Jonathan Kozol by
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Prompted By Inequality

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Growing up in Detroit, I attended an integrated, large elementary school which encompassed grades K-8. At that time, the curriculum was excellent, but even during the years I attended, 1958-1963, it was already over-crowed and I began kindergarten the February after turning 5, as they had split sessions to accommodate the large numbers of students. Summer school attendance was common.

In 1962, girlfriends and I canvassed the neighborhood to raise support for the tax that underwrote the school system, but the vote went down to defeat. My parents, and many others, knew this was the death knell for superior education in Detroit and “white flight” was underway. We moved to a neighboring, lily-white suburb on October 1, 1963.

My new school system wasn’t as good as my former one. In 6th grade, we had one term of “new math”. I had already studied “new math” the previous year. In high school, there were no AP level classes, only three “honor” level classes (I took English, was invited into Science, but then couldn’t have taken four years of a foreign language, which I preferred, so declined Science, which wouldn’t effect my major in college anyway).

With no increased tax money, the school system in Detroit rapidly deteriorated. That was my first taste of inequality.

Brandeis had no Education Department. I was a Theater major. In addition, I wanted to qualify for my teaching certification. In order to do that, I had to student teach during the first semester of my senior year, take various psychology courses as well as a course on theories of education in the US (the open classroom was in vogue at that moment). It was in this class, in 1973, that I was introduced to the teachings of Jonathan Kozol.

He was native to the area, graduated from Harvard in 1958, won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford, but didn’t complete his term. He went off to Paris to learn to write. Upon his return to Boston, he got a teaching job in the Boston Public Schools. He was fired for teaching a poem of Langston Hughes, as he described in his first book, published in 1967, “Death at an Early Age”. He came home to Newton (where I happen to live) to teach and became active in the Civil Rights movement.

He is now one of the leading thinkers, writers and advocates on the problems of inequality in education. He has written ground-breaking, award-winning books on the subject. His basic thesis is that one’s location of birth shouldn’t be the determinate for spending on, or quality of education for any given child. It is criminal.

He remains actively involved in the fight to bring equality of quality education across the spectrum for children, regardless of where they live. A good education is the basis for a decent job and upward mobility. Despite years of “good intentions”, statistics prove that schools are MORE segregated now, due to red-lining and the economics of years of Conservative politics than ever before. I read an article in the New York Times recently that posits that the tax code even favors Whites over Blacks.

Despite good intentions, the “No Child Left Behind” Act, which established base-line testing, created a situation where teachers are forced to “teach to the test” each year or lose school funding. Students don’t learn in the same way or by the same modality, so standardized testing can’t be the method to determine what is working across all demographics. It is forcing square pegs into round holes. With spending inequalities, the arts are usually the first programs that are cut, but those enrichment programs bring out creativity and are usually rewarding for all children. Certainly, students need to be proficient in reading and math skills, but they also must have an outlet for expression.

And on a personal note, Kozol’s nephew was a long-time member of the Rose Board of Advisors with me; one smart lawyer and fellow Brandeisian! They are a distinguished family of deep thinkers.


Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    Thank you, Betsy, for reminding me of Jonathan Kozol and all he has done for public education for years. I admit I had forgotten him, though I read his classic “Death at an Early Age” one summer in college when I was involved in an inner-city tutoring program; it was pretty much required reading. A real hero for years and years.

    And thank you, too, for pointing out the failings of “No Child Left Behind.” Between policy disputes, funding shortages and partisan politics, we still can’t seem to get public education right, can we? Your story makes that abundanantly clear, as sad as that is to acknowledge.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Jonathan Kozol is one of my heroes. I have read his books and agree with his ideas about education. As to “No Child Left Behind,” I have a second story I will publish later this week about all of the children left behind by this and “Race to the Top.” Politicians don’t really understand much about best practice in education or how children learn. So, right on, Betsy!

  3. Thanx Betsy for writing about Jonathan Kozol , he was such an important and leading voice for equality in education.

  4. When I think of inequality, I mostly think of income and wealth. Education is an equally important part of our world, along with health.

  5. I should have said, “Education is an equally important part of our unequal world, along with health.” Thank you for the great story!

  6. It was sad (but convincing) to be reminded of how a great urban public school system was heading down-hill–not just Detroit but so many others around the same time. Also sobering to realize that all these white people were “fleeing” into districts that had less to offer their children, at least in those early years, until they could increase the tax base and build up the quality of their schools. Later on with “No child left behind,” I actually think the policy makers successfully accomplished what they had in mind (although they couldn’t say it out loud)–the further decimation of the public schools. No need for great education for the “underclass” as the elit ratcheted up wealth inequality and stoked the school-to-prison pipeline.

    I was a long term sub at the John Marshall School in Dorchester, which had the same principal from the days when she had fired Kozol! Talk about bad leadership, OMG. Several decades later, I was Kozol’s driver when he came to MCLA around 2011 or so as a guest of the Education Dept (in which I was a faculty member). He was a chain smoker, which one doesn’t encounter that much in academic circles. Must be from all the stress he has taken on over the years.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      You are accurate to point out that Detroit was not the only urban system that faltered during that era, Dale.

      Amazing that you were in the same school, with the same principal in Dorchester, all those years later, as the one who had fired Jonathan Kozol, and then were his driver for a time. Also amazing that he’s still alive, being a chain smoker! But, as you point out, he’s taken on the stress of educational inequality in the US as his life’s work. It isn’t getting better.

  7. Marian says:

    Very educational, Betsy, and I learned a lot from this story and agree with all the comments. My niece was a “victim” of no child left behind, when all the teachers did was teach to the test. Her eighth grade teacher cried on the phone to my brother when he complained about all the (useless) homework that kept Elizabeth up until midnight, saying the school forced her to do this.

  8. Suzy says:

    Thank you for this fascinating story, Betsy. I do remember Jonathan Kozol, but didn’t know his background. Fired for teaching Langston Hughes! Amazing! How great that you got to know his nephew on the Rose Board. I think we are all realizing how crucial education is in trying to achieve equality in our society.

  9. Khati Hendry says:

    You did a great job illustrating how segregation and inequality are detrimental to everyone. My mother was a public school teacher and fierce advocate for them, but they have suffered greatly, as you have described so well. Kudos to all who continue to fight for true and fair education.

  10. Thoughtful and articulate as always, Betsy. Loved your portrait of Kozol, one of my edu heroes! Can’t help but juxtapose that Bush – era slogan to: “No Child’s Behind Left!”

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