Friday, October 12, 2007
Jonathan Kozol Speaks in San Diego
Noted Education Activists Rips “No Child Left Behind”
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“I’m always giving school superintendents a hard time; it’s my job,” noted educator and activist Jonathan Kozol said at the beginning of his October 8 speech at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral on Fifth and Maple near Balboa Park. Under the rather awkward sponsorship of the San Diego Unified School District and the Juvenile Court and Community Schools and Excellence Comes in All Colors programs of the San Diego County Board of Education — and following a lengthy series of speeches by officials of those programs, all boasting of their students’ achievements based on the high-stakes standardized tests Kozol calls irrelevant and dangerous — Kozol spoke for over an hour, punctuating his talk with wit but making it clear he regards the No Child Left Behind Act as a disaster for American education.
Kozol was there in part to promote his latest book, Letters to a Young Teacher — a generic title that gives one the impression it was written as an old sage’s advice to newcomers to his chosen profession. Actually it was written to and for a specific young teacher, a woman Kozol identified only as Francesca, who teaches in the same Boston school Kozol himself worked in when he started out as a teacher and about which he wrote his first book, Death at an Early Age (1967). “I visited her classroom,” Kozol recalled, “and as soon as I arrived, she put me to work, as teachers always do with me. I feel like an unpaid substitute.”
Indeed, Kozol remembered one incident in which Francesca and her first-grade students did a role-reversal on him. “She asked if I would give the children a short sentence of nonfiction narrative,” he said. “I gave them a long sentence of nonfiction narrative about people who talk to animals. I had a golden retriever I used to talk to and get cogent answers from. Francesca scolded me in front of the whole class and said, ‘Mr. Jonafer [the closest her six-year-olds could come to pronouncing ‘Jonathan’] is not paying attention. He’s not acting like a grownup. He needs a time-out.’ So they made me sit in a corner of the reading room, and one boy stuck a green frog decal on my forehead. You never hear about green frogs in No Child Left Behind.”
Realizing that he was making Francesca sound like “a carry-over from the hippie era,” the sort of teacher who neglected basic skills and said things like, “These Black children are so beautiful. Don’t impose on them. When little Shemeika feels an organic need to learn to read, she’ll let you know,” Kozol said that in fact she could be just as tough a skills-driller as any true believer in No Child Left Behind. What Francesca rejected — and what made her a hero to Kozol — was “those horrible pit-pat readers” encouraged by the No Child Left Behind law and the so-called “proficiency” standards it imposes. “(President Bush was leading a class in one of these books, My Pet Goat, when the 9/11 attacks happened.
Instead,” Kozol said, “she drew the words [for phonics lessons] out of the stories the children came in with, or out of the beautiful children’s books with which she filled the room, like The Very, Very Hungry Caterpillar. She was a young white woman but she’d been immersed in the best of multiculturalism.” He was particularly proud of her for going beyond the writer he described as the education industry’s token African-American poet, Langston Hughes, and having her students explore all the Harlem Renaissance writers as well as Latin-American writers like Cuban revolutionary José Marti (one of whose poems was the basis for the song “Guantánamera”). While stressing that Francesca “did nothing related to the testing regime and left no doubt of her contempt for No Child Left Behind,” Kozol boasted that her students did well on tests.
According to Kozol, Francesca’s secret was that she taught the African-American and Latino students in her classrooms exactly the way she herself had been taught in the white suburban schools she’d gone to as a child — against the solemn advice of the corporate educational “consultants” and other so-called “experts” who have burgeoned under No Child Left Behind. “There are people who say, ‘Leave all that rich cultural stuff and the capacity to integrate reality to the white kids in the suburbs,’” Kozol said. “They believe Black students need to be marched relentlessly to the next high-stakes exam. Francesca said, ‘Give them the same opportunities and they will blossom into the flowers they are.’ She saw beauty in them, and they were beautiful.”
Kozol argues that the re-segregation of American public education — most inner-city schools, he said, are either 90-percent plus African-American or 90-percent plus Latino, while the white kids are either going to school in the suburbs or are in private schools — and the No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on “proficiency” and “standards” has bred a race of “experts” who not only talk about running the public schools like a private business but actually talk the jargon of corporate management. He recalled meeting one school principal in Columbus, Ohio who insisted on referring to herself not as a principal (which is what her office door said she was) but a “building CEO.”
“I thought, ‘Is that why she studied the philosophy of education?’” Kozol said incredulously. “If she’d wanted to be a CEO, she should have gone to business school and learned something that would make her real money. But she had a ‘business partner,’ someone from the corporate world, and she was so eager to please her ‘business partner’ she started talking like him. In a kindergarten room [in another school] I saw a mission statement that read, ‘The mission of our school is to develop products who will sharpen our edge in the global marketplace.’ This wasn’t even high school! Why should first-graders care about the global marketplace? Francesca said, ‘I will never do that to my students. I will not steal away their childhoods.’”
