I recently published my 2017 summer reading suggestions for educators, but here is an equally radical list from 2002! See my 2006 recommendations too.

School’s almost out, and it’s the perfect time to get in some interesting reading that will reinvigorate you for September

From the June 2002 issue of District Administration

One of the best ways to spend the summer is curled up with a good book. The following are nominees for books that will inspire, provoke or entertain educators. Professional development for you and your staff is only a bookstore away. Why not stay connected with your colleagues this summer by starting a book club? You can find all of these books and more here.

Summer Reading
The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith
This may well be the most beautiful, clear and pro-found book ever written about learning and overcoming the obstacles to learning created by schools. Smith paints a gorgeous picture of what real learning is and explains how it differs from what he calls the official theory of learning.

Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope by Jonathan Kozol
Jonathan Kozol’s latest book about the lives and education of poor kids will touch your heart. One of my all-time favorite books.

What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten? by Susan Ohanian
I adore every book written by this master teacher, humorist and educational critic. Her most recent book explores the human cost of our current testing-mania, shares teaching anecdotes and discusses what parents are doing to make schools more playful places to learn.

American Psychology and Schools: A Critique by Seymour Sarason
Prolific author, educator and psychologist Sarason candidly investigates the question, “Where has the American psychological community been during the heightened concern over standardized testing and school violence?” He offers hypotheses for this disinterest in schools and explores the damage to the public welfare caused by the collective silence of the psychological community.

The Inner Principal by David Loader
Veteran principal David Loader courageously explores the joys, challenges and inner conflicts of being a school principal. His accomplishments on behalf of kids will inspire school leaders. Teachers will give their principals a hug.

Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom Demarco
The latest book by this management guru argues that effective organizations need slack to nurture out-of-the-box thinking and productivity, particularly among knowledge workers.

One for Each Level
The following books are designed to appeal to elementary, middle school and high school teachers.

The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Approach Advanced Reflections by Edwards, Gandini and Forman (Editors)
This remarkable book should be read and re-read by every educator. It seems to contain solutions to every educational problem. While the city of Reggio Emilia focuses on early childhood education, there are numerous lessons to be learned by teachers at all levels.

Caught in the Middle—Nonstandard Kids and the Killing Curriculum by Susan Ohanian
Ohanian makes the case for a learner-centered approach to the middle grades from her amusing perspective.

Rethinking High School: Best Practice in Teaching by Daniels, Bizar and Zemelman
A six-year case study of the planning through graduation of a new Chicago school committed to preparing students for the 21st century.

Internet & Computer Ethics for Kids: (and Parents & Teachers Who Haven’t Got a Clue) by Winn Schwartau
This book explores a large quantity of ethical issues facing citizens in the digital age. While written for adolescents, adults will find the description of ethical dilemmas, the law and common sense useful in making sense of this confusing era.

Ah, balance!

Balance is the Fabreze of education policy. It is a chemical spray designed to mask the stench of a two year-old tuna sandwich found in the minvan with the artificial bouquet of an April rain dancing on a lily pad.

  • Balanced literacy got us systemic phonics.
  • Balanced math begot Singapore Math worksheets.
  • Balanced standards produced The Common Core.
  • Balanced policy debates produced No Child Left Behind and Race-to-the-Top
  • A balanced approach to educational technology made computer science extinct in schools and has now taught two generations of children to find the space bar in a computer lab-based keyboarding class.

I could go on.

Balance is elusive. It is fake and lazy and cowardly and sad. Balance is embraced by those who don’t know or can’t/won’t articulate what they truly believe. Balance fills the void left by the absence of alternative models and excellence. It is anonymous.

Educators are told that passion should be tempered. Every pedagogical idea is just fine as long as it is “for the children.” We should just do our jobs and not complain about outrageous attacks on our dignity, paycheck, curriculum, working conditions, or the living conditions of the students we serve.

Balance fills the school day with mandates and directives and lots of interruptions that while offering an illusion of options make it impossible for a learner to focus on anything long enough to become good at it.

Balance teaches children that teachers are helpless pawns in a system they don’t control or cannot understand.

Balance is the absentee parent of incrementalism. As educators take “baby steps” towards what they know is right or righteous they lead a long and meandering hike after which the followers cannot remember the original destination.

“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963)

Educators are to remain neutral and seek consensus at all-costs. Balance programs us to find the silver lining in tornados. There MUST be SOMETHING good in what Bill Gates or Sal Khan or any number of a million corporations with ED or MENTUM or ACHIEVE or VATION in their names happen to be peddling. That simply is not so.

The laws of the political universe, and education is inherently political, greet each embrace of “balance” as ten steps in a more conservative direction. There is no balance – just weakness.

When schools seek balance, the weeds always kill the flowers!

