excerpted from the book
Other People's Children:
North Lawndale and the South Side of Chicago
by Jonathan Kozol
Almost anyone who visits in the schools of East St. Louis,
even for a short time, comes away profoundly shaken. These are
innocent children, after all. They have done nothing wrong. They
have committed no crime. They are too young to have offended us
in any way at all. One searches for some way to understand why
a society as rich and, frequently, as generous as ours would leave
these children in their penury and squalor for so long-and with
so little public indignation. Is this just a strange mistake of
history? Is it unusual? Is it an American anomaly? Even if the
destitution and the racial segregation and the toxic dangers of
the air and soil cannot be immediately addressed, why is it that
we can't at least pour vast amounts of money, ingenuity and talent
into public education for these children?
Admittedly, the soil cannot be de-leaded overnight, and the
ruined spirits of the men who camp out in the mud and shacks close
to the wire fencing of Monsanto can't be instantly restored to
life, nor can the many illnesses these children suffer suddenly
be cured, nor can their asthma be immediately relieved. Why not,
at least, give children in this city something so spectacular,
so wonderful and special in their public schools that hundreds
of them, maybe thousands, might be able somehow to soar up above
the hopelessness, the clouds of smoke and sense of degradation
all around them?
Every child, every mother, in this city is, to a degree, in
the position of a supplicant for someone else's help. The city
turns repeatedly to outside agencies-the federal Department of
Housing and Urban Development, the federal and Illinois EPA, the
U.S. Congress, the Illinois State Board of Education, religious
charities, health organizations, medical schools and educational
foundations-soliciting help in much the way that African and Latin
American nations beg for grants from agencies like AID. And yet
we stop to tell ourselves: These are Americans. Why do we reduce
them to this beggary-and why, particularly, in public education?
Why not spend on children here at least what we would be investing
in their education if they lived within a wealthy district like
Winnetka, Illinois, or Cherry Hill, New Jersey, or Manhasset,
Rye, or Great Neck in New York? Wouldn't this be natural behavior
in an affluent society that seems to value fairness in so many
other areas of life? Is fairness less important to Americans today
than in some earlier times? Is it viewed as slightly tiresome
and incompatible with hard nosed values? What do Americans believe
In Illinois, as elsewhere in America, local funds for education
raised from property taxes are supplemented by state contributions
and by federal funds, although the federal contribution is extremely
small, constituting only 6 percent of total school expenditures.
State contributions represent approximately half of local school
expenditures in the United States; although intended to make up
for local wealth disparities, they have seldom been sufficient
to achieve this goal. Total yearly spending-local funds combined
with state assistance and the small amount that comes from Washington-ranges
today in Illinois from $2,100 on a child in the poorest district
to above $10,000 in the richest. The system, writes John Coons,
a professor of law at Berke ley University, "bears the appearance
of calculated unfairness. "
There is a belief advanced today, and in some cases by conservative
black authors, that poor children and particularly black children
should not be allowed to hear too much about these matters. If
they learn how much less they are getting than rich children,
we are told, this knowledge may induce them to regard themselves
as "victims," and such "victim-thinking,"
it is argued, may then undermine their capability to profit from
whatever opportunities may actually exist. But this is a matter
of psychology-or strategy-and not reality. The matter, in any
case, is academic since most adolescents in the poorest neighborhoods
learn very soon that they are getting less than children in the
wealthier school districts. They see suburban schools on television
and they see them when they travel for athletic competitions.
It is a waste of time to worry whether we should tell them something
they could tell to us. About injustice, most poor children in
America cannot be fooled.
Children, of course, don't understand at first that they are
being cheated. They come to school with a degree of faith and
optimism, and they often seem to thrive during the first few years.
It is sometimes not until the third grade that their teachers
start to see the warning signs of failure. By the fourth grade
many children see it too.
"These kids are aware of their failures," says a
fourth grade teacher in Chicago. "Some of them act like the
game's already over."
By fifth or sixth grade, many children demonstrate their loss
of faith by staying out of school. The director of a social service
agency in Chicago's Humboldt Park estimates that 10 percent of
the 12- and 13-year-old children that he sees are out of school
for all but one or two days every two weeks. The route from truancy
to full-fledged dropout status is direct and swift. Reverend Charles
Kyle, a professor at Loyola University, believes that 10 percent
of students in Chicago drop out prior to their high school years,
usually after seventh or eighth grade-an estimate that I have
also heard from several teachers. This would put the city's actual
dropout rate, the Chicago Tribune estimates, at "close to
60 per cent."
