The Shame of the Nation

by Jonathan Kozol

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: April 28, 2024
The Shame of the Nation
The Shame of the Nation

Discover the critical need for political action to tackle school segregation in 'The Shame of the Nation.' Explore successful desegregation efforts, the persistent racial isolation crisis, and the shortcomings of compensatory education. Gain insights to improve educational equity.

What are the big ideas?

Necessity of Political Movement for Desegregation

The book emphasizes the critical need for a political movement to tackle school segregation, as relying solely on courts or existing political structures is insufficient. It highlights successful desegregation efforts and underscores the importance of suburban participation in these initiatives.

Examples include the interdistrict transfer programs in Milwaukee and St. Louis, which showed positive outcomes when suburban schools participated.

Racial Isolation as a Continuing National Crisis

The author points out the persistent and increasing segregation in American schools, describing it as a crisis that contradicts the principles established by the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Instances like the stark racial imbalances in schools named after civil rights leaders, where students are mostly unaware of the significance of these names.

Failure of Compensatory Education

Examines the shortcomings of compensatory education programs which, despite substantial funding and high expectations, have not yielded measurable improvements in academic achievement among minority students in segregated schools.

The Higher Horizons program in New York City and similar initiatives in other cities are highlighted as examples of this failure.

Impact of Scripted Curriculum on Teacher Creativity and Student Authenticity

The book critiques the highly regimented educational environments in many inner-city schools, which stifle teacher creativity and suppress student spontaneity, impacting the quality of education.

Practices such as silent lunches and extensive use of hand signals for controlling student behavior are discussed.

Corporate-Driven Educational Approaches in Urban Schools

Describes how inner-city schools often adopt market-driven educational practices, preparing students for specific job roles rather than providing a broad, liberal education, which contrasts sharply with the educational approaches in suburban schools.

School-to-work programs and utilitarian roles like 'management positions' for young students illustrate this approach.

Legal and Political Failures in Addressing Educational Inequities

The book critiques the limitations of legal and political efforts, including over-promised and under-delivered education reforms and the neglect of systemic issues that continue to perpetuate inequalities in school resources and quality.

Discussion on the Rodriguez v. San Antonio case and the ineffective policies of various U.S. presidencies in genuinely improving education.

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Necessity of Political Movement for Desegregation

The book makes a powerful case for the necessity of a political movement to drive meaningful school desegregation. Relying solely on courts or existing political structures has proven insufficient to address the entrenched problem of racial segregation in schools.

The book highlights several successful desegregation programs, such as the interdistrict transfer initiatives in Milwaukee and St. Louis, that have enabled thousands of students from diverse backgrounds to attend school together. These programs demonstrate the positive outcomes that can arise when suburban schools participate in integration efforts.

However, the author notes that public policy has largely turned its back on the aspirations represented by these desegregation successes. To overcome this, the book emphasizes the need for a concerted political movement driven by determined citizens. As the author states, "There are people right here in this room who could begin a movement in this city if they have the will and the resolve."

The book underscores that meaningful change requires going beyond the "box" of focusing solely on reforms within segregated schools. Tackling the root causes of residential segregation, through strategies like expanding access to affordable housing in the suburbs, is crucial. This type of comprehensive, movement-driven approach holds the promise of revitalizing the struggle for integrated schools and a more equitable society.

Here are key examples from the context that support the necessity of a political movement for desegregation:

  • The Milwaukee area has a 30-year-old student transfer program that allows 4,200 students to transfer between Milwaukee and its suburbs, with 11% of the student population in the middle-class suburb of Shorewood coming from Milwaukee. This has helped create a school district that is 19% black and Hispanic, with the community having "a great comfort level with that."

  • In the St. Louis area, a suburban-urban interdistrict transfer program has been in place for over 20 years, enrolling about 10,000 children from the city, nearly a quarter of the school-age black population. Despite recent funding cuts, most suburbs continue to participate.

  • In Louisville, school integration has been in place for over 25 years, combining the city and county schools into a single desegregated system with over 90,000 students. When a proposal was made to cut back the program in 1991, there was strong community pushback, and surveys showed most black parents believed their children's education had improved.

  • In Prince Edward County, Virginia, the public school system went from being virtually all-black in the 1960s to now enrolling 2,800 students, 40% white and 59% African-American, with over 90% of children attending the public system.

These examples demonstrate that sustained political commitment and community support, even in the face of opposition, can lead to successful long-term desegregation efforts. The participation of suburban schools was critical to the success of these programs.

Racial Isolation as a Continuing National Crisis

Racial segregation remains a critical national crisis in American schools. Despite the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which declared segregated schools unconstitutional, many schools today are highly segregated, with student populations that are overwhelmingly non-white. This is true even in schools named after civil rights icons like Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr., where students often have little understanding of the significance of these names.

The author highlights how language is used to obscure this reality, with terms like "diverse" applied to schools that are effectively segregated. School districts and media outlets frequently employ euphemisms to avoid directly acknowledging the racial isolation that persists. This denial of the problem makes it harder to address and overcome.

The consequences of this continued segregation are severe. Racially isolated schools are strongly correlated with concentrated poverty, limiting educational opportunities for students. Addressing this crisis requires confronting the reality of segregation, rather than hiding behind misleading terminology. Only then can meaningful progress be made towards the integrated, equitable education system envisioned in Brown v. Board of Education.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight of racial isolation as a continuing national crisis:

  • In California and New York, only one black student in seven goes to a predominantly white school, demonstrating the high levels of segregation in these states.

  • Schools named after civil rights leaders like Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks are often highly segregated, with student populations that are 98-99% black and Hispanic. For example:

    • A Thurgood Marshall school in Seattle had a student body that was 95% non-white, despite being in a racially mixed neighborhood.
    • A Martin Luther King Jr. high school in New York City, built near Lincoln Center to attract white students, ended up serving mostly black and Hispanic students instead.
    • When fifth grade students at the Thurgood Marshall school were asked who he was and what he did, most had no idea.
  • The author notes a "seemingly agreed-upon convention" in the media to avoid using accurate terms like "racial segregation" and instead use euphemistic language like "diverse" to describe highly segregated schools with as little as 3-4% white or Asian students.