I urge you to read one of my favorite passages ever written about “balance” in education. It is from a lesser-known classic, On Being a Teacher,”  by the great American educator, Jonathan Kozol. Please take a few minutes to read, “Extreme Ideas.”


Few authors, activists, intellectuals or teachers move me like Jonathan Kozol. For nearly a half century, Kozol has given voice to the optimistic, playful, scared, sad and hungry children in our society. He spends time with the children most of us never think about and confronts us with our spiritual beliefs and the policies that most acutely affect the least of us in society. To meet a man with the greatness, humility, decency and literary genius of Kozol would be a miracle. To be able to work with him is a rare gift. To have him introduce me at Constructing Modern Knowledge 2011 as “one of my oldest friends in education” was a blessing I will never forget. Watch his CMK11 talk.

After far too long of a hiatus, Jonathan’s latest book, “Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America,” is out today! I have read the galleys and the book is riveting, profound, tragic, hopeful and beautifully written. You should read it AND buy a copy for a friend or colleague. Click to buy from Amazon.com.

Jonathan Kozol & Gary Stager at CMK 2011

This school year, Constructing Modern Knowledge will expand beyond its unique summer institute (July 9-12, 2013 – Manchester, NH) to offer some exciting new learning opportunities for learners and parents. The first event by Constructing Modern Knowledge Productions is in collaboration with my colleagues at the Willows Community School in Culver City, California.

On September 10th at 7:00 PM, The Willows Community School will host An Evening with Jonathan Kozol, Acclaimed Author and Educational Activist. Due to the generosity and public mindedness of the school, the event is free and open to the public! Reservations are required via the web site.

At this event, Kozol will speak and sign his new book, Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America. I hope you will join us for this very special evening!

I created Constructing Modern Knowledge (CMK) four years ago as a labor of love. I was  growing increasingly concerned that educators lacked the time necessary to develop fluency with the software environments they embrace for students and may not have a deep enough understanding of learning theory or progressive educational practices to situate classroom computer use in a meaningful context. I also wanted to help leaders in the progressive education community recognize that computers are not the enemy of creativity and intellectual development.

It is enormously gratifying to see CMK become more successful each year. It is equally mind-blowing to think that Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn, Lella Gandini, Derrick Pitts, Bob Tinker, James Loewen, Mitchel Resnick, Peter Reynolds and Marvin Minsky would agree to participate in my intimate summer institute. The greatest joy of my life is creating opportunities for educators to meet and spend time with their heroes. CMK does just that.

The CMK faculty of Cynthia Solomon, Brian Silverman, Sylvia Martinez & John Stetson are the best in the world. Cynthia and Brian are responsible for many of the open-ended software tools and pedagogical approaches constructivist educators employ when they teach with computers. Sylvia is an expert software developer, curriculum designer and student empowerment advocate. John Stetson is quite simply the best teacher I have ever met. They work together and with CMK participants like a well-oiled machine.

There is still room for additional registrants at this year’s Constructing Modern Knowledge institute! Register today!

Great news!

Registrations for CMK 2011 – July 11-14, 2011 are terrific!. In order to maintain the quality of educational experience I demand, I have expanded the real estate for our learning environment and added an additional expert educator to serve on our faculty.

I met Jeff Richardson for the first time twenty-one years ago, minutes after landing in Australia for the first time. I came to Sydney with Seymour Papert and Brian Silverman to speak at the 1990 World Conference on Computers in Education. Jeff was already teaching online graduate courses and had taught countless educators across Australia how to teach with computers in a constructionist fashion. Jeff had a cellular telephone back then when they were the size of a lunchbox, but still prefers PINE as his email program 🙂

We became great friends and have worked together in numerous capacities ever since. Jeff’s breadth and depth of knowledge is remarkable – bordering on maddening. He is a briilliant educator, lifelong learner and raconteur. The skills he has developed over thirty years on Australian public radio will make an important contribution to CMK participants’ interactions with our amazing guest speakers.

The following is a little more biographical information on Jeff Richardson, just one more reason why you should register for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2011!

Jeff Richardson

Jeff Richardson is the Director of Student Services for Trinity College at the University of Melbourne. For decades, Jeff was a senior lecturer in education at Monash University where he was a pioneer in online learning, even before the graphical Web. As a result, Mr. Richardson taught a generation of educators across Australia to use computers in a constructionist fashion. Jeff was also a primary teacher and taught at RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) as well. He was the Australian editor for The Logo Exchange.

When not teaching or supporting students, Jeff Richardson is one of Australia’s most enduring and popular radio personalities. Jeff is host and a founder of The Coodabeen Champions, a comedy troupe with multiple shows on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), now celebrating its 30th anniversary – the same number of years Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show. Jeff is also the substitute co-host for ABC Breakfast Radio in Melbourne. He also sang the Coodabeens’ hit song, That’s the Thing About Football, before more than 100,000 at an Aussie Rules Football Grand Final (think Superbowl).

