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Horace Mann

On Savage Inequalities: A Conversation with Jonathon Kozol

Teach for America



Mann on a Mission

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The local supermarket pays respects to the famous Franklinite
I hate to admit that I didn't know much about Horace Mann when Kevin and I pulled into the Star Supermarket Plaza in Franklin, MA. We had come to Franklin to visit Mann's birthplace, and after a short call to the public library, found that the only memorial to this famous Franklinite was a granite stone placed on the edge of their typical small town strip mall.

There wasn't much to learn about his life here, although several buildings and plazas had been named in his honor, so after a quick trip around this quaint New England town, Kevin and I trekked onto our next destination.

Mann's house once stood here
I'd heard the name Horace Mann somewhere along the way in my youth, and knew of several schools across the nation that took his name, but didn't have a concrete idea of who he was or what he had done to bring Kevin and me to the supermarket built where his childhood home once stood. It wasn't until I got online and into the history books that I discovered how important this man had been to my life, and that his mission truly brought me to where I am today.

His work? Education. His accomplishment? Horace Mann is considered the father of the public school system in the United States. In the 1830's, Mann recognized the need to educate all children, regardless of background or wealth. At that time, public schools offered the bare minimum of education, and even then only to children whose families could pay the school fees. Often, a family with several children could only afford to send one to school for an education, leaving the others to do without. While the wealthy hired private tutors, or sent their kids to elite academies, the middle and lower classes did not have that option. The public, or "common" schools of Mann's day rarely opened for more than a few weeks each year, and the children of farmers or laborers were often absent because they were needed to work at home. There were no sets of textbooks for the students, and the buildings were simple and unequipped. As far as teachers went, salaries were extremely small and training was nonexistent. As a result, the teachers were usually young and inexperienced, and were consequently hardly able to provide a rigorous academic environment for the young minds in their classes.

Mann realized that this situation perpetuated poverty. Children who were born into poor families were never given the opportunity to get well-paying jobs, since they couldn't learn enough to get them there. To Mann, education could be "the great equalizer of the conditions of men," if only everyone had access to a strong one. It seemed to him that education gave all children the choice of what they wanted to do with their lives. Without proper education, the choice simply wasn't available to them.

In order to change the system, Mann needed to spread his message and persuade people that good, common education was essential for all children. Once he became the first Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, he was able to do that. As Secretary, Mann visited all of the state schools, and made recommendations for change in both his Annual Reports as well as the Common School Journal. These essays became widely read throughout Massachusetts and the nation, forming the "core documents in the movement to reform and standardize education."

Mann did not stop after advocating for a little school reform. He made sure that each school in the state had a core library of 40 books that could be loaned to students and their families. He then went on to found the first state-funded institution for training teachers in the country. "Teaching," he wrote in the First Annual Report, "is the most difficult of all arts and the profoundest of all sciences." Therefore, it was necessary that teachers were properly trained. Once he left his post as State Secretary of Education, Mann continued to demand the availability of equal education for all as a US Congressman, then as President of the liberal Antioch College in Ohio.

Although Mann did create much positive change within public education 150 years ago, there is still an enormous amount of work to do. The inequalities that continue to exist between schools today are shocking, and many of the arguments for change sound eerily similar to Mann's.

Jonathon Kozol is perhaps today's most eloquent voice for the need to level the playing field of education so that all children have the opportunity to excel. His most famous book, called Savage Inequalities, examines the huge differences between rich and poor public schools just a few miles from one another. His book was a wake-up call for those of us who grew up with fantastic teachers in excellent schools in wealthy suburbia. Before I left for college, I never really thought about the fact that there were schools out there that were different from mine; schools where the students didn't have enough books to read, or enough desks to sit at, whose buildings were old, crumbling and leaking, and whose teachers were under-qualified, overworked, and not paid nearly enough. Alongside Kozol's book, an experience working with homeless youth in Chicago made me realize that just being aware of these tragedies was not enough. Rather than complain about the inequalities our poor children were facing in public schools, I wanted to get involved to change them.

So after graduating from college, I decided to work at a school where teachers were desperately needed. I joined an organization called Teach for America and taught 5th grade for two years in Long Beach, California. I was enticed by the organization's mission that "One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education." Although I had never taken a teaching class in my life, the goal of TFA was to place enthusiastic, intelligent college grads into under-funded public school classrooms that simply couldn't recruit or retain other teachers. I would get my teaching certificate in night classes, while teaching a 5th grade class each day by trial and error.

If it sounds less than ideal, it was. The 35-40 students I was teaching each year had been stuck with first-year teacher after first- year teacher throughout elementary school, since few teachers wanted to stay at that school for very long. Schoolwide discipline didn't exist. There was one school counselor for over 800 students, and no art, science, or social studies were offered. Even gym was only available on occasion, but there simply wasn't enough time to fit it all in. Because so many of my students had been scoring below the 20th percentile on the California state exams, and were reading several steps below grade level, the entire school day had to be spent teaching my 5th graders to read, write and multiply.

One of thousands of schools across the country named for the father of public education
However, the most horrifying thing about the situation wasn't that they didn't have the ability to achieve academic success. Instead, it was that they weren't being given the opportunity. My students had all of the intelligence and potential of any rich kid in any wealthy school in the nation! So what was standing in their way? Poverty - the same issue Horace Mann confronted a century and a half ago. With limited resources, overcrowded schools, untrained teachers (like myself), and parents who were working several jobs just to make ends meet, these kids could not get the support they needed to thrive.

So the big question is... What can be done? From Horace Mann to Jonathon Kozol to you and I, concerned people have been trying to figure out the best way to give all children a shot at equal education for centuries. The answer isn't easy, and Kozol feels that until we are "willing to pay the bill to provide the things that work for the poorest children in America," things aren't going to change. We cannot ignore the problem by building walls around our communities to pretend that impoverished schools do not exist. Ultimately, we have to stop tolerating the educational injustices in our "land of opportunity," and tutor, teach or volunteer at public schools to make sure that opportunities really exist here, for everyone.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - Those radical, shakin' Quakers!
Daphne - Standing up for the mentally ill
Rebecca - A simple walk 'round Walden Pond
Teddy - Intellectuals plow into a farming commune
Kevin - Class struggle takes center stage
Neda - Looking for Utopia - and mint chocolate chip ice cream
MAD - Homeless shouldn't mean hopeless