  • The author cites statistics showing that segregated black and Hispanic schools are almost six times as likely to have concentrated poverty compared to overwhelmingly white schools.

These examples illustrate the persistence of racial isolation and segregation in American schools, despite the principles established in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, highlighting it as an ongoing national crisis.

Failure of Compensatory Education

The Failure of Compensatory Education is a key insight from the provided context. This refers to the shortcomings of educational programs that aimed to compensate for the disadvantages faced by minority students in segregated schools, despite significant funding and high expectations.

The context highlights examples such as the Higher Horizons program in New York City and similar initiatives in other cities. These compensatory education programs were intended to help disadvantaged students by providing them with additional resources and experiences, like field trips to cultural institutions. However, the initial promises of these programs ultimately proved to be illusory - they failed to yield measurable improvements in academic achievement among minority students.

The context suggests that these compensatory education efforts, whether called "compensatory" or described using other terms, have proliferated over the past three decades and continue to do so today. Yet, a careful examination of the claims and promises made by these programs reveals a pattern of disappointment and irony - the anticipated benefits have not materialized, and many of these initiatives are now barely remembered by those working in urban education.

This failure of compensatory education highlights the persistent structural inequities that continue to plague segregated, under-resourced schools serving minority communities. Simply providing additional resources and programs, without addressing the root causes of educational disparities, has proven to be an ineffective approach to improving outcomes for these students.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight on the failure of compensatory education programs:

  • The Higher Horizons program in New York City was touted for its "significant accomplishments" like improved reading, reduced suspensions, and better attendance. However, independent researchers from New York University found "no measurable improvement in the academic achievement of participating children" and "very little change" in achievement levels.

  • The Civil Rights Commission examined similar compensatory education programs in other cities like Berkeley, Syracuse, Seattle, and Philadelphia, and found that "in none of these cities did the results appear to be more promising than those that were recorded in New York."

  • The superintendent of the Berkeley schools said after 4 years of a compensatory program for black children that "High hopes have reaped an insignificant harvest."

  • Even the tiny Roosevelt district on Long Island created a compensatory program called "New Frontiers in Education" that was "similar to the Higher Horizons program" but did not yield meaningful results.

  • The context states that these compensatory programs were "instituted in that era" as "alternatives to integration efforts" in urban districts, further highlighting their failure to meaningfully improve outcomes for minority students in segregated schools.

The key point is that despite substantial funding and high expectations, these compensatory education programs consistently failed to produce measurable improvements in academic achievement among minority students in segregated schools across multiple cities. The examples illustrate the widespread and persistent nature of this failure.

Impact of Scripted Curriculum on Teacher Creativity and Student Authenticity

The highly scripted curriculum in many inner-city schools severely restricts teacher creativity and suppresses student authenticity. This stifles the quality of education for these students.

The schools enforce rigid control over every aspect of the school day, from silent lunches to mandated hand signals. Teachers are required to strictly adhere to a pre-written script, leaving no room for spontaneity or independent instruction. Students are not encouraged to think critically or express themselves freely. Instead, they are expected to simply parrot back information without truly understanding it.

This dehumanizing environment denies both teachers and students the opportunity to engage in genuine, meaningful learning. It treats education as a mechanical process of information transfer, rather than a dynamic exploration of ideas. The result is an impoverished learning experience that fails to nurture the intellectual and creative capacities of the students.

Authentic, student-centered education requires flexibility, autonomy and the freedom to learn through play and natural interaction. By stifling these essential elements, the scripted curriculum in these inner-city schools does a grave disservice to the students it is meant to serve.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight about how the scripted curriculum stifles teacher creativity and suppresses student authenticity:

  • The classroom was filled with "formal names for every cognitive event" such as "Authentic Writing," "Active Listening," and "Accountable Talk," which made even simple activities seem overly technical and formal.

  • The teacher, Mr. Endicott, spoke to the students "with a meticulous delivery" similar to how staff spoke to Alzheimer's patients, suggesting an overly controlled and clinical environment.

  • There was a complete lack of any "frivolous" moments or natural expressions of humor and personality from the students - "No one laughed. No child made a funny face." The author noted the absence of any "traits of personality or even physical appearance" in her observations.

  • The students could only respond with answers "in the terms that they had learned in the curriculum" and were unable to explain meanings outside of the prescribed language, indicating a "locked-in" and limited understanding.

  • Teachers felt they had to "stick closely to the script" of the scripted curriculum, leaving them with "uncomfortable feelings of theatricality" and unable to draw on their own "inventiveness or normal conversational abilities."

  • The principal, Fern Cruz, criticized the "cookie-cutter writings" produced by students in response to prompts, lacking any "uniqueness," and lamented how the curriculum "prevents real thinking" and "teaches [teachers] dependency" rather than autonomy.

These examples illustrate how the highly regimented, scripted nature of the curriculum stifles the natural creativity and spontaneity of both teachers and students, undermining authentic learning and expression.

Corporate-Driven Educational Approaches in Urban Schools

The passage highlights a troubling trend in urban schools - the adoption of corporate-driven educational approaches that prioritize job training over a well-rounded education. These schools often reframe learning as the "acquisition of an object or stock-option" rather than a process of intellectual growth and discovery.

In these schools, young students are taught to "negotiate" and "sign contracts" - language more befitting a business environment than a classroom. They are "incentivized" with simulated currency, and encouraged to see knowledge as something they "own" rather than engage with. The principal of one such school even referred to the students as "robots" who will "produce taxes" rather than become independent thinkers.

This stands in stark contrast to the educational approaches in more affluent, suburban schools, where such corporate jargon and practices are largely absent. The passage suggests that this corporate model is specifically targeted at minority and low-income students, denying them the same opportunities for critical thinking and cultural exploration afforded to their wealthier peers.