The Coodabeens have enjoyed best-selling books, songs and albums. Their motto (below) oddly captures the spirit of Constructing Modern Knowledge.

“You’re only young once, but anyone can be immature”

National Book Award-Winning author and civil rights activist Jonathan Kozol is coming to Constructing Modern Knowledge 2011! I could not be more thrilled or honored.

You may never have another opportunity to spend time with this American hero in an intimate setting.

For forty-five years, Kozol, has given voice to America’s poorest children. He is a tireless champion of educational equality and civil rights for the millions of defenseless children left behind.

In 1964, Kozol was back in Boston after graduating from Harvard, going to England as a Rhodes Scholar, dropping out to spend time learning to write in Paris with authors, including William Styron and Richard Wright. When Kozol learned of the murder of civil rights workers, Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney, he walked into the Boston Public Schools office and said that he would like to teach. After becoming a fourth grade teacher in a segregated school in Roxbury, Massachusetts, Kozol’s teaching career came to an abrupt an unwelcome end when he was fired for “curricular deviation” for having the audacity to read a Langston Hughes poem to African American children.

A man with the courage to match his convictions, Kozol spent several months on a hunger strike in 2007 until his old friend, Senator Edward Kennedy refused to meet with him to discuss the “No Child Left Behind” Law.

From his National Book Award-winning first book, Death at an Early Age to his most-recent, Letters to a Young Teacher, Kozol has sold millions of books about teaching, learning, poverty, homelessness and growing up in America’s poorest communities. He has appeared on countless television shows and testified before Congress on many occasions. C-Span’s Web-based video archive allows you great access to twenty different Kozol appearances on that network free-of-charge.

The following clip is one of the most moving statements about children and what we owe each  young citizen. Kozol speaks about caring for children in moral terms that resonnate with me at a Harvard conference commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision. Regardless of where you stand on religion or spiritual matters, please watch the entire 16 minutes. Kozol really builds to a knock-out punch.

Click the image above to launch video window

Learn more about Constructing Modern Knowledge 2011

Further reading:

Jonathan Kozol Takes on The World – By Gary Stager
This educator’s latest book shines a bright light on what he calls this country’s big shame — not only are cities segregated, but the education we offer those city children is markedly worse.
Published in the January 2006 issue of District Administration

Speaking Out: An Interview with Jonathan Kozol
Kozol speaks with Gary Stager about his new book, Ordinary Ressurections: Children in the Years of Hope
Published in the June 2000 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine

Jonathan Kozol has never been afraid to take on big targets. His current best seller, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Education in America (Crown, $25) puts a spotlight on what he calls this country’s biggest education failure. Editor-at-Large Gary Stager spoke with Kozol recently about his latest work and how NCLB is widening, not closing, this gap.

Some suggest the use of the word apartheid in the title is a bit rough. How do you respond to that?

Jonathan Kozol: There is no other word to describe with accuracy what’s happening right now. You know, in our urban public schools segregation has returned with a vengeance. The percentage of black kids who go to truly integrated schools has regressed to the level of 1968. I visit schools with 4,000 black and Latino students and, perhaps, 12 white kids and 6 who are classified as other. And to me, it looks exactly like the photographs from Mississippi 50 years ago.

In the South Bronx school I visit, 99.8 percent of the children are black and Latino. So I suppose technically you could say 2/10 of one percent mark the difference between legally enforced apartheid in the South 50 years ago, and socially and economically enforced apartheid in most of these big city districts now, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

What can be done about that?

Jonathan Kozol: First of all, we need to have urban schools that are so good that they will not be abandoned by white people, and this is impossible without equitable funding. Until we have equitable funding for our urban schools, there’s no chance in the world that white people in large numbers are going to return. So in the short run, the struggle is for not just adequate resources. I don’t like that term, because I think adequate is an ambiguous word. But for genuinely equitable resources at the level of the highest and big suburban districts in this country.

Now in California, some people mistakenly think it’s different because, you know, there is officially a degree of equity in the California schools. But in reality this isn’t so because the affluent school communities in California raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, privately to subsidize their schools.

But what would you do to assist these rigged community funding systems?

Jonathan Kozol: We need an entirely new structure of school finance in this country. It should not depend on local property wealth, nor should it depend on the unpredictable dribbles of state funding that allegedly are intended to equalize, but don’t. Nor should it depend on private initiatives.

These kids do not go to school in America to be the citizens of Sacramento or Albany or Boston. They don’t go to school to be citizens of California or North Dakota either. They go to school to be citizens of the United States.

