Thursday, September 13, 2007

back on the bus; kozol takes on ted kennedy, kinda

a person should post things to her blog. a person wants to but a person, at the moment, isn't capable of writing something coherent and meaningful herself. a person can, however, post a piece by jonathon kozol which is a nice indictment of no child left behind. for the readers' (or reader's?) edification.


Why I am Fasting, By Jonathan Kozol
from The Huffington Post -- September 11, 2007

This morning, I am entering the 67th day of a partial
fast that I began early in the summer as my personal
act of protest at the vicious damage being done to
inner-city children by the federal education law No
Child Left Behind, a racially punitive piece of
legislation that Congress will either renew, abolish,
or, as thousands of teachers pray, radically revise in
the weeks immediately ahead.

The poisonous essence of this law lies in the mania of
obsessive testing it has forced upon our nation's
schools and, in the case of underfunded, overcrowded
inner-city schools, the miserable drill-and-kill
curriculum of robotic "teaching to the test" it has
imposed on teachers, the best of whom are fleeing from
these schools because they know that this debased
curriculum would never have been tolerated in the good
suburban schools that they, themselves, attended.

The justification for this law was the presumptuous and
ignorant determination by the White House that our
urban schools are, for the most part, staffed by
mediocre drones who will suddenly become terrific
teachers if we place a sword of terror just above their
heads and threaten them with penalties if they do not
pump their students' scores by using proto-military
methods of instruction -- scripted texts and hand-held
timers -- that will rescue them from doing any thinking
of their own. There are some mediocre teachers in our
schools (there are mediocre lawyers, mediocre senators,
and mediocre presidents as well), but hopelessly dull
and unimaginative teachers do not suddenly turn into
classroom wizards under a regimen that transforms their
classrooms into test-prep factories.

The real effect of No Child Left Behind is to drive
away the tens of thousands of exciting and high-
spirited, superbly educated teachers whom our urban
districts struggle to attract into these schools. There
are more remarkable young teachers like this coming
into inner-city education than at any time I've seen in
more than 40 years. The challenge isn't to recruit
them; it's to keep them. But 50 percent of the glowing
young idealists I have been recruiting from the
nation's most respected colleges and universities are
throwing up their hands and giving up their jobs within
three years.

When I ask them why they've grown demoralized, they
routinely tell me it's the feeling of continual
anxiety, the sense of being in a kind of "state of
siege," as well as the pressure to conform to teaching
methods that drain every bit of joy out of the hours
that their children spend with them in school.

"I didn't study all these years," a highly principled
and effective first-grade teacher told me -- she had
studied literature and anthropology in college while
also having been immersed in education courses -- "in
order to turn black babies into mindless little robots,
denied the normal breadth of learning, all the arts and
sciences, all the joy in reading literary classics, all
the spontaneity and power to ask interesting questions,
that kids are getting in the middle-class white

At a moment when black and Hispanic students are more
segregated than at any time since 1968 (in the typical
inner-city school I visit, out of an enrollment that
may range from 800 to 4,000 students, there are seldom
more than five or six white children), NCLB adds yet
another factor of division between children of
minorities and those in the mainstream of society. In
good suburban classrooms, children master the essential
skills not from terror but from exhilaration, inspired
in them by their teachers, in the act of learning in
itself. They're also given critical capacities that
they will need if they're to succeed in college and to
function as discerning citizens who have the power to
interrogate reality. They learn to ask the questions
that will shape the nation's future, while inner-city
kids are being trained to give prescripted answers and
to acquiesce in their subordinate position in society.

In the wake of the calamitous Supreme Court ruling in
the end of June that prohibited not only state-enforced
but even voluntary programs of school integration, No
Child Left Behind -- unless it is dramatically
transformed -- will drive an even deeper wedge between
two utterly divided sectors of American society. This,
then, is the reason I've been fasting, taking only
small amounts of mostly liquid foods each day, and,
when I have stomach pains, other forms of nourishment
at times, a stipulation that my doctor has insisted on
in order to avert the risk of doing longterm damage to
my heart. Twenty-nine pounds lighter than I was when I
began, I've been dreaming about big delicious dinners.

Still, I feel an obligation to those many teachers who
have told me, not as an accusation but respectfully,
that it was one of my books that diverted them from
easier, more lucrative careers and brought them into
teaching in the first place. Some call me in the
evenings, on the verge of tears, to tell me of the
maddening frustration that they feel at being forced to
teach in ways that make them hate themselves.