The result is an educational system that treats underprivileged students as commodities to be molded for the workforce, rather than as individuals deserving of a rich, intellectually stimulating learning experience. This troubling trend represents a fundamental betrayal of the purpose of public education.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight about corporate-driven educational approaches in urban schools:

  • The Wall Street Journal reported in 1990 that 60 Chicago corporations had "taken over the production line themselves" by creating a model school in a predominantly black neighborhood to embody corporate ideas of management and productivity. The principal stated the school's objective was to "develop minds to meet a market demand" like "manufacturing Buicks."

  • Children in urban schools are taught to "negotiate" and "sign contracts" for basic classroom items and activities, using business jargon not typical for young students.

  • The accepted term is for children to "take ownership" of knowledge, rather than engage with it, reflecting a proprietary, market-driven view of education.

  • In the Columbus schools, children are "incentivized" with simulated "Scholar Dollars" for acquiring skills, treating education as a commercial transaction.

  • The head of a Chicago school defended rote instruction that turned children into "robots," arguing they would "never burglarize your home" and "will never snatch your pocket books" but "will be producing taxes."

  • Many urban schools are renamed with corporate-themed names like "Academy of Enterprise" or "Corporate Academy" to explicitly link education to the world of business and careers.

  • The "school-to-work" and "industry-embedded education" approaches are prevalent in urban schools, directly tying education to workforce preparation, in contrast to suburban schools.

  • Urban school principals are sometimes called "building CEOs" or "building managers," and teachers "classroom managers," reflecting this corporate framing.

The book highlights the legal and political failures in addressing educational inequities. Despite decades of lawsuits and reforms, meaningful progress has been elusive. The landmark Rodriguez v. San Antonio case dealt a major blow, ruling that education is not a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution. This forced advocates to pursue change at the state level, leading to a patchwork of uneven results.

Even when plaintiffs win in court, states often fail to comply with orders to equitably fund schools. Reforms touted by various U.S. presidencies have fallen short, neglecting the systemic issues perpetuating inequality in school resources and quality. The book critiques the tendency of legal and political efforts to over-promise and under-deliver on improving education for disadvantaged students.

Ultimately, the book argues that the moral imperative of Brown v. Board of Education has been betrayed. Separate and unequal schooling persists, with lawyers forced to adapt their arguments to this reality rather than challenge it head-on. The book paints a sobering picture of the limitations of the legal and political system in achieving educational justice.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight about the limitations of legal and political efforts to address educational inequities:

  • The Rodriguez v. San Antonio case: The Supreme Court ruled against the plaintiffs, denying that education is a fundamental right and that funding disparities violate the Equal Protection Clause. This restricted future legal efforts to the state level.

  • Ineffective state-level lawsuits: While plaintiffs have won in 27 states, less than half of these states have taken meaningful action to comply with court orders and bring sustained relief to children in poor districts. Progress has been "fitful, and the victories often short-lived and generally incomplete."

  • The Education Trust findings: They show that the top 25% of school districts in terms of child poverty receive less funding than the bottom 25%. In 31 states, districts with the highest percentage of minority children receive less funding per pupil than districts with the fewest minority children.

  • The failure of "adequacy" as a legal strategy: Attorneys have had to renounce the goal of fully equal education and instead pursue "adequate" funding, defined at a level corresponding to state accountability standards, which still falls short of true equity.

  • The neglect of racial segregation: Attorneys often avoid addressing racial isolation, instead focusing their arguments on the premise that segregated schools can be made "good enough" with increased funding, rather than challenging the underlying racial inequities.

  • The lack of public awareness and activism: Many progressives and even teachers in affected communities have only a general idea of these legal battles, with a "far lower" level of engagement compared to the litigators themselves. This contrasts with the public mobilization seen during the civil rights era.

These examples illustrate how legal and political efforts have repeatedly failed to meaningfully address the systemic inequities in school funding and resources, despite some incremental gains. The context highlights the persistent and intractable nature of these educational disparities.


Let's take a look at some key quotes from "The Shame of the Nation" that resonated with readers.

There is something deeply hypocritical in a society that holds an inner-city child only eight years old "accountable" for her performance on a high-stakes standardized exam but does not hold the high officials of our government accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids six or seven years before.

It is unfair to expect young children from disadvantaged backgrounds to perform well on standardized tests when they have not been given the same opportunities as their peers from more affluent families. Meanwhile, those in power who are responsible for perpetuating these inequalities are not held accountable for their actions. This double standard highlights the hypocrisy of a system that prioritizes accountability for the most vulnerable while protecting those who benefit from the status quo.

I have been criticized throughout the course of my career for placing too much faith in the reliability of children's narratives; but I have almost always found that children are a great deal more reliable in telling us what actually goes on in public school than many of the adult experts who develop policies that shape their destinies.

Adult experts often underestimate the insight and honesty of children when it comes to understanding what really happens in schools. Children's firsthand experiences and perspectives can provide a more accurate picture of education than the policies created by distant authorities. By listening to children, we can gain a deeper understanding of the issues that affect them directly.

Shorn of unattractive language about "robots" who will be producing taxes and not burglarizing homes, the general idea that schools in ghettoized communities must settle for a different set of goals than schools that serve the children of the middle class and upper middle class has been accepted widely. And much of the rhetoric of "rigor" and "high standards" that we hear so frequently, no matter how egalitarian in spirit it may sound to some, is fatally belied by practices that vulgarize the intellects of children and take from their education far too many of the opportunities for cultural and critical reflectiveness without which citizens become receptacles for other people's ideologies and ways of looking at the world but lack the independent spirits to create their own.

In underprivileged communities, schools often prioritize workforce preparation over fostering critical thinking and cultural exploration. This approach implies that these students are only worthy of a limited, vocational education, rather than a well-rounded one that nurtures independent thought and creativity. As a result, students in these schools are denied opportunities to develop their own perspectives and instead become passive recipients of dominant ideologies. Ultimately, this restricts their ability to engage with the world as active, informed citizens.