And ultimately I predict that by the end of the century that we’re beginning now, we will do what almost all modern developed Western societies do, which is to finance the education of every child in our nation on an equitable basis, out of national resources. All the money spent for public education in America ought to come from federal taxes that are equitably distributed with adjustments only for greater or lesser costs of living in various sections of the nation and the greater educational needs of certain children. In fact, we are seeing the stirrings of a movement in that direction, even in this conservative era.

In my book I support and endorse a constitutional amendment to establish a high level of equitable funding for education as a national entitlement of all children in this country. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. has introduced such an amendment, and now he has a very large number of co-sponsors. We just did a press event together in Washington the beginning of the book tour. The practical question isn’t will that amendment pass because it won’t immediately. There’s no chance, in the [current] political climate. We have to build a political climate in American in which such a constitutional amendment can be passed and ratified.

It is in the long run not simply a matter of simple justice, but it’s also a matter of national self-interest. That’s why I suspect it will come to pass within the next 100 years. I’d like it to come sooner, rather than later. I mean especially now that the federal government has intervened in local schooling to a degree that it never dared to do before. We’ve got a virtual national test, to some degree national textbooks. And we have a virtual national testing system, and when we apply to college, we’re competing with kids in all cities and all states, not just our own district.

Well, the current government would suggest testing and the national curricula, etc., is a way of good and fair competition to the system.

Jonathan Kozol: The Bush administration has nationalized punishment, but not nationalized equal opportunity. NCLB is sort of the nationalized system of giving school administrators anxiety attacks.

It’s a nationalized system of substituting test prep for learning. It’s a national system of measuring the worth of children, only by their scores in the narrow range of topics that we measure. It offers no national provision for fiscal equity. In fact, it has diminished equity because the lowest performing schools are spending enormous portions of their budget in order to comply with the stipulations of NCLB.

For example, I know schools in which the principal would dearly love to be able to provide every teacher with a wonderful classroom library. These real literary treasures are found almost always in good suburban schools. And that costs a lot of money. [But] if they don’t meet their AYP in two years, they are obliged instead to spend that money to hire companies like Princeton Review or Kaplan to tutor the kids for examinations. In some districts, because we have the damage of cheating, like in Houston and several other Texas districts, the school systems are being obliged actually to create a new profession–anti-cheating monitors.

So …

Jonathan Kozol: And more important, is the loss of time. Up to a quarter of the teacher’s school year is now spent drilling the kids for the exam, instead of teaching them subject matter. In most of the schools I visit there’s at least one assistant principal, sometimes several personnel, are assigned full time to monitoring tests. Do you know what I mean?

Oh absolutely.

Jonathan Kozol: Let me say, this book is not written from a think tank. This book has been written from the first-grade classrooms and from the offices of principals. And in many cases, from the late night, dinner tables where I talk with superintendents. After two glasses of wine, they’re very honest and blunt and they pour out their hearts to me. NCLB has far from equalized opportunity for minority children or poor children. It has lessened their opportunity by diverting so much of the school’s financial resources to practices that have nothing to do with learning, but everything to do with measuring.

How did we get here? I work a lot overseas and in most of the countries we are compared to, the union would have shut the schools down if something like NCLB had been proposed.

Jonathan Kozol: Well look, first of all, my heart goes out to the superintendents of these urban systems. I’ve been very close to many, many superintendents, probably several dozen of the people who now run our major schools.

Because I’m an old teacher, my first identification is with teachers, but I’m very close to many of the principals and the superintendents, especially those who have treated me with unusual trust and camaraderie. I’ve very grateful for that. Some never vent their passions while they’re in office, others do. In my book, I cite Duncan Pritchett, a superintendent in Indianapolis, who excoriated present policies in this nation, especially the charter school movement, which is favored by the White House. I asked him if I could I quote him by name because Indianapolis is a very conservative part of the country and he said, basically, “You know, if we don’t speak out, who will.”

I was just up in Seattle for several days, where I was honored to be introduced to a huge crowd by David Engle, the former principal of a high school who resigned in protest when Seattle began to be resegregate its schools. This was because of the NCLB issue, but this was a related issue. After he had the courage to do this 18 of the other school principals in Seattle wrote a public letter supporting his courage. He also said to me basically, “You know, if we won’t speak out and act on our convictions, how can we expect our students ever to do so?”

I say again and again, I think being an urban superintendent is the hardest job in America. I often think this job was invented so that one man or woman could die for our nation’s sins.

So I understand the pressures they face. What has happened is they have been bludgeoned and bullied not just by NCLB, because this started really more than a decade ago. It really began with–in the era of Bill Bennett, that exemplar of high morality–started excoriating our administrators and disparaging our teachers. They’ve been bullied and bludgeoned, not only by political figures such as Mr. Bennett and then, most recently, by Secretary Rod Paige. But they’ve also been terrorized by local business interests, business CEOs who want the schools which poor children attend to take on a more exclusively corporate agenda by training these children for the kind of entry-level jobs they have available. They don’t bring that pressure to bear on suburban schools by the way. And so these superintendents are under the sword, and they pass that anxiety onto the principals, and then the principals …

Pass it on to the teachers?