One of Kozol’s criticisms of No Child Left Behind is that its relentless emphasis on rote memorization, quasi-military regimentation and high-stakes testing by which whole schools are determined to be “successes” or “failures” is driving motivated, caring teachers like Francesca out of the profession altogether. “It’s not hard to recruit them; the big problem is to keep them,” he explained. “Fifty percent of them quit within the first three years, demoralized, and when I ask them why, they never say it’s because of the kids. They don’t blame the parents either. Again and again, they say, ‘It’s this nightmarish testing mania, this sense of continuing anxiety, the sense that nothing matters for its own sake but only for the number you can plaster on [a student’s] forehead, and the only value in learning is learning for some extrinsic mechanistic reward.”
What’s more, Kozol said, most of these young teachers went to overwhelmingly white suburban schools, “and they know that this regimen would never be tolerated in the good schools they went to. They’re stealing at least half their time away from learning towards test preparation. Most of their principals are middle-aged African-American women who tell me, ‘I’m being forced to do things I abhor.’ Papers like the New York Post list the ‘worst’ schools in New York City and give them labels like ‘The Dirty Dozen’’ — which, he added, they often “earn” for reasons totally beyond their control.
Kozol recalled one Latina principal in the Bronx whose school was forced to absorb 150 underachieving students when another school two blocks away was adjudged to be “failing” and was closed down. When the new arrivals drove down the average test scores of her school, Kozol remembered meeting her in July after the school year ended and “she was crying in her office.” What passes for “teacher accountability” in the No Child Left Behind Act is, Kozol said, a pervasive sense of fear that their school will be declared “failing” and either closed down, taken over by the state or — worst of all, according to Kozol and the teachers he talks to — declared a “charter school” and taken over by the private sector.
“Teachers tell me, ‘I can’t do any of the things I love to do,’” because their schools’ reputation and, in some cases, their own continued employment depend on their students having a good enough average score on the No Child Left Behind tests. What’s more, he added, “the high-stakes tests are useless, because they don’t say anything specific about the child. They just say ‘proficient’ or ‘non-proficient.’ And the scores come in so late, the school year is already over” — and therefore there’s no chance for teachers to do remedial work to bring the so-called “non-proficient” students up to standard.
“The other thing” wrong with No Child Left Behind, Kozol said, “is the distortion of the curriculum. The slogan is, ‘We must hold our teachers accountable and make them strive for excellence. Teachers, from now on, must have high expectations.’ Francesca said, ‘Excellence. What a great idea. I thought our goal was to strive for mediocrity.’” Kozol said he could take slogans like “strive for excellence” more seriously if they came from genuine educators or respectable philosophers — but not from President Bush, who he said “doesn’t know what excellence is.”
Because the demand that teachers “strive for excellence” is based on a thinly veiled contempt for them, under No Child Left Behind their lives are often as regimented as their students’, Kozol said. “A lot of them are forced to hold timers in their hands,” he explained, “and a lot of the standards are so arbitrary you have to write them in the language of the people who created them: ‘Outcome: English/language arts proficiency #263B. Students will demonstrate the ability to produce a narrative procedure.’ That was right from the standards. I looked at this — I majored in English in college — and I said, ‘I don’t know what this means, and I don’t even think you can “produce a procedure.”’ The teacher agreed, and I asked, ‘Why do you have to put the number on it?’ ‘Because it has to be up there so the people who visit my classroom will understand.’”
What’s more, Kozol said, the relentless regimentation of both students’ and teachers’ lives required by No Child Left Behind utterly destroys any spontaneity in the classroom. In an earlier era, a question from a student might have given a good teacher the opportunity for a “teachable moment” that would have enlightened the entire class. Not any more, Kozol argued. “The kid who wants to ask a question that doesn’t contribute to the proficiency standard gets in the way,” he explained. “Six-year-olds are experts at subverting lesson plans,” but the No Child Left Behind-era teacher will have to cut off his or her most imaginative students and shut them up to keep the rest of the class marching towards “proficiency.”
Kozol also said that, while the No Child Left Behind Act officially starts the high-stakes standardized testing in the third grade, many school districts are “voluntarily” starting it earlier — sometimes as early as kindergarten — to make sure their students are ready for the tests when they reach third grade and the federal government starts counting them. “Kids in kindergarten quite often don’t understand that text goes from left to right,” Kozol said. “They don’t know how to fill in the bubble dots on the test forms. If they’d at least had two or three good years of pre-school, they might have a chance, but most of them don’t.” He described a grim reality in which wealthy parents have access to private pre-schools — including one in New York whose name, “Baby Ivy,” makes its agenda clear — that cost $20,000 to $24,000 per year, while working-class parents and parents of color have to make do with inadequate public programs or no pre-school at all.
According to Kozol, No Child Left Behind has not only failed in its ostensible purpose — to close the so-called “achievement gap” between white students and students of color — but “it’s widening the cultural gap. One group of [mostly white] children is being taught to interrogate reality. The other class is being trained to give pre-programmed answers, Nothing could be more dangerous in a democracy. … I don’t want to get too mad, but there’s something deeply hypocritical about a society which will hold a nine-year-old girl ‘accountable’ for her performance on a standardized test, but won’t hold the President and Congress ‘accountable’ for their mistakes.”