Comprehension Questions

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How well do you understand the key insights in "The Shame of the Nation"? Find out by answering the questions below. Try to answer the question yourself before revealing the answer! Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. Why is relying solely on courts or existing political structures considered inadequate for achieving school desegregation?
2. What outcomes can result from suburban schools participating in integration efforts?
3. Why is the formation of a political movement necessary to advance school desegregation?
4. How does addressing residential segregation contribute to school desegregation efforts?
5. What demonstrates the importance of long-term commitment and community support in successful school desegregation programs?
6. What landmark court ruling declared segregated schools unconstitutional, and how is its legacy contradicted by current school demographics?
7. How do school districts and media often misrepresent the demographic reality of schools, and why is this problematic?
8. What is the correlation between racially isolated schools and socioeconomic conditions?
9. What actions are suggested to address the ongoing issue of racial segregation in schools?
10. What is the main shortcoming of educational programs designed to help disadvantaged students?
11. Why have attempts with additional resources in educational programs not effectively helped minority students in segregated schools?
12. What has been a common outcome of various educational initiatives intended to remedy disadvantages in educational settings?
13. How did long-term assessments describe the impact of enhanced educational programs on disadvantaged students' academic achievement?
14. What misguided assumption underlies many compensatory educational programs?
15. What are the main consequences of a highly scripted curriculum on teachers and students in inner-city schools?
16. How does a scripted curriculum impact the ability of students to engage in critical thinking and self-expression?
17. What does a dehumanizing educational environment imply about the learning experience?
18. How does the scripted curriculum undermine student-centered education?
19. What is the primary focus of educational approaches in certain urban schools, as opposed to fostering intellectual growth?
20. How does the language used in these urban schools reflect a business-like environment?
21. What is the consequence of treating knowledge as something students 'own' in these urban educational settings?
22. What metaphorical language does a principal use to describe students in this type of educational environment?
23. How do incentives such as 'Scholar Dollars' affect the perception of education in these schools?
24. What is the likely impact on students from minority and low-income backgrounds in this corporate-driven educational model?
25. What was the significant ruling in the Rodriguez v. San Antonio case, and how did it impact future legal actions addressing educational disparities?
26. How have states generally responded to court orders aimed at equitably funding schools after plaintiffs have won lawsuits?
27. What does the failure of the 'adequacy' legal strategy demonstrate about attempts to address educational inequity?
28. Why is there a lack of public awareness and activism concerning legal battles against educational disparities?
29. What is the impact of neglecting racial segregation in legal arguments on efforts to improve educational equity?

Action Questions

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"Knowledge without application is useless," Bruce Lee said. Answer the questions below to practice applying the key insights from "The Shame of the Nation". Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. How can you raise awareness and garner support in your community to establish or strengthen interdistrict school integration programs?
2. How can you bring awareness to and challenge the issue of racial segregation in your local education system?
3. How can you contribute to the development of more effective educational programs in your community that genuinely address the disparities faced by minority students?
4. What steps can be taken to rigorously assess the impact of educational initiatives aimed at compensating for disadvantages in your local schools?
5. How can you modify an existing educational curriculum in your community to better foster teacher creativity and student authenticity?
6. What measures can you take to support a holistic educational approach in your local schools to ensure that learning is not reduced to merely skill acquisition for the workforce?
7. How can you engage with school boards or educational policy makers to question and possibly reform practices that treat students as future employees rather than well-rounded individuals?
8. What can community members do to advocate for systemic change in educational funding at the state level?

Chapter Notes


Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Motivation to Become a Teacher: The author initially did not intend to become a teacher, but was motivated to do so after the murder of civil rights volunteers in Mississippi in 1964. This event made the author reconsider his academic plans and led him to sign up as a reading teacher in a freedom school in the black community of Boston.

  • Conditions of Segregated Schools: The author describes the poor physical conditions and lack of resources in the segregated schools he taught in, including an overcrowded auditorium shared by multiple classes, frequent window collapses, and the use of corporal punishment on students. Many students in these schools were reading and performing math at levels far below grade level.

  • Engagement with the Black Community: The author developed close relationships with leaders in the black community, including the minister James Breeden, who provided guidance and support during the author's early years as a teacher. These community leaders were vocal in their denunciation of the damage done to children by racial segregation in the schools.

  • Shift in School Conditions: In the 1970s and 1980s, the author visited schools that had been desegregated, either by court order or voluntarily. These schools generally had more cheerful physical conditions and a more positive atmosphere compared to the author's initial school experience. However, many urban schools remained in disrepair and overcrowded, especially as federal funding for social services and housing declined.

  • Resegregation of Schools: By the end of the 1980s, the author observed a trend of increasing racial segregation in urban schools, with the vast majority of students being black or Hispanic in many districts. This resegregation occurred even in cities and districts that had previously made progress in integrating their schools.

  • Isolation of Minority Students: The author describes the extreme isolation of black and Hispanic students in many urban schools, with some high schools having over 95% minority enrollment and only a handful of white students. This level of segregation is seen as a failure of the promise of Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights movement.

  • Importance of Listening to Student Narratives: The author argues that to fully understand the consequences of school segregation, one must listen closely to the perspectives and experiences of the students themselves, as they provide more reliable testimony than adult experts or policymakers.

Chapter 1: Dishonoring the Dead

  • Racial Segregation in Schools: The chapter discusses the alarming trend of increasing racial segregation in public schools across the United States, particularly in urban areas and the Northeast. This segregation often goes unacknowledged or is euphemistically referred to as "diversity."

  • Disparities in Educational Opportunities: Racially segregated schools are often associated with concentrated poverty, inadequate resources, and poorer educational outcomes for students, creating a cycle of disadvantage. This contrasts with the benefits of integrated schools that were envisioned in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

  • Erasure of Civil Rights History: Many schools named after civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall have become bastions of contemporary segregation, often with students unaware of the historical significance of the names.