Jonathan Kozol: They are terrorized and it’s at that point that the principals say to the teachers, “Look every minute of the day must be on task. Here is our school improvement plan.”

I’ve studied these documents with principals and, frankly, they’re usually 9/10 gobble di gook. They move around unassailable banalities into new configurations. And then they give principals timetables for achieving these objectives and there are too many. I mean, I’m one of the few writers who actually reads this stuff.

Others read the state standards. Then the school has to write its strategic reply to the improvement plan.

In an acceptable language.

Jonathan Kozol: Yes. For example, I mean take a good old-fashioned word like, “skill.” You know, add three syllables, call it a proficiency, and then the accountability technicians just melt into a pool of satisfaction that we’re willing it to be as pretentious as they are.

You write about the champing and the slogans seen in many urban schools…

Jonathan Kozol: Good principals become less interesting human beings as a result, and they pass this on to their teachers.

In my book I quote one principal of a heavily test-driven school in Columbus, Ohio. And who at the very end of the visit, she took me by the arm and said something very poignant like, “I envy principals in suburban schools where they can teach critical thinking to their students.” She just touched my arm wistfully, you know. So an awful lot of very good people are being forced to do things they consider pedagogically harmful in order to cater to the strict accountability demands. And we’re gonna lose a lot of those people because a lot of the best principals tell me they are taking early retirement because they don’t like to betray their principles.

I mean our school systems work so hard to recruit these wonderful, young, idealistic teachers and they’re losing them within a few years. I’ve recruited tens of thousands of the brightest college graduates I meet–whether it’s at Berkeley or the University of Michigan, or Brown or at Harvard, or Amherst, to go into the inner city schools and teach. And they go in and they get certified, or they join Teach for America. Then within two or three years, they call me up at night and they cry and they say, “This betrays everything I believe. I’m being forced to train these kids and turn them into examination soldiers. This is not the kind of education I received, which enabled me to go to Berkley or Harvard.”

They describe it bluntly, as apartheid curriculum. It’s a desperation curriculum for children whom America doesn’t really value. So they quit, and they don’t quit because the job is too hard. They don’t quit because of the kids.

Or the money.

Jonathan Kozol: They love the kids. They quit because they cannot stand being obliged to essentially give up educating children and, instead, train them.

Last night in Portland, Ore., a wonderful teacher who taught three years in Seattle, and quit finally over the demand that she do scripted teaching in a test-driven school, broke down and cried in front of me. She cried for an hour. And she cried because she misses the students.

At some point, don’t we have to stand up against this?

Jonathan Kozol: Oh absolutely. I mean I’m not excusing it. I don’t excuse a bit of it. I was just trying to explain it.

The culture, the climate?

Jonathan Kozol: Yeah, the dynamics of what I call infectious anxiety. We do have to stand up to it. I mean if we won’t speak out, who will? We are the witnesses. We are the frontline witnesses. We see these kids everyday. We know very well that–I mean good principals and good teachers understand the major distinction that’s taking place in America now. They understand that we are educating the children of the privileged and most of the middle class to ask discerning questions, to read with comprehension and intelligent irreverence. To pose probing questions and to find intellectually capacious answers, while we are training another class of children, mostly minority, to perform predictably and provide answers that have been scripted for them in advance. So one class is learning to grow into politically sagacious and culturally rich adulthood. And the other is being trained to perform the least interesting and lowest paid economic functions in our society and essentially to accept the world order as it is dictated by the children of the privileged.

To me this is a bigger divide than the so-called achievement gap. It’s a larger gap than the achievement gap because it doesn’t have to do merely with, you know, how quickly you learn a constant blend, although that is important. It’s a much deeper thing. It doesn’t just have to do with your ability to fill in the right bubble on a high-stake exam. It has to do with your ability to function with authority and wise judgment in a democracy.

Education commentator Seymour Sarason makes an interesting point, which is that we talk a lot about these issues, and we don’t even have a common discussion about what we mean by learning or what is a good school. So, the suburbs are raising money for art and music programs because they don’t have them anymore either.

Jonathan Kozol: Well that’s not entirely true. That may be the case in parts of California because the state has impoverished itself to like the level of operating a third-world school system.

I disagree with those who believe that this is an infliction that’s universally distributed. In the very good suburban school systems that I visited repeatedly while I was writing this book, in order to make comparisons, I still see classrooms in which there’s a terrific and highly successful mix between good sequential disciplined and substantive instruction and a great deal of highly energized, exhilarating inquiry, question posing and sophisticated argumentation.

