July 24, 2024

Jonathan Kozol Speaks Out


Curriculum Administrator. Volume: 36. Issue: 8. Publication Date: September 2000. Page Number: 33. COPYRIGHT 2000 Professional Media Group LLC

The acclaimed author addresses how churches can help public schools, the need to expand the country’s Headstart programs, and the myth of high-stakes testing’s popularity with educators.

For the past 30 years, former teacher, acclaimed author and social activist Jonathan Kozol has exposed readers to the unpleasant realities of America’s least fortunate citizens, children and their families in our poorest communities. His books, Savage Inequalities, Rachel and Her Children, Amazing Grace, On Being a Teacher and Death at an Early Age, give voice to those without access to the media and tell the stories of unfair school funding, illiteracy, despair and hopelessness. Kozol’s latest book, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope offers readers a window into the healthy optimism, playfulness, dreams and prayers of elementary-age children living in one of America’s poorest neighborhoods, the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx. Kozol has spent years with these children and they trust him to tell their stories. Children, their teachers, parents and an invincible team of school principal and parish priest are the heroes of what all Kozol’s readers hope will be a story with many happy endings.

Kozol recently took 90 minutes out of a week full of television interviews, elementary school graduation ceremonies and meetings on Capitol Hill to speak with Senior Editor Gary Stager about his book’s effect on public policy, the need to expand the country’s Headstart programs and high-stakes testing.

Gary Stager: What do you hope readers will learn from your new book?

Jonathan Kozol: Well, I guess in a way, the book and, in particular, its title are intended as a direct reply to the title of my first book published on my life in education and that’s Death At An Early Age.

I still like Death At An Early Age and I know it’s meant a great deal to teachers and administrators, but the title has bothered me for several years. It isn’t really true that children die at an early age. They don’t die as easily as some of us believe. They’re far more resilient than I realized, and I’m glad that I’ve lived long enough to find that out. That’s why I chose the title that I did for Ordinary Resurrections.

People tell me this is the first book I’ve written that does not make them cry.

Oh, yes it does …

Jonathan Kozol: But if they are tears, I hope that they’re tears of amusement or tears of joy rather than tears of despair.

It’s the first book in which I felt no obligation at all to impose any sort of adult agenda on the writing or on the conversations that led to the writing. It’s the first book I’ve written in which I had no particular interest in finding out the five best ways to turn a school around or the seven best secrets to being a school administrator, or the magic bullets for raising the reading scores. I just put all that stuff aside and decided it was time to get as close as possible to the small details that make up a child’s life.

As a result, the joy is just knowing the children because the details of their lives are utterly compelling and largely joyful. And, you know, I spent a lot more time during these years thinking of things like Band-Aids for skinned knees and how a child’s mother does her cornrows than I spent thinking about phonics methods. Thank God.

So what do you hope readers do after reading the book?

Jonathan Kozol: I hope they will storm their state legislatures, then do it to Congress, and absolutely demand in passionate, angry language the end of the present system of school finance in this nation. We should insist that every American child be educated out of the real wealth of the nation, not the state, not the district, not the town in which they happen to live.

We do not swear a Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of Indianapolis or Nashua, N.H. We swear a Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag, and if we expect children to grow up with genuine allegiance to this flag, then we have to protect them with all the rights and privileges of an American citizen.

We are the only advanced developed nation in the world that still finances its public schools in this grossly archaic and wildly undemocratic fashion.

The Federal Government should provide 100 percent of the funding for public education for every child in this country. I am convinced that some day in the next century we will move to the system that I just proposed–whether the money comes out of property taxes that are then pooled nationally, or whether it comes out of sales tax or income tax or inheritance tax really doesn’t matter. The source of the money is irrelevant. It is the dispensation of the funds that is so unforgivably flawed at the present moment.

So what’s been the reaction to the book?

Jonathan Kozol: There are three issues I’ve been talking about since the book was published: One is school finance. [The] second is that it is time for the courts, Congress and the advocates for children in this nation to launch an all-out assault on the intolerable patterns of residential segregation in and around the major cities of this nation.

There’s no possibility of genuine school integration as long as we remain two … effectively separate nations. This doesn’t happen by accident. This is the direct result of decades of unspeakably selfish racial steering on the part of the major real estate corporations of this nation with the collusion of the largest banks who reinforce these patterns of apartheid in mortgage lending patterns and policies. And I would like to see the day when laws now on the books are, for the first time, enthusiastically enforced.

I’d like to see the day when hundreds of thousands of idealistic young college students would join this struggle in direct civil disobedience the same way they did 35 years ago to break the back of legalized apartheid in the South.