  • Suburban Segregation: Racial segregation is not limited to urban areas, as the chapter highlights the phenomenon of "reverse mobility" where black and Hispanic families move to the suburbs only to find their children trapped in isolated, segregated schools.

  • Denial and Euphemisms: The chapter criticizes the use of euphemistic language and denial to avoid acknowledging the reality of racial segregation in schools, with terms like "diversity" being used to describe overwhelmingly non-white student populations.

  • Psychological Impact on Students: The chapter explores the psychological and emotional toll of racial isolation and concentrated poverty on students, including a sense of being "hidden" or "unwanted" by society.

  • Challenges to Integration Efforts: The chapter discusses how various policy decisions, court rulings, and the reluctance of white parents have undermined efforts to maintain and expand integrated schools, leading to the reversal of desegregation progress.

  • Responsibility and Accountability: The chapter questions the notion that the responsibility for educational success lies solely with the students, arguing that broader societal and policy decisions play a significant role in shaping the educational opportunities available to children in segregated schools.

Chapter 2: Hitting Them Hardest When Small

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Stark Disparities in Funding and Resources Between Schools Serving Wealthy and Poor Communities: The chapter highlights the significant funding and resource gaps between public schools in wealthy suburban areas and those serving low-income urban communities. For example, in 1997, the per-pupil spending in Alliyah's school in the Bronx was around $8,000, compared to $12,000 in a typical white suburb and up to $18,000 in the wealthiest suburbs. These disparities extended to teacher salaries, school facilities, and availability of programs like art, music, and libraries.

  • Unequal Access to Preschool Education: The chapter emphasizes the stark differences in access to high-quality preschool education between children from affluent and low-income families. While children in wealthy communities often attend "Baby Ivy" preschools starting as early as age 2, many children in poor urban neighborhoods receive no preschool education at all. This puts low-income children at a significant disadvantage when they enter kindergarten.

  • Use of Private Funds to Supplement Public Schools in Affluent Areas: The chapter describes how parents in wealthy communities have increasingly used private funds to supplement the budgets of their local public schools, paying for additional teachers, programs, and resources. This has created a two-tier system where affluent public schools have access to significantly more resources than their high-poverty counterparts.

  • Challenges of Standardized Testing for Children Denied Early Educational Opportunities: The chapter argues that it is deeply unfair to subject children who have been denied preschool and early educational opportunities to the same "high-stakes" standardized tests as their more privileged peers. This creates an uneven playing field and penalizes children for circumstances beyond their control.

  • Resistance to Addressing Funding Inequities: The chapter discusses the tendency of some policymakers and affluent parents to dismiss the importance of funding disparities, arguing that "money alone" is not the solution or that other "social factors" must be considered. The author counters that these arguments often serve to justify the status quo and avoid addressing the fundamental injustice of the unequal education system.

  • Resilience of Children in Adversity: While acknowledging the remarkable resilience and academic achievements of some children in high-poverty schools, the chapter argues that these individual successes should not distract from the structural inequities that make such victories so rare. The author contends that all children should be able to thrive in their education, not just the exceptional few who overcome significant obstacles.

Chapter 3: The Ordering Regime

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Scripted Curriculum and Rigid Control: Many inner-city schools have adopted a highly regimented, scripted curriculum and pedagogical approach that emphasizes strict control, uniformity, and the relentless pursuit of raising test scores. This includes practices like silent lunches and recesses, extensive use of hand signals and verbal commands to control student behavior, and the detailed naming and categorization of every intellectual activity.

  • Denial of Authenticity and Spontaneity: This approach denies teachers the ability to draw on their own creativity and conversational abilities, forcing them to adhere rigidly to the prescribed curriculum and lesson plans. It also suppresses the natural spontaneity, humor, and emotional expressiveness of the students, creating a highly controlled and sterile learning environment.

  • Labeling and Ranking of Students: Students are frequently labeled and ranked according to their performance, with public displays of these rankings creating a sense of shame and humiliation for those at the bottom. Terms like "Level Ones" and "Level Fours" become part of the students' vocabulary to refer to themselves and their peers.

  • Emphasis on Measurable Outcomes: There is an intense focus on aligning all learning activities with specific, measurable "objectives" and "standards" that are tied to standardized testing. This leads to a devaluation of intrinsic learning and aesthetics, as teachers are forced to treat literary works and other content as mere vehicles for demonstrating testable skills.

  • Bureaucratic Overload and Theatricality: Teachers are burdened with extensive paperwork, documentation, and meetings to demonstrate alignment with the prescribed curriculum and standards. This consumes a significant portion of their time and energy, leading to a sense of "servile tabulation" and "enforced theatricality" in their teaching.

  • Racial and Class Dimensions: These practices are disproportionately implemented in schools serving low-income, minority students, creating an "educational apartheid" where different pedagogical approaches are used for privileged and underprivileged students. This further entrenches racial and class-based inequalities in education.

  • Dehumanizing Effects: The highly regimented and controlling nature of this approach is seen by many as dehumanizing, stripping away the natural expressiveness and individuality of both students and teachers. It reflects a broader societal tendency to view education as a matter of "efficient management" rather than a nurturing, holistic endeavor.

Chapter 4: Preparing Minds for Marketplaces

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Explicit Training of Young Children for the Modern Marketplace: The chapter describes how children in inner-city schools, starting as early as kindergarten, are being trained for managerial and corporate jobs through practices like "HELP WANTED" signs, application processes for "management positions", and "earnings charts" that tie their academic performance to monetary rewards.

  • Commodification of Children: The chapter argues that these practices reflect a view of children as "investments", "assets", or "productive units" whose value is primarily determined by their future economic productivity, rather than as individuals with intrinsic worth and a right to a well-rounded education.

  • Distinction between Urban and Suburban Schools: The chapter suggests that these utilitarian, market-driven approaches to education are largely confined to schools serving minority and low-income communities, while suburban schools maintain a more balanced, "liberal" curriculum that encourages independent thinking.