This is what these elementary school children need if they’re ever going on to high school and take demanding courses and then to college.

I think there’s a huge distinction to be drawn in this country. I regret this trend everywhere and good suburban administrators often tell me that the NCLB accountability demands are just a royal pain in the ass and have almost nothing to do with education. But they still know most of their kids are gonna do well, and so they are not in a state of terror and they still maintain good drama programs. Their students actually read literature. For God’s sake there are thousands of suburban high schools where apart from reading real literature, the1y also read books like mine.

Savage Inequalities and The Shame of the Nation are now being adopted by suburban high schools. So I think something very different is happening in the inner cities. I think we have not just apartheid schools, we have apartheid curriculum.

Superintendents whose intelligence I respect and have known for many years, like Superintendent Roy Romer in Los Angeles, bought right into this and I regret that very much. I think they should speak out. We need more people like Duncan Pritchett who will speak out bluntly, who will protest, who will put their jobs on the line. And I don’t think they should go on bended knee to the private sector. The private sector says we will be your partners, but it’s not a real partnership because the business CEOs tell the teachers, “This is what I need you to do to sharpen my corporation’s competitive edge.” The teachers are not given the right of saying to the business CEOs, “And here’s what I need you to do in order to tax people of your social class high enough to give us the schools we deserve.” So it’s not a real partnership.

Would it be in the corporation’s self-interest to have a better educated populous?

Jonathan Kozol: Well, it depends on whether you mean long-term self-interest or short-term self-interest. Yes, wise business leaders know that over the long term it is to the advantage of business commerce and of the democratic society in which they’ve grown apart, to have a richly educated population. But in the short run, many business leaders, frankly, have written off the academic and truly intellectual potential of minority children and have prepared, instead, to train them to fill the bottom level rungs here in their corporations or factories while they educate their own children to address all the high order questions of society.

I hear this repeatedly when business leaders say to me, in the mistaken notion that I will agree with them, “I’m on your side Jonathan. I want to help you to train these kids so I can hire them for my entry level jobs.” And, you know, if I’ve had a glass of wine sometimes, I’ll look right in their eyes and I’ll say, “If you need entry level laborers, train your own kids for those jobs, educate the little ones I write about so they can be the CEO someday. Or if they want, they can turn their back entirely on your mercantile agenda.”

I say that all the time and some of them who agree say to me, “You’re right Jonathan, I made–I made a myopic short-term choice which ultimately betrays the essence of democracy.”

So like you, I spend time with these kids and have worked most recently with these kids who are incarcerated and I’m always amazed by how powerful a small sort of gesture or a bit of friendship shared with one of these kids can mean. And when I read in your book about, you know, zero tolerance policies and silent recess and–and principals asking the level fours to stand up for applause and not mention any level ones.

Jonathan Kozol: Yes.

How did we get here and what can we do climb out?

Jonathan Kozol: OK. I think it’s too late in the day to waste time finding out how we got there. I think we need to use all the strength we have to figure out how to get out.

OK. So we have a principal who’s calling out the level fours.

Jonathan Kozol: Well in that case, that principal was not at all typical of inner city principals. That principal was tyrannical and there’s nothing I could say that she would hear. I emphasize in my book, in a chapter called Treasured Places, that there are ways in which good principals can accede to the demands of the Federal government enough to survive, but simultaneously denounce the underpinnings of this agenda in a number of constructive and–and I would add–mischievous ways.

For example, here’s one way. You give the test because you have to give the tests, but you don’t tell the children that these tests measure their real value. You don’t tell the children that narrow area of learning that the test measures reflects their value to you as human beings or–or as little intellectuals.

You make certain that you do not allow test prep to interfere with education. You do not cordon off a quarter of the year before the exams. You refuse to allow this to be imposed on the youngest children. School systems have to bring these high stakes test in third grade under NCLB; some schools in desperation are starting much earlier, in first grade, in order to get ready for the test. I describe one district in California where they starting test-prep in kindergarten. The good suburban districts I visit absolutely flat out reject those practices.

They do not consider a kindergarten or first grade child uncompleted product into which value must be added by this kind of miserable agenda. I visit countless suburban schools in which children still are allowed to learn out of a thirst for learning, out of a fascination for learning and where the teachers are able to enjoy the company of children, without becoming drill sergeants for the state or branch managers for the corporations.

It’s the inner city schools that are under the sword of high stakes tests and low performance that this has become a tyrannical agenda and it is not closing the achievement gap.

Occasionally we’re told, you know, I’ve been watching this for 40 years and occasionally we’re told there’s a blip. Fourth-grade scores in reading look better this year. Then I meet the same kids four years later when they’re in the eighth grade, the same kids who allegedly made this 5 percent gain in scores in fourth grade. I meet them in eighth grade and they can’t write a cogent sentence or read a book with any element of comprehension.