The third point I’ve discussed … is that it is high time after 35 years to stop playing games with Headstart and keep denying it to more than half the eligible children in this nation. It should be doubled immediately so that it serves 100 percent of the low-income five-year-olds in this country. It should then be doubled a second time to guarantee two years of Headstart to every child eligible in this nation, and it should then be doubled a third time to start with every child at the age of two. I also think that we should reconceive it, not call it Headstart. Give it a new baptism in a more enlightened, expanded format. We ought to speak in terms of creating a children’s village in every neighborhood of the United States.

Like the Reggio Emilia approach?

Jonathan Kozol: Exactly. Going back very much to the dream of people like Maria Montessori and the institutions that are familiar in more enlightened nations such as France, where we take every two-year-old and treat them the same way we treat our own children. The affluent white folks I know in Manhattan give their children three years of rich developmental pre-school, usually Montessori-types of schools, and they spend $10,000 to $12,000 a year to put them into these schools. They consider this the first step to Vassar or Princeton, for God’s sake. You know, I’d say, if it’s good for the children of the Wall Street CEOs, then it’s good for the children of the poorest black and Hispanic women in the Bronx. It is inexplicable to me that every presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson has promised that if we elect him, we will get dual year Headstart for every child, and every single one of them has broken their promise.

I would like to see Vice President [Al] Gore, whom I have known since he was a young member of Congress, whom I admire and who I think has a realistic understanding of the present inequalities in pre-school education, nailed to the wall until he makes a commitment [to this].

Let’s change gears. There is a sense of spirituality that pervades your last couple of books. How does this affect your thinking about kids in society and what is the role of spirituality in our deliberations about education? How would you respond to a number of readers who use Ordinary Resurrections as an argument for prayer in the public schools?

Jonathan Kozol: On that I completely disagree, and anyone who does read the book that way I think needs to read it again, a little more slowly. I am irrevocably opposed to any breach in the separation between church and state. As a Jew, I must say I would find it deeply offensive if I were a child in school today and were forced to recite a prayer that in any way imposed on me the beliefs of others.

Having said that, I think that the spiritual element in children’s lives deserves far more respect than it receives in public schools. This can be done without any specific definitive reference to religion in its formal incarnation. For example, the speculations that children have about the limits of our mortality. The questions children have as to what happens to their mother or father if they die? Their thinking about these matters should be welcomed. We should be hospitable to the moral speculations and the spiritual yearnings that they voice. I don’t think anyone in America can be offended by this. It’s simply that the public school must place no imprimatur on any specific set of beliefs, and endorsing a specific period of time in school devoted to prayer crosses the border and should not be allowed. I’m against that.

What I applaud is a public school like P.S. 30 that works in close and warm collaboration with a wonderful church like St. Anne’s Church (where I’m sitting right now), in which the principals of school and the priests of the church form an intense pedagogical aberration which comes right down to details such as reading methods. [This is] so the priest at the church can reinforce the work being done in the school and not undermine the teachers in the school by introducing contradictory methods.

So how did the collaboration come about?

Jonathan Kozol: It came about because Martha Overall, the priest of St. Anne’s Church, devoutly believes in public education. She has been troubled for years about the right-wing voucher movement and the insidiously clever propaganda with which they [have] attempted to dismantle the last real piece of common ground we had in this society and the dream of John Dewey at its best, which is what all public educators still believe in.

Mother Martha believes in that, too. She knows very well that when you start taking selected groups of children out of the public school system in order to put them into little boutique schools, which are always selective or above selective, we’re leaving behind larger numbers of the children who have the greatest needs with fewer effective parents to advocate on their behalf.

Does the St. Anne’s after-school fill a void left by the public schools?

Jonathan Kozol: It does, solely because the public schools in this neighborhood are so badly funded. P.S. 30 is a good school given the gross underfunding and overcrowdedness that is endemic here. It’s in a building built for 700 and this year it had 1,100 children.

The fifth grade at that school started the year with 35 students [per class]. Computer equipment is archaic and the software is several years behind the present generation that you would find in suburban schools. They don’t have many computers. Right now I’m sitting in the computer room at St. Anne’s Church and there is a limitless supply of the most up-to-date computers with the best software, all run by a computer wizard, who has taught at the university level. The kids from P.S. 30 benefit greatly from being able to work with these state-of-the-art computers.

So if they mention Miss Rosa, who is the principal of P.S. 30, what makes her a great educational leader as you said, and what are some of the things you’ve learned from her?

