furthermore, laws designed to promote integration and equitable funding are either sunsetting or are being overturned by the courts, and charter schools are arising that aggrevate the disparity between the "pedagogy of poverty", how poor and minority children are educated, vs. how affluent children are educated.
Kozol spends page after page in the first two-thirds of the book documenting conditions he often finds when he visits schools in poor and minority neighborhoods: the lack of textbooks, the unsafe and unsanitary physical conditions from leaking roofs to unusable bathrooms to entire wings being shut off and condemned. He documents the "tortured dignity" of teachers who do their best to provide decent education and a positive influence to children under such conditions, but who struggle with burnout and top-down imposed "no excuses", rigidly controlled curricula and behavior management programs. One teacher, using the mandated system of silent hand gestures to control her class tells Kozol, "I could do this with my dog".
But Kozol isn't merely saying that we need to provide better resources or more progressive curricula to poor and minority schools. He is saying that segregation itself is the problem. The conditions he documents would not be tolerated in schools serving predominantly white children. As the "Brown" court found, there is no such thing as "separate but equal". Segregated education is inherently harmful to the minority group (and, he hints, to the majority groups as well, albeit in different ways). Furthermore, Kozol spends nearly a chapter exploring the impact of a later Supreme Court decision, Rodriguez, which ruled that states are not obligated to provide "equal" education, merely to ensure that all students receive "adequate" instruction. Hence, we now are actually one step behind even the horrendous Plessy v. Ferguson decision because we no longer need to pretend to equality, only adequacy. One man's "adequate", however, is another man's "shameful".
Some reviewers have criticized Kozol for being short on solutions. However, KOzol is quite explicit about his solution. Integration (along with the resultant equitable funding) is the only way the imbalances will ever be fairly worked out. Yes, in the meantime, poor and minority schools need to be made more human and progressive. All schools should receive equitable funding (Note: "equitable" does not mean "equal" - the funding should follow the need, such that schools in low-income neighborhoods should get more funding to deal with greater needs, which is exactly the opposite of the No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top system in which the most affluent schools are "rewarded" for having the highest test scores. But in Kozol's view, there should be neither low-income nor affluent schools, much less "black" or "white" schools, as integration is the key step.
Not that such integration will come easily, nor will it just happen. It's going to involve a new mass movement, comparable to the Civil rights Movement. It's a matter of more and more people waking up to the reality of what's happening and deciding to do the right thing. O one can do it for us - for you or for me. It takes committed people working across geographical and socio-economic barriers. Funny, but when the current batch of "reformers" - the Michelle Rhees and the Bill Gates and the Sam Waltons of the world - claim that education is "the civil rights issue of our time", I don't think that that's really what they have in mind.
The first step is to get informed and the second step is to get angry. Reading THE SHAME OF THE NATION can help kickstart both of those steps and I recommend it highly. But it can't end there. Too often the problem seems overwhelming, so we shrug our shoulders and focus on our own children. But Kozol sees inner-city poor and minority children as his children too, not someone else's problem. Race and socio-economic status may be obstacles, but they shouldn't be barriers. Our educational system should provide a quality education to all children - future voting citizens of our democracy - and should be the pride of the richest country on earth; it shouldn't be the shame of the nation.