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Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools Study Guide & Plot Summary

This Study Guide consists of approximately 59 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Savage Inequalities.
This section contains 2,086 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
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Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools Summary & Study Guide Description

Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion and a Free Quiz on Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools by Jonathan Kozol.

Plot Summary

In 1964, the author, Jonathan Kozol, is a young man who works as a teacher. Like many others at the time, the grade school where he teaches is of inferior quality, segregated (teaching only non-white students), understaffed, and in poor physical condition. Kozol loses his first job as a teacher because he introduces children to some African American poetry that subtly questions the conditions of blacks in America. Years later, after holding many other socially conscious jobs, Kozol misses working with children. He decides to visit schools across America to see what has changed since those early days of reform. What he learns is saddening: many schools have student bodies that are still separate and unequal. The remainder of the book details his observations over that year and suggests causes for this shocking state of affairs. Savage Inequalities is published in 1991, and the author warns that the situation may have changed since his investigation.

Kozol's journey starts in East St. Louis, Illinois. Traveling with a woman from a religious order, Kozol takes a look around the crumbling inner city. The town lies on a flood plain below beautiful homes that have been built on nearby bluffs. Factories pour sewage and toxic waste into the city. Playgrounds are found to contain heavy metals that sicken children. An attempt has been made at building a new grade school in one area, but cheap construction methods result in a roof that collapses. Local grade school children tell Kozol horror stories of family and friends who were murdered in violent encounters.

A visit to the East St. Louis schools reveals a complete lack of facilities. Sewage frequently floods lunchrooms, making it impossible to serve food there. Students desperately need books, computers, chalk, even toilet paper. Science classes lack test tubes, tables, running water and even heat. The ceiling is about to collapse in one school, the gym and locker room stink with toxic mold, and even the industrial arts classes have no tools. Dedicated teachers make poverty wages teaching super-sized classrooms yet choose to bring in their own teaching aids and pay for them out of their meager wages. Most telling of all, almost every student in every dilapidated school is not white. Minority children know they are receiving inferior education in ugly, filthy, dangerous buildings but seem most troubled by the fact that they are all pushed aside and not accepted into nearby white schools. They wonder why they are not liked or trusted.

Next Kozol travels to Chicago, Illinois, in the area of Lawndale where Martin Luther King has worked and experienced the worst racism of his life. The conditions are much the same as in East St. Louis with filth, decay and danger permeating mostly non-white schools. Kozol focuses on the inept, unkind and indifferent teachers, the only people the Chicago school system has been able to hire for these segregated schools offering such low wages. The author disagrees with government officials to claim that schools don't need more money, only better teaching methods. To prove his point he talks about a dedicated, brilliant teacher working in the slums who manages to fire kids up. She is just down the hall from uncaring teachers. If they wish to learn her methods, all they have to do is watch.

Lack of money is the problem and racism is the reason these schools are not getting the money they need, concludes Kozol. Thousands more dollars are spent each year on each white pupil attending better schools in the nearby suburbs. Blaming teaching methods or parental involvement for the horrible problems in segregated schools is easier than raising money and finding solutions.

The author begins to make a case that the way schools are funded allows inequalities to continue. Local property taxes fund schools, meaning the money a school receives is based on the value of the houses in the area. Houses in richer areas can be afforded by whites who pay more property taxes and get better schools (even if they are dumping sewage onto non-white areas situated below them without paying taxes to those areas to help clean up). Richer homeowners also get tax relief for paying their mortgages. Meanwhile, poor black areas are dumping grounds for toxic waste and garbage incinerators which benefit the wealthier citizens, but they tend to be the only places poor non-whites can afford to live. Low property values result in badly funded, dangerous schools. Wealthier whites flee these public schools and move to suburbs where their property taxes go toward building elegant public schools. Trier school is an example. It attracts a highly trained staff, and boasts an Olympic swimming pool as well as other luxuries. An article about this suburban school brags that most of the students in it are white.

Kozol says that magnet schools (special public schools built for the most talented students) seem like a good idea, but are also unfair. The inner city disadvantaged non-white students usually lack head start programs or educated parents who can help them push for admittance. Student bodies of magnet schools remain mostly white. Worst of all, disadvantaged students watch television and know they are being treated like something less than human. This is savagely cruel.

In the next area, New York, Kozol sees the same pattern of filth, indifference and degradation. The difference between money spent in inner city schools and outlying suburbs is more than double in the New York districts. The school system administrators admit they don't even know how many kids become discouraged and drop out of these schools. Kozol finds this shocking in a town where every penny stock on Wall Street can be accounted for every day. Yet, the school system cannot compile a list of names of dropouts. In fact, several school administrators admit that they actually hope kids will drop out because they have so many students, they can't teach them all.

Health care for disadvantaged minorities is pathetic, which shows society's indifference to the non-whites, says Kozol. As in Illinois, funding inequalities in New York are not just a local matter. The State of New York actually funnels more money to the richer schools. Visiting a fancy school in Rye, NY, Kozol is disappointed to learn privileged kids are indifferent to the suffering of non-white students in other schools. According to Kozol this is not true of students in his day.