I don't want them to quit their jobs. I give them
whatever good survival strategies I can. I tell them
that the best defense is to be extremely good at what
they do: Deliver the skills! Don't let your classroom
grow chaotic! A teacher who can keep a reasonable sense
of calm within her room, particularly in a school in
which disorder has been common, renders herself almost

At the same time, I always recommend a healthy dose of
sly irreverence and a sense of playful and ironical
detachment from the criticisms of those clipboard
bureaucrats who come around to check on them. (Teachers
call them "the curriculum cops" or "NCLB overseers.") I
urge them to develop mischievous and inventive ways to
convince these gloomy-looking people that whatever they
are teaching at that moment, no matter how delectably
subversive it may be, is, in fact, directly geared to
one of those little chunks of amputated knowledge,
known as "state proficiencies," they are supposed to be
"delivering" at that specific minute of the day.

But I've also felt the obligation to bring this battle
to its source in Washington. I've tried very hard to
convince a number of the more enlightened Democrats who
serve on the Senate education panel to introduce
amendments that will drastically reduce our
government's reliance upon standardized exams in
judgment of a child, school, or teacher, and attribute
greater weight to factors that are not so simple-
mindedly reducible to numbers.

Sophisticated as opposed to low-grade methods of
assessment would not only tell us whether little Oscar
or Shaniqua started out their essays with "a topic
sentence" but would also tell us whether they wrote
something with the slightest hint of authenticity and
charm or simply stamped out insincere placebos. (A
child gets no credit for originality or authenticity
under No Child Left Behind. Sincerity gets no rewards.
Endearing stylistic eccentricity, needless to say, is
not rewarded either. That which can't be measured is
not valued by the technocrats of uniformity who have
designed this miserable piece of legislation.)

On a separate battlefront, I've also tried to win
support for an amendment to the law that will take
advantage of one of the loop-holes in the recent
segregation ruling, an opening that Justice Kennedy has
offered us by his insistence that criteria that are not
race-specific may be used in order to advance diversity
in public schools.

There is a provision in No Child Left Behind that
permits a child in a chronically low-performing school
to transfer to a more successful school. Up to now, it
hasn't worked because there aren't enough successful
schools in inner-city districts to which kids can
transfer. The Democrats, I've argued, have the
opportunity to make this option workable if they are
sufficiently audacious to require states to authorize a
child's right to transfer across district lines, and
provide financial means to make this possible, so that
children trapped in truly hopeless schools could, if
their parents so desired, go to school in one of the
high-spending suburbs that are often a mere 20-minute
ride from their front door.

I was surprised that none of the senators with whom I
spoke rejected this proposal as too controversial or
politically unthinkable. More than one made clear that
they enjoyed the notion of helping to "improve" a
flawed provision that the White House had included in
the law for reasons that most certainly were not
intended to enable inner-city kids to go to beautiful
suburban schools with 16 or 18 children in a room,
instead of 29, or 35, or 40, as in many urban systems.

It was, however, on the testing issue that I received
the most explicitly unqualified and positive response.
Several of the senators made a lot of time available to
think aloud about the ways in which to get rid of that
sense of siege so many teachers had described and to be
certain that we do not keep on driving out these
talented young people from our schools.

The only member of the Democratic leadership I have
been unable to get through to is the influential
chairman of the education panel, Senator Ted Kennedy,
who, one of his colleagues told me flatly, will
ultimately "call the shots" on this decision. I've
asked the senator three times if he'll talk with me.
Each time, I have run into a cold stone wall. This has
disappointed me, and startled me, because the senator
has been a friend to me in years gone by and has asked
for my ideas on education on a number of occasions in
the decades since I was a youthful teacher and he was a
youthful politician.

Senator Kennedy is, of course, a very busy man and has
many other issues of importance he must deal with. But
it's also possible, aides to other senators suggest,
that he does not wish to contemplate dramatic changes
in the law because he co-sponsored the initial bill in
a deal with the Republicans. He is also renowned as a
gifted builder of consensus in the legislative process.
Lending his support to either of the two proposals I
have made would almost surely guarantee a knockdown
battle with conservative Republicans and, perhaps, with
some of the Democratic neoliberals as well.

Still, Senator Kennedy has displayed a genuine nobility
of vision in defense of elemental fair play for low-
income children many times before. Is it possible that
he may rise to the occasion once again? If he does, I
may finally listen to the worries of my friends and
decide it's time to bring this episode of fasting to an
end. If not, I'll keep slogging on. It's a tiny price
to pay compared to what so many of our children and
their teachers have to go through every single day.