  • School-to-Work Programs: The chapter describes how "school-to-work" programs, which explicitly link education to specific careers, have become pervasive in many urban schools, often to the exclusion of more academically-oriented options that could lead to college.

  • Lack of Alternatives and Diminished Options: The chapter argues that these school-to-work programs often present a narrow range of career choices to students, foreclosing other possibilities and trapping them in low-wage jobs, even when they may have the potential for more ambitious academic and professional pursuits.

  • Principals' Discomfort with the Situation: The chapter suggests that some principals in these urban schools are uncomfortable with the market-driven approach, wishing they could provide a more well-rounded, critical-thinking-oriented education, but feel constrained by external pressures and demands for measurable results.

  • Influence of Business Leaders and Conservative Ideology: The chapter argues that the push for these utilitarian, market-driven education reforms has come primarily from business leaders and political conservatives, rather than from educational progressives, and reflects a social Darwinist ideology that is at odds with principles of equality and opportunity.

Chapter 5: The Road to Rome

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Standardized Testing and Curriculum Narrowing: The chapter discusses how the emphasis on standardized testing has led to a narrowing of the curriculum in many inner-city schools. Subjects like history, geography, science, art, and music are being marginalized or eliminated because they are not tested by high-stakes exams. This results in a significant loss of cultural knowledge and exposure to the arts for these students.

  • Excessive Test Preparation: The chapter provides numerous examples of how schools are devoting excessive amounts of instructional time to test preparation, sometimes up to 5 hours per day. This "drill and kill" approach to teaching is stifling creativity, critical thinking, and student engagement.

  • Negative Impacts on Student Well-being: The chapter highlights how the testing regime is having detrimental effects on student well-being, including the elimination of recess, extended school days and summers, and increased anxiety and stress. These practices deprive students of opportunities for play, relaxation, and enrichment activities.

  • Unintended Consequences of Accountability Measures: The chapter discusses how accountability measures, such as grade retention policies and financial incentives for test score improvements, are leading to perverse outcomes. These include students being held back multiple grades, teachers being pitted against each other, and schools being penalized for taking in low-performing students.

  • Resistance and Dissent: The chapter features the stories of individuals, like the educator Anthony and former state commissioner Thomas Sobol, who have resisted the testing-driven approach to education. Their narratives highlight the importance of preserving space for independent thinking, creativity, and a holistic view of education.

  • Inequitable Impacts: The chapter emphasizes that the negative consequences of the testing regime are disproportionately borne by students in low-income, minority communities. This exacerbates existing educational inequities and denies these students access to a well-rounded, enriching educational experience.

Chapter 6: A Hardening of Lines

  • Segregation and Isolation in Education: There is a growing trend among privileged families to isolate their children from minority students, with strategies like early application deadlines, admissions tests, and connections to get their children into the best schools.

  • Unequal Access to Quality Education: Highly-rated public schools in major cities like New York often have admissions policies that favor children from well-educated, well-connected families, making it difficult for less privileged students to gain access.

  • Racial Disparities in Selective Schools: Prestigious public schools like Stuyvesant High School in New York have disproportionately low enrollment of Black and Hispanic students, despite efforts to develop programs to assist them in gaining admission.

  • Myth of Meritocracy: Once students gain admission to selective schools, their early advantages are often overlooked, and their academic success is seen as a result of inherent merit, rather than the preferential opportunities they may have had.

  • Deeply Segregated and Under-Resourced Schools: Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are often steered towards large, low-performing high schools with poor physical conditions, high levels of violence, and limited academic resources.

  • Challenges Faced by Teachers in Struggling Schools: Teachers in under-resourced schools often face challenges like overcrowding, lack of supplies, and high numbers of students with significant academic and behavioral needs.

  • Attempts at Desegregation and Resistance: Efforts to dissolve and disperse students from a highly segregated district like Roosevelt, New York were met with fierce resistance from surrounding, predominantly white districts.

  • Cycles of Reform and Disappointment: Struggling school districts often undergo repeated changes in governance and implementation of new programs, but deeper, systemic issues persist, leading to a cycle of cresting and declining hopes for improvement.

Chapter 7: Poor Conditions at the School

  • Conditions of Neglect and Disrepair in Inner-City Schools: The chapter describes the deplorable physical conditions of many inner-city schools, including dirty boards, broken windows, cracks in walls, old and damaged books and equipment, and the presence of pests like pigeons and rats. These conditions convey a sense of neglect and squalor that students must endure.

  • Lack of Aesthetic Appeal and Harmony: The author notes that the "insult to aesthetics, the affront to cleanliness and harmony and sweetness" are continuing realities for children in these schools, creating an environment that is far from nurturing or conducive to learning.

  • Overcrowding and Inadequate Facilities: Many inner-city schools suffer from severe overcrowding, with students forced to attend class in trailers, converted storage closets, and other makeshift spaces. This leads to issues like lack of bathrooms, insufficient lunchroom space, and the inability to offer certain programs like music.

  • High Teacher Turnover and Inexperienced Staff: Inner-city schools often struggle to retain experienced, certified teachers, with many relying on a high proportion of uncertified or inexperienced teachers working on emergency credentials.

  • Rigid Curriculum and Emphasis on Standardized Testing: Schools are under intense pressure to improve standardized test scores, leading to a narrowing of the curriculum, the sacrifice of recess and other enrichment activities, and a focus on drilling students on test preparation rather than providing a well-rounded education.

  • Tracking and Channeling Students into Vocational Courses: The chapter describes how students in these schools, particularly minority and low-income students, are often tracked into vocational or "service" classes that have little academic substance and limit their future options, rather than being given access to college-preparatory courses.

  • Lack of Resources and Funding Disparities: Inner-city schools frequently lack basic resources like textbooks, computers, and laboratory equipment, while also receiving less funding per student than their more affluent counterparts in the same district.

  • Emotional Toll on Students and Teachers: The chapter highlights the emotional and psychological impact of these conditions on both students and teachers, with students expressing feelings of embarrassment, humiliation, and a sense of being devalued, while teachers suffer from anxiety and stress.

