Reading Notes: The Shame of the Nation
- Author: Jonathan Kozol
- Published: 2005
- Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
This is an upsetting book.
It describes the dream of integrated schooling enabled by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and how, through racist policy making at the federal, state, and local levels, this dream has been slowly dismantled resulting in an American school system that is as segregated today as it was during the civil rights movement.
Kozol interviews students from kindergarten through high school, educators, and administrators. They describe a reality where kids–overwhelmingly in black and latinx areas–face challenges like overcrowding, cut recess and summer breaks, and military-style drilling methods (like literally derived from the military) that temporarily boost test scores. Depending on what district you’re in, as a high school student you may be offered AP classes or sewing classes.
Teachers are under the most pressure, balancing test scores and education. Hypocritically, forcing lower-performing districts to undergo more testing takes away from the time teachers can spend actually teaching the kids.
Many inner-city districts have been cutting back on buying educational supplies because they are diverting funds to purchase test materials and test-preparation programs.
The stress results in high teacher turnover in districts that need solid, consistent teachers the most. For struggling schools (who frequently also happen to be the least funded schools 🤔) the prevailing opinion of governments has been “well, just work harder!”
The book is not a 400-page op-ed—it brings the facts. I was so impressed with the wealth of data in this book. Literally the last 23% of the book was just citations. With the raw numbers looking you in the face, it’s impossible to ignore how bad this problem is.
Twenty-six years ago, in 1979, black students represented nearly 13 percent of Stuyvesant’s enrollment; today they represent only a meager 2.7 percent.
School Selection Game Theory
A point that stood out to me from the book was that no matter how outspoken parents are about equality in education and integrated schools, they will take any means necessary to acquire the highest level of schooling possible for their children. Speaking about a mother who had a friend “put in a good word” with the admissions department of a more selective public school:
It’s a wonderfully honest revelation, written by a woman with unquestioned liberal credentials who, like many of my friends in New York City, has a history of strong support for civil rights and, unlike some, has never backed away from these beliefs. Still, given the situation as it already exists within New York, this Harvard-educated mother writes, “we parents don’t have much choice”—except, she says, “to pocket our qualms” and, as she says she did for her own daughter, “knock ourselves out” to get our children what we can.
Donations and opinions are one thing, but when it comes to one’s own children, nobody will make a sacrifice. Everyone will try to get the very best for their kids.
I don’t think it’s productive to vilify parents for doing this. I think we should structure the school system in a way that doesn’t encourage parents to act this way. I think this is a textbook case of tragedy of the commons. Parents are competing over a scarce resource—quality education. My opinion from the cheap seats is that we can start fixing the problem by not making that resource so scarce.
There is, moreover, a familiar pattern of internal dissonance even in the more progressive sectors of the press, which tend to favor integration as a national ideal but, when it comes to the decisions being made within their own communities, support those policies (“the neighborhood school,” the niche academies, the non-inclusive charter schools) that cannot fail to have the opposite effect.
Parallels with Inequality in Tech
This book touched on some social patterns that I think are mirrored in the tech industry, and, I believe, contribute to its inequality in the same way. Speaking about a selective public school:
Applications to a number of these schools, for instance, must be filed very early (12 months prior to admission in some cases) and, by the time less knowledgeable parents even hear about one or another of these schools, they often find that every place is taken by the children of those families that may have acquaintances whose children have attended the same school and who advise them on the strategies that can improve a child’s chances of admission.
An example of this in the tech industry: scoring highly in interviews at big tech companies like Apple or Google is highly inscrutable and not intuitive for newcomers. A given Computer Science student at MIT or Stanford might have many friends who have interned or are working at the big tech companies. Having a friend who can answer questions about the quirky interview process or even give you mock interviews is a huge advantage.
It’s great to see there are efforts to bridge these gaps, for example books like Cracking the Coding Interview and resources that let you do mock interviews with real engineers like interviewing.io. If you do well in an interviewing.io interview, you can get referrals into real companies (thanks to Aline, the founder, pointing that out on Twitter).
This certainly helps people who lack established networks, although I think there is still a ways to go to reach parity—like being able to provide career advice and mentoring on the job to speed up advancement. I’m happy that programs exist at major tech companies that are attempting to close that gap too.
Another lesson from this book that can be applied to tech:
To qualify for admission to this [selective] public school, a child must first be taken to a private testing agency: $165 for the IQ test, she notes. “Parents who can’t afford to pay may apply for a free test,” she says; but many parents are intimidated to make such requests and, more to the point, most of them have never even heard that such exemptions are available.
This sounds eerily similar to students never bothering to apply to tech companies because they assume they’ll never get in, or students who are unaware of programs like Engineering Practicum.
The lesson is that if we want diverse tech companies, we must go to them—they will not come to us. We can’t sit up in our high tech ivory tower wondering why people aren’t swimming across the moat to get in. They may not even know where the castle is to begin with. We have to go out and guide them in.
An example of this behavior I know of is the Googler-in-Residence program, where a Googler spends a semester teaching a course at an HBCU while also providing support for students preparing for internships and interviews. A teammate of mine just completed this program. I really hope it can expand and more things like this can happen in the future.
Differences in Schooling
Another way this book really spoke to me was seeing how vastly curricula differs between schools. As a student, you assume all schools are just like yours. However this book describes students in inner city schools who are offered nothing higher than sewing and cooking classes—administrators narrowing their career path at age 14.
Here’s a scene from the book describing an exchange between an upset high school girl, Mireya, who “wanted to take an AP class” but was enrolled in a sewing class due to lack of resources and her classmate, a boy, Fortino, who jumps in:
“Listen to me,” he said. “The owners of the sewing factories need laborers, correct?”
“I guess they do,” Mireya said.
“It’s not going to be their own kids. Right?”
“Why not?” another student said.
“So they can grow beyond themselves,” Mireya answered quitely. “But we remain the same.”
“You’re ghetto,” said Fortino, “so we send you to the factory.” … “You’re ghetto—so you sew!”
I recommend Kozol’s book to anyone looking to get a more detailed view about race and schooling in America.
Since its publication in 2005, have the numbers improved? This brief NPR interview from 2018 seems to suggest it hasn’t. We have a lot of work to do.