If they can read it at all, they read it like phonetic drones. Then by the time they get to twelfth grade, the average black and Latino student in America reads at the level of an average white seventh grader. That comes straight from the Education Trust, which they say is a very politically moderate organization. So these are not real gains. These are testing gains; they are not learning gains. Real gains endure. False gains evaporate.

Every year or so there’s a new plan to turn it all around. You know, for some reason all these are always seven-point plans. I keep running into this and a school system says well we have a new seven-point plan to fix–they love the verb fix–to fix the segregated schools. Or seven scientifically proven ways to make the segregated schools work. Work and fix are the operative verbs. They’re technocratic verbs which imply that the prior problem of our separate and unequal schooling can be resolved in an auto body shop, you know, as a technical tune up of some sort.

My publisher even suggested that I end my book with a list of maybe seven things–a recipe. I didn’t write this book to provide America with a recipe for polishing the apple of apartheid schooling. I wrote this book to force good people in America to stand up and denounce the restoration of this kind of schooling and to simultaneously to denounce the apartheid curriculum that accompanies it.

If there’s one recipe in my book, it’s not, you know, like the better way to teach constant blends, although I do know a few better ways to teach constant blends. I’m a real teacher, you know, I taught phonics believe it or not. I have no problem with phonics.

Well the point is that we shouldn’t allow our commonsense as teachers or school officials to be distorted by the false polarities of these culture warriors who basically say “You know, you either use our strict, rigid scientifically proven phonetically fanatical approach, or else [you have] no value as a teacher.” That’s all. We have to resist these crazed extremes.

I go to great length in this book to recognize the dilemmas that school administrators face and to refuse to accept this false polarization between, you know, fanatical drill-and-kill on the one hand, and on the other hand kinds of mindless, random, euphoric education. I say that this is a false dichotomy. The best schools in America have developed and sustained a well-balanced mixture of–of good skill teaching and genuinely inquisitive, deeply intellectual learning in which there is still joy in the classroom.

I argue that our principals and superintendents, especially in inner city schools, should fight for that balance and refuse to be steamrollered by this juggernaut that’s bearing down from Washington.

The teacher in me notices two things in your book. One was your observation that schools named Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks or Paul Robinson or Thurgood Marshall are most likely to be the most segregated.

Jonathan Kozol: Yeah. And they’re usually very bad schools.

It seemed like in some of those schools, you were the first person who asked an 11th grader what they hoped for their life.

Jonathan Kozol: That’s right. I don’t think I was the first… I’m sure there were some teachers who asked that question–if they’re given the time to ask any question, you know.

The second issue is that you say students in those schools do not even know who Martin Luther King or Thurgood Marshall were. How is that possible?

Jonathan Kozol: Well look, in the case of the Thurgood Marshall School in Seattle, the principal, who’s African-American, simply managed to convey the vague impression to the children that Thurgood Marshall is some kind of a manager. OK. I learned that because the slogans manager and self-manager were all over the building.

When I sat down with a group of fourth-grade boys, who were some of the top students in fourth grade, none of them at first could tell me who Thurgood Marshall was. One thought that he ran a camp for boys, a summer camp. One thought he was some kind of a business manager. Only one, finally, told me he was a lawyer who tried to fight to make things more fair in America. And that answer came only after considerable prodding on my part.

But the principal was in a damnably difficult position. I mean what, in fact, could he say to these little kids? This was an elementary school. “Thurgood Marshall dedicated his entire life to the struggle to abolish schools like the one in which you will spend the next five years of your life.” Not too many inner-city principals would want to say that to their students.

We have forced the principals themselves to do all sorts of somersaults in order to avoid naming reality. However, at the high school level I think teachers and principals have an absolute obligation to open up these ironies explicitly to their students. Because by that age, at least some of the students, are well aware of the irony and they ought to be allowed to voice it.

I have tremendous admiration–my breath was taken away by a veteran teacher at the Martin Luther King High School in New York City, which is an overwhelmingly segregated school in the middle of a white middle class upscale neighborhood, right next to Lincoln Center. When she said to me, “If I’m teaching in a segregated school named Martin Luther King, I think my students have the right to know what he stood for.” She made sure they knew what he stood for and as a result, those students developed a very strong consciousness. At least many of her students, as a consequence recognized what I argue repeatedly in Shame of the Nation. Namely, that this nation has trampled the legacy of Dr. King, even while we celebrate his birthday every year. That we have ripped apart the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. That in reality, we are back to Plessy, because our schools are still separate, but they’re nowhere near equal.