Conservative media adds to the misconceptions about poor schools, according to Kozol. For instance, The Wall Street Journal claims that minor cuts in class size won't help test scores much. Kozol argues that if that is the case, why not double the number of children in each white public school classroom? Nobody would stand for this.

He visits Camden, NJ, the fourth-poorest area in country. At Pyne Jr. High there are no computers. At the local high school the computers have literally melted because of the extreme heat in the airless dilapidated building. Kozol wonders why African American teachers at these schools dance around the issues of race as if they just accept matters as inevitable. High school kids in Camden tell Kozol about being unable to read the classics because pages are missing from their books, and one promising student is told by her guidance councilor to give up her dream of becoming a lawyer because her English isn't good enough. As in other cities, dangerous chemicals escape from nearby factories (the factories do not pay taxes here) and children suffer major untreated illnesses. The only principal who earns media respect in this region is a man who walks around the school with a bat and tosses 300 students out of school. This doesn't help the school, but it gets him on the cover of magazines.

When parents of a New Jersey child named Raymond Abbott go to court to protest the inferior education he is receiving as a poor non-white boy, expensive lawyers are hired by the State to fight the lawsuit. Eventually the court decides that Raymond is indeed being unfairly treated. However, the decision comes too late to save his educational career. Raymond ends up a dropout cocaine addict in jail.

Before introducing readers to the problems in Washington, DC, Kozol observes that seldom do disadvantaged people ask for totally equal education when they go to court. Why not? He takes readers to Washington, where the elegance of the city contrasts starkly with the reality of the non-white slums a few blocks away. A city planner observes that the very poor accept a dual system with richer magnet schools so the whites won't leave altogether and take political power and money to the suburbs. His observations in Washington seem to bear this out. Children actually suffer battle trauma like soldiers. The news media seem to "blame the victim" portraying the people who live in ghettos as dangerous fools who spend too much on expensive tennis shoes and jewelry. Kozol says TV viewers in the suburbs don't understand this stuff is being pushed on ghetto residents who have no access to things of real value.

One failed method of improving non-white schools has been to hire non-white administrators. Kozol says this cannot help. Detroit has had non-white administration for years and the underfunded schools are still in a predicament. When a U.S. District Court finds that Detroit schools are both separate and unequal, the U.S. Supreme Court is called in to consider the charge. The Supreme Court at this time is heavily packed with conservative Nixon appointees. These judges say that making things fair in the city of Detroit for the poor would unfairly punish the suburbs. An important Justice of the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, disagrees with the majority opinion and sees that the country has taken a giant step backward in values. Later, President George H.W. Bush says money is not the answer to solving school problems.

Kozol swings around to San Antonio where he begins by claiming that Americans hesitate to directly discriminate against other people's children because this would make them feel guilty. However, he thinks, laws have allowed discrimination to exist in a less direct form. In the 1920s in America the Foundation program is established. It is supposed to mean that everybody is taxed on local homes and businesses at the same rate, and the federal government comes in to make up the difference in money raised by sending extra subsidies to poor schools. Nevertheless, white schools historically get more of this "make up" money. Kozol thinks it's strange that when it comes to equal funding for public schools, officials fight for local control, but the federal government is happy to overrule federal control when it comes to which books should be read, and other important issues.

In 1968 in San Antonio, the parents of Demetrio Rodriguez and other students go to court to fight for equal funds for their inferior school. Justice Powell of the Supreme Court suggests that a quality education is not guaranteed by the constitution, although lawyers argue the students need the skills to vote, which is guaranteed by the constitution. Twenty-one years later it is found that unequal funding is in fact unfair, but of course this decision is too late for the kid who brought the lawsuit in the first place.

Kozol visits Alamo Heights near San Antonio where the wealthy live on beautiful hills. He then descends to the shacks below the bluffs where 99.3 percent of the kids are Hispanic and poor enough to rely on the school lunch program for their main meal of the day. Down in the valley, the teachers are underpaid, the buildings are crumbling and the schools can spend only a fraction of what they spend in Alamo Heights on each student. Yet most of the State's extra funding goes to Alamo Heights.

At last Kozol sees that when white children are impoverished and discriminated against, their schools are poor, too. He visits a community of poor Appalachian children thrust into one school. It suffers from overcrowding, the building is in shambles and teachers lack resources, just like all of the non-white schools all over the country. He is told that soon many of these children will be bussed to non-white schools nearby

Kozol's observations are haunting. Time and time again the pattern is repeated: Non-whites pushed into nasty, dangerous conditions through history or fate, whites unwilling to share their fortune with the people of color they fear, government finding endless excuses for doing nothing and actually blocking the success of poor schools in corrupt ways. Kozol's conclusion is that this is illogical, unpatriotic and deeply unkind.

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This section contains 2,086 words
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Purchase our Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools Study Guide
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Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools from BookRags and Gale's For Students Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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