Even without consideration of these early dropouts or of the
de facto dropouts who show up at school a couple of times a month
but still are listed as enrolled-excluding all of this and simply
going by official school board numbers- the attrition rates in
certain of the poorest neighborhoods are quite remarkable. For
children who begin their school career at Andersen Elementary
School, for instance, the high school dropout rate is 76 percent.
For those who begin at the McKinley School, it is 81 percent.
For those who start at Woodson Elementary School, the high school
dropout rate is 86 percent. These schools-which Fred Hess of the
Chicago Panel on School Policy and Finance, a respected watch
dog group, calls "dumping grounds" for kids with special
problems-are among the city's worst; but, even for children who
begin their schooling at Bethune and then go on to nearby Manley
High, the dropout rate, as we have seen, is 62 percent.
Not all of the kids who get to senior year and finish it and
graduate, however, will have reading skills at high school level.
Citywide, 27 percent of high school graduates read at the eighth
grade level or below; and a large proportion of these students
read at less than sixth grade level. Adding these children to
the many dropouts who have never learned to read beyond the grade-school
level, we may estimate that nearly half the kindergarten children
in Chicago's public schools will exit school as marginal illiterates.
Reading levels are the lowest in the poorest schools. In a
survey of the 18 high schools with the highest rates of poverty
within their student populations, Designs for Change, a research
center in Chicago, notes that only 3.5 percent of students graduate
and also read up to the national norm. Some 6,700 children enter
ninth grade in these 18 schools each year. Only 300 of these students,
says Don Moore, director of Designs for Change, "both graduate
and read at or above the national average." Those very few
who graduate and go to college rarely read well enough to handle
college-level courses. At the city's community colleges, which
receive most of their students from Chicago's public schools,
the non completion rate is 97 percent. Of 35,000 students working
toward degrees in the community colleges that serve Chicago, only
1,000 annually complete the program and receive degrees.
Looking at these failure rates again-and particularly at the
reading scores of high school graduates-it is difficult to know
what argument a counselor can make to tell a failing student that
she ought to stay in school, except perhaps to note that a credential
will, statistically, improve her likelihood of finding work. In
strictly pedagogic terms, the odds of failure for a student who
starts out at Woodson Elementary School, and then continues at
a non selective high school, are approximately ten to one. The
odds of learning math and reading on the street are probably as
good or even better. The odds of finding a few moments of delight,
or maybe even happiness, outside these dreary schools are better
still. For many, many students at Chicago's non selective high
schools, it is hard to know if a decision to drop out of school,
no matter how much we discourage it, is not, in fact, a logical
"It took an extraordinary combination of greed, racism,
political cowardice and public apathy," writes James D. Squires,
the former editor of the Chicago Tnbune, "to let the public
schools in Chicago get so bad." He speaks of the schools
as a costly result of "the political orphaning of the urban
poor . . . daytime warehouses for inferior students . . . a bottomless
The results of these conditions are observed in thousands
of low-income children in Chicago who are virtually disjoined
from the entire world view, even from the basic reference points,
of the American experience. A 16-year-old girl who has dropped
out of school discusses her economic prospects with a TV interviewer.
"How much money would you like to make in a year?"
asks the reporter.
"About $2,000," she replies.
The reporter looks bewildered by this answer. This teen-age
girl, he says, "has no clue that $2,000 a year isn't enough
to survive anywhere in America, not even in her world."
This sad young woman, who already has a baby and is pregnant
once again, lives in a truly separate universe of clouded hopes
and incomplete cognition. "We are creating an entire generation
of incompetents," a black sociologist observes. "Her
kids will fail. There is a good chance that she'll end up living
with a man who is addicted or an alcoholic. She'll be shot or
killed, or else her children will be shot or killed, or else her
boyfriend will be shot or killed. Drugs will be overwhelmingly
attractive to a person living in a world so bare of richness or
amenities. No one will remember what we did to her when she was
eight years old in elementary school or 15 years old at Du Sable
High. No one will remember that her mother might have tried and
failed to get her into Head Start when she was a baby. Who knows
if her mother even got prenatal care? She may be brain-damaged
-or lead-poisoned. Who will ask these questions later on? They
will see her as a kind of horrible deformity. Useless too. Maybe
a maid. Maybe not. Maybe just another drain upon society."