I think these subjects ought to be opened up candidly in front of our students. And to be quite blunt about it, it may cause many of these students to be angry and to confront us intellectually. I know that it will liberate them to do some of the best writing they’ve ever done in their lives because for the first time they’ll be writing about something that …


Jonathan Kozol: … that matters to their heart and it’s something which comes out of their heart, rather than out of the over-structured mind of someone in Albany or Sacramento who’s making lists and standards. Most of the state standards are mediocre.

Is what you’re saying that emotional standardization needs lowering?

Jonathan Kozol: I’ll be honest, I came to teaching from a career in literature. I majored in English literature at Harvard. I wrote my thesis on Elizabethan poetry and I went to Europe and studied with older writers–older American writers. [including Richard Wright] Most of the standards are mediocre at best and jargon-ridden to a degree that is insulting to anybody who actually values the written word.

They basically move jargon around mindlessly. Try making a sonnet out of the standards published by the State Board of Education anywhere in the United States. I defy you to do it. So they made things efficient. They made it easier to measure everything empirically, but they have exiled aesthetics. They have abolished any semblance of respect for learning for it’s own sake, To compound all the other inequalities, they have made the school a joyless experience for children of color. We have to stand up and denounce this agenda. And we have to do it quickly and politically and vocally.

If the superintendents say,” It’s hard for me to do it, please do it on my behalf, Jonathan,” I’m willing to take that role. But, I want them to stand up beside me and defend me when sharp knives of the Heritage Foundation come out.

Originally published in the January 2006 issue of District Administration Magazine

New Book!You know it’s a good day when UPS delivers a new book by legendary school leader, reformer and Constructing Modern Knowledge guest speaker, Deborah Meier!

Yesterday, I received a copy of Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground, co-authored by Deborah Meier, Brenda S. Engel and Beth Taylor. In the spirit of Vivian Paley and Jonathan Kozol (both of whom blurbed the book), Meier and co. give voice to the spontaneous voice and learning of children in their care.

Two particular passages jumped out at me:

In the process of turning schools into competitive institutions, “racing to the top,” we end up threatening the spirit of childhood. Because of our own limited histories and the generally accepted language around schooling – “grade level,” “ahead or behind,” “competent or deficient,” “differentiated learning,” – we begin to lose sight of what education means. These become the only words for describing children in school – children like those we observe playing in this book. “Knowing children well” becomes a matter of looking at test data. (page 107)

Leaving no time or space in education for children’s “playful” efforts to make sense of the world risks the future of only of poetry and science, but also our political liberties. The habits of playfulness in early life are the essential foundations upon which we can build a K-12 education that would foster, nourish and sustain the apparent “absurdity” of democracy. (page 68)

Check out all of Debroah Meier’s stunning books on teaching, learning and school reform here at the Constructivist Consortium Bookstore. If you haven’t already read the classics, In Schools We Trust or The Power of Their Ideas, put them at the top of your summer reading pile.

While we’re on the subject of summer, there is still time to register for Constructing Modern Knowledge, July 12-15, 2010 in picturesque Manchester, NH. There you can actually work, play and learn with Deborah Meier, Aflie Kohn, James Loewen, Peter Reynolds and a bunch of educational computing pioneers!

New Ravitch book I have eagerly anticipated Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education , for many months. I’ve recommended the book in this blog and at conferences since my copy arrived a few days ago.

I remain excited that a noted education historian is openly criticizing the pandemic of standardized testing, union-busting, teacher-bashing, charter school expansion and heavy-handed policies being driven by political ideologues and corporate profiteers. Diane Ravitch can teach us a lot about school governance, policy and the history of public education. Just don’t expect to learn much about learning from her new book.

Admittedly, I have only skimmed the book, but it is not hard to find evidence that Dr. Ravitch has not left all of her highly conservative views behind. She blames the familiar bogeymen of the religious right for many of the problems in American public education, notably constructivism and whole language with the selective citing of easily refuted research. Her naive understanding of learning theory or learner-centered pedagogy is like that of a teacher education student or mom who just returned home from a “Tea Party” rally.

Ravitch dismisses research conducted by noted scholars Lauren Resnick and Richard Ellmore and seems to present the case that Anthony Alvarado is one of the villains whose embrace of balanced literacy (HARDLY a progressive idea) and “constructivist math” (oooh booga-booga) led to the destruction of public education.

This assertion is not only wrong, but ignores the fact that Dr. Alvarado led many of the pioneering efforts in urban education including the “small schools” movement that resulted in the highly successful Central Park East Schools started by Ravitch’s colleague, Deborah Meier. Calling the reign of San Diego Superintendent and former prosecutor, Alan Bersin “left-wing”  is laughable to anyone with the slightest awareness of his heavy-handed leadership style.

Ravitch seems to revere A Nation at Risk as gospel created by divine intervention, not the Reagan administration and caricatures efforts of the 60