  • Racial and Socioeconomic Segregation: The chapter notes that the students in these neglected schools are overwhelmingly minority and low-income, reflecting the persistent racial and socioeconomic segregation in the education system.

  • Lack of Accountability and Equitable Solutions: Despite legal challenges and efforts to address these issues, the chapter suggests that the fundamental inequities and lack of accountability in the system continue to perpetuate these conditions for students in inner-city schools.

Chapter 8: False Promises in Segregated Schools

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Failure of Compensatory Education Programs: The chapter examines the Higher Horizons program in New York City, which was a highly publicized attempt to improve academic achievement for Black children in segregated schools. Despite initial enthusiasm and significant funding, independent researchers found no measurable improvement in academic achievement for participating students. Similar compensatory education programs in other cities also failed to produce meaningful results.

  • Exaggerated Expectations for Urban School Leaders: The chapter discusses how urban school superintendents and principals, particularly those who are racial minorities, are often greeted with exaggerated expectations of transformative change, only to face harsh criticism and dismissal when they inevitably fail to live up to these unrealistic promises. The chapter cites the examples of Richard Green, Joseph Fernandez, and Rudy Crew in New York City, as well as the infamous case of Joe Clark in Paterson, New Jersey.

  • Broken Promises from Presidents: The chapter examines the ambitious education reform plans announced by Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, which promised dramatic improvements in student achievement and school performance. However, these plans lacked sufficient funding and resources to achieve their goals, and many of the promised outcomes were never realized.

  • Falsification of School Performance Data: The chapter discusses how school districts in Houston, New York, and Chicago have been found to have falsified or manipulated data on student test scores, graduation rates, and dropout figures in order to create an illusion of success and improvement, when the underlying realities were much bleaker.

  • Historical Roots of the "Efficiency" Agenda: The chapter traces the origins of the current emphasis on "scientific" management and accountability in education back to early 20th century thinkers like Elwood Cubberley and Lewis Ternan, who promoted the idea of schools as "factories" and advocated for the segregation and tracking of minority students based on eugenic theories of intelligence.

  • Persistence of Racial Inequity: Despite the rhetoric of reform and improvement, the chapter argues that the fundamental structures of racial segregation and inequity in the education system have remained largely unchanged, with low-income students of color still relegated to under-resourced, inferior schools.

Chapter 9: Invitations to Resistance

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • The Need for a Political Movement: The author argues that a political movement is necessary to address the issue of racial segregation in schools, as the courts and political parties are unlikely to take action on their own. The author cites education expert Gary Orfield, who believes that a determined movement embodying the unfinished struggle for desegregation is both possible and necessary.

  • Successful Desegregation Programs: The chapter highlights several examples of successful desegregation programs, such as the interdistrict transfer programs in Milwaukee, St. Louis, and the Boston area (Metco). These programs have enabled students from urban, predominantly minority schools to attend suburban, predominantly white schools, with positive outcomes for the students involved.

  • Suburban Participation is Key: Orfield emphasizes the importance of suburban participation in desegregation efforts, noting that the involvement of suburban districts and communities is crucial for the success of these programs. He cites the threat to programs like the one in St. Louis, where state funding cuts have led to the withdrawal of suburban districts from the integration efforts.

  • Overcoming Resistance and Skepticism: The chapter addresses the common skepticism about the feasibility of desegregation, particularly in heavily segregated urban districts. Orfield argues that this skepticism can be overcome, pointing to the success of past desegregation efforts and the potential for new initiatives in less segregated areas as a starting point.

  • The Importance of Diverse Schooling Experiences: The chapter emphasizes the benefits of integrated schooling for students, both in terms of academic outcomes and social development. It cites the experiences of students who have participated in desegregation programs, highlighting how these experiences have shaped their educational and professional trajectories.

  • The Need to Look Beyond the Hardest Cases: Orfield cautions the author against focusing solely on the most extreme cases of segregation, such as in New York City, when considering strategies for desegregation. He suggests that looking at less segregated areas may provide more promising opportunities for successful desegregation efforts.

Chapter 10: National Horror Hidden in Plain View

  • Racial Isolation and Inequity in Education: The chapter discusses the persistent problem of racial isolation and inequity in the American education system, which the author describes as a "national horror hidden in plain view." Despite the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, many schools remain segregated, and there are significant funding disparities between wealthy, predominantly white districts and low-income, minority districts.

  • The Legacy of Rodriguez v. San Antonio Independent School District: The chapter examines the impact of the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Rodriguez v. San Antonio Independent School District, which ruled that education is not a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution. This decision has had far-reaching consequences, limiting the ability of federal courts to address educational inequities and forcing advocates to pursue legal challenges at the state level.

  • State-Level Litigation and the Limits of Adequacy: The chapter discusses the efforts of attorneys to address educational inequities through state-level litigation, often focusing on the concept of "adequacy" rather than full equity. While these efforts have achieved some successes, the progress has been slow and uneven, and the victories often short-lived.

  • The Need for a National Response: The chapter argues that the scale and persistence of educational inequities require a national response, rather than relying solely on state-level efforts. It examines various proposals, such as Congressman Chaka Fattah's bill to use federal accountability measures to address resource disparities, and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.'s proposed constitutional amendment to establish education as a fundamental right.

  • The Challenges of Building a National Movement: The chapter acknowledges the difficulties of building a national movement around educational equity, noting the lack of public awareness and political will, as well as the tendency of the legal system to be "socially reactionary." It suggests that creating a climate of political momentum is crucial for driving meaningful change.

  • The Moral Imperative and the Cost of Inaction: The chapter emphasizes the moral imperative to address educational inequities, which it describes as a "national horror hidden in plain view." It argues that the consequences of inaction are unacceptable, as they deprive millions of children of the opportunity to reach their full potential and participate fully in American democracy.