The focus in this book is on the inner-city schools; inevitably,
therefore, I am describing classrooms in which almost all the
children are black or Latino. But there are also poor and mainly
white suburban districts and, of course, some desperately poor
and very isolated rural districts. Children in the rural districts
of Kentucky, northern Maine, and Arkansas, for instance, face
a number of the problems we have seen in East St. Louis and Chicago,
though the nature of the poverty in rural schools is often somewhat
different. The most important difference in the urban systems,
I believe, is that they are often just adjacent to the nation's
richest districts, and this ever-present contrast adds a heightened
bitterness to the experience of children. The ugliness of racial
segregation adds its special injuries as well. It is this killing
combination, I believe, that renders life within these urban schools
not merely grim but also desperate and often pathological. The
fact of destitution is compounded by the sense of being viewed
as, somehow, morally infected. The poorest rural schools I've
visited feel, simply, bleak. The segregated urban schools feel
more like lazerettos.
One would not have thought that children in America would
ever have to choose between a teacher or a play- r ground or sufficient
toilet paper. Like grain in a time of famine, the immense resources
which the nation does in fact - possess go not to the child in
the greatest need but to the child of the highest bidder-the child
of parents who, more frequently than not, have also enjoyed the
same abundance when they were schoolchildren.
"A caste society," wrote U.S. Commissioner of Education
Francis Keppel 25 years ago, "violates the style of American
democracy.... The nation in effect does not have a truly public
school system in a large part of its communities; it has permitted
what is in effect a private school system to develop under public
auspices.... Equality of educational opportunity throughout the
nation continues today for many to be more a myth than a reality."
This statement is as true today as it was at the time when it
was written. For all the rhetoric of school reform that we have
heard in recent years, there are no indications that this is about
City and state business associations, in Chicago as in many
other cities, have lobbied for years against tax increments to
finance education of low-income children. "You don't dump
a lot of money into guys who haven't done well with the money
they've got in the past," says the chief executive officer
of Citicorps Savings of Illinois. "You don't rearrange deck
chairs on the Titanic."
In recent years, however, some of the corporate leaders in
Chicago who opposed additional school funding and historically
resisted efforts at desegregation have nonetheless attempted to
portray themselves as allies to poor children-or, as they sometimes
call themselves, "school partners"-and they even offer
certain kinds of help. Some of the help they give is certainly
of use, although it is effectively the substitution of a form
of charity, which can be withheld at any time, for the more permanent
assurances of justice; but much of what the corporations do is
simply superficial and its worth absurdly overstated by the press.
Celebrities are sometimes hired, for example, by the corporations
to come into the Chicago schools and organize a rally to sell
children on the wisdom of not dropping out of school. A local
counterpart to Jesse Jackson often gives a motivational address.
He tells the kids, "You are somebody." They are asked
to chant it in response. But the fact that they are in this school,
and doomed to be here for no reason other than their race and
class, gives them a different message: "In the eyes of this
society, you are not much at all." This is the message they
get every day when no celebrities are there and when their business
partners have departed for their homes in the white suburbs.
Business leaders seem to have great faith in exhortation of
this kind-a faith that comes perhaps from marketing traditions.
Exhortation has its role. But hope cannot be marketed as easily
as blue jeans. Human liberation doesn't often come this way-from
mass hypnosis. Certain realities-race and class and caste-are
there, and they remain.
Not surprisingly, the notion that such private-sector boosterism
offers a solution to the miseries of education for poor children
is not readily accepted by some parents in Chicago who have seen
what private-sector forces have achieved in housing, in employment
and in medical provision for their children. "The same bank
presidents who offer gifts to help our segregated schools,"
a mother in Chicago said, "are the ones who have assured
their segregation by redlining neighborhoods like these for 30
years, and they are the ones who send their kids to good schools
in Winnetka L and who vote against the equalizing plans to give
our public schools more money. Why should we trust their motives?
They may like to train our children to be good employees. That
would make their businesses more profitable. Do they want to see
our children taking corporate positions from their children? If
they gave our kids what their kids have, we might earn enough
to move into their neighborhoods."
The same political figures who extol the role of business
have made certain that these poor black people would have no real
choice. Cutting back the role of government and then suggesting
that the poor can turn to businessmen who lobbied for such cuts
is cynical indeed. But many black principals in urban schools
know very well that they have no alternative; so they learn to
swallow their pride, subdue their recognitions and their dignity,
and frame their language carefully to win the backing of potential
"business partners." At length they are even willing
to adjust their schools and their curricula to serve the corporate
will: as the woman in Chicago said, to train the ghetto children
to be good employees. This is an accomplished fact today. A new
generation of black urban school officials has been groomed to
settle for a better version of unequal segregated education.