Miss Rosa is first of all a very good building manager. I mean she knows how to run a school and she is shrewd in the basic areas of school administration. But, that’s not why she’s a great principal. She’s a great principal because of her limitless humanity.

Miss Rosa is a glorious woman 65 years old with a wild mane of bright red hair who wraps her arms around children who are in trouble, as she does with teachers when they’re having bad days and with visitors of every kind. She is the kind of affectionate and loving human being with whom you would want to be when your heart was breaking–on a day when your own problems overwhelm you, whether a you’re a child or a grownup.

That is the kind of principal I look for, especially in neighborhoods where there is so much human suffering, [where] so many children come to school with heavy hearts and where a quarter of the children are likely to go off to prison every weekend so they can see their fathers.

You speak a great deal about how discussions of education reform are based on arguments of economic rationalism. What do you say to the critics who exclaim that you just can’t throw money at the problem?

Jonathan Kozol: I know many enlightened CEOs, some of the best have reached out to me directly, either to solicit my advice or simply to reinforce my determination to keep on. However, I draw the line when business starts to dictate the aims of education. I refuse to accept the notion, which I hear from some of the less enlightened business leaders, that the primary purpose of an education in a democracy is to train people to meet entry-level jobs.

So what can we do to ensure that all of the kids in Mott Haven have a healthy and fulfilling life with the educational options that you talk about you and your father having.

Start by giving every child here three years of full-day preschool as I discussed a couple of days ago with Mrs. Clinton when she was here in this very room. She was fascinated to see the kids working on their computers.

I would start by creating essentially a utopian children’s village in every inner-city neighborhood and poor rural neighborhood in the United States. But it’s easier to do it in the cities where populations are concentrated. I would surround the kids with not simply the most enlightened early childhood education, but also with all the therapeutic elements that wealthy children take for granted including child psychiatrists.

It seems that people, even some of your liberal friends, have adopted the same rhetoric as the promoters of high-stakes, tougher standards and testing.

Jonathan Kozol: I’m not sure that’s true. What I think is more accurate would be this. Many of my close friends who are school superintendents and school principals are obliged politically to pay a certain kind of a respect to this agenda because it is so widespread in America now and it has been orchestrated so aggressively by some conservative thinktanks and powerful business leaders. Many of even the most enlightened school officials in the country feel that they cannot be politically viable unless they at least accept the idea of high standards. Do you recognize what I’m saying?

I think most of my thoughtful colleagues recognize that a single, empirically based, standardized exam can never measure the real potential of children who in one way or another, culturally or just because of their personal style, don’t fit the mainstream in this country.

A perfect example would be the little boy Anthony. In my book, you know, he was about to go to college. He’s entering college in September and he never would have done that if he went by standardized exams. We were just fortunate that we found some good people who didn’t go solely by standardized exams once they met Anthony.

You alluded to the issue of social promotion in the book when you talked about Pineapple and her sister, Lara. This is another one of those terms that have become wildly popular.

Jonathan Kozol: You know, even though I came of age intellectually, politically and pedagogically in the 1960s, I’m not a complete dewy-eyed romantic. You know, I’m not against all tests. As I often say, I had to pass quite a few to get into Harvard, and more to get out.

I don’t think I’m naive on this issue. In the same sense, I don’t want to see kids get promotions that don’t mean anything. I don’t want to see kids sent on to sixth grade if they still can’t read at third grade level. Then that’s just fooling their parents and fooling them.

The real point is this: We wouldn’t even have to raise this issue so often and it wouldn’t be such a frequent dilemma in a neighborhood like the South Bronx if we gave these kids what they deserved to start with.

You give these little babies the kind of terrific Montessori schools or any other kind of good developmental Eriksonian pre-school when they’re two years old. You make sure they have eye exams so they have glasses, that they have counseling for any learning inhibitions they have, that you have a legal aid person at these pre-school centers to make sure they have their own bedroom at home, that the place is heated, that their mother is not about to be evicted. You do all this when they hit two-and-a-half. Then you put them in a terrific kindergarten with no more than 16 children and you continue that pattern right through elementary school. You give these kids in the South Bronx the toughest high stakes you can think up and they will do well on them. But to do that … to impose the tests before you give them the rest is simply pre-planned punitive hypocrisy. It guarantees their humiliation. We’ll keep them back then, the boy will get taller, he’ll feel awkward, he’ll feel embarrassed, he’ll look like a grownup when he’s in sixth or seventh grade, and, you know, he’s a prime candidate to drop out of school a few years later. Curriculum Administrator Magazine 

Gary Stager is Senior Editor.