Chapter 11: Deadly Lies in Education

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Sustained Attack on Dissenting Educators: The chapter describes a sustained attack by the Bush administration against teachers and educators who disagree with the policies and practices embodied in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. The administration has accused these dissenting educators of harboring "soft bigotry" and has gone so far as to call the National Education Association a "terrorist organization".

  • Rhetoric vs. Substance in Education Reform: The chapter argues that the administration's rhetoric about "all children can learn" is not matched by a willingness to provide the necessary resources and infrastructure to enable low-income children to learn in the same high-quality schools as their more privileged peers. The chapter suggests that the administration's policies prioritize rhetoric and accountability over substantive educational needs.

  • Rejection of Progressive Education Values: The chapter suggests that some urban principals have rejected progressive education values in favor of more directive, militaristic approaches that are seen as necessary to restore order in chaotic school environments. The chapter argues that this rejection of progressive values is partly a reaction to the excesses of the "open education" movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

  • Racial Segregation and Differentiated Pedagogy: The chapter suggests that the insistence on a distinctive pedagogy for minority students, based on the belief that they have unique psychological and educational needs, has contributed to the further racial segregation of public schools. The chapter argues that this differentiated pedagogy makes it easier for middle-class and upper-middle-class parents to avoid sending their children to the same schools as black and Hispanic children.

  • Limitations of Small Schools Initiative: The chapter acknowledges the potential of small, innovative public schools to provide a better education, but also highlights the unevenness and problems that have emerged in the small schools initiative, such as the creation of elitist "niche academies" and the resentment from students in larger schools when small schools are given preferential treatment.

  • Persistent Achievement Gaps and Declining Minority Enrollment in Higher Education: The chapter presents data showing that the achievement gap between black/Hispanic and white students has widened or remained unchanged, despite the implementation of accountability-focused reforms. It also notes the alarming decline in the enrollment of minority students at prestigious public universities, which the chapter links to the catastrophic dropout rates and widening academic gaps in inner-city high schools.

  • Rejection of "Soft Bigotry" Rhetoric: The chapter strongly rejects the president's claim that the administration's policies are challenging the "soft bigotry of low expectations," arguing that this rhetoric is a "deadly lie" that is not supported by the evidence of worsening educational outcomes for minority students.

Chapter 12: Treasured Places

  • Humane and Happy Elementary Schools: Despite the increasing severity and efficiency-driven approaches in urban education, there are still elementary schools that foster a sense of affection, confidence, and moral commitment among teachers, who view their role as nurturing the inherent value of each child rather than just "pumping added value" into them.

  • Resistance and Double-Vision: These schools, while not overtly "political," represent places of resistance against the dominant narratives and policies in education. Teachers in these schools are aware of the segregated demographics and inequities they operate within, but their moral disposition and temperament allow them to stand outside that "box" and regenerate the energy they bring to their work.

  • Dedicated and Idealistic Teachers: Many young and idealistic teachers seek out these kinds of schools, looking for principals who will welcome their backgrounds in the social sciences, humanities, and arts, rather than viewing them as disadvantages. These teachers are willing to work within the constraints of the system while maintaining a sense of joy and playfulness in their teaching.

  • Emotional Resilience and Support: The schools provide a nurturing environment for children facing significant personal challenges, such as the loss of a parent. Teachers like Mr. Bedrock create a sense of camaraderie and emotional support that helps students like Serafina navigate their grief and maintain their academic engagement.

  • Eccentricity and Dedication: Principals like Miss Rosa and teachers like Mr. Bedrock, while sometimes eccentric, are deeply dedicated to their students and the school community. They are willing to go above and beyond, working long hours and advocating for their students, driven by their love of children and learning rather than purely economic motivations.

  • Preserving the Joys of Childhood: These schools resist the pressure to prioritize test scores and efficiency over the fundamental needs and joys of childhood, such as recess, creative activities, and the display of children's unedited work. They strive to maintain a sense of warmth, playfulness, and informality that is often lacking in more test-driven environments.

  • Defending the "Treasured Places": The author argues that these schools, which provide opportunities for children and teachers to engage in open-ended exploration and discovery, need to be defended against the "unenlightened interventions of the overconfident" who seek to redefine the teaching profession solely in terms of efficiency and measurable outcomes.


  • Segregation in Schools Persists: Despite the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, racial segregation in schools has continued to increase, with many inner-city schools serving predominantly minority student populations. This trend has been exacerbated by policies and practices that reinforce racial isolation, such as the "neighborhood school" concept and the growth of non-inclusive charter schools.

  • Erosion of Teacher Autonomy: The emphasis on standardized testing and scripted curriculum has led to a loss of autonomy for teachers, who are increasingly judged solely by their students' test scores rather than their own professional judgment. This has created a "stultified atmosphere of education" that denies both teachers and students the opportunity for authentic, critical learning.

  • Shift to "Balanced Literacy": The New York City school system has shifted away from the rigid, Skinnerian "Success for All" (SFA) curriculum towards a "balanced literacy" approach, which incorporates both phonics and whole-language methods. This change has been criticized by some as "too progressive," but the new principal of P.S. 65 sees it as a positive step towards more "natural learning."

  • Inadequate Funding and Resources: The economic downturn has led to severe budget cuts for many school districts, forcing them to make difficult choices such as eliminating full-day kindergarten or locking down libraries. This disproportionately affects low-income, minority-majority schools, further exacerbating educational inequities.

  • Lack of Political Will for Integration: Despite widespread public support for integrated education, political leaders at the national level have largely abandoned the goal of school desegregation, with the Bush administration even accused of "exploiting" and "cynically" promoting segregation. Congressman John Lewis laments the "betrayal" of the promise of Brown v. Board and the need for a renewed struggle to achieve integration.

  • Importance of Integrated Education: Congressman Lewis passionately argues that integrated education is a moral imperative and a necessary foundation for a truly unified, "beloved community." He rejects the notion of nostalgia for segregated "training schools" of the past, emphasizing that children of all races need to learn together from a young age to foster understanding and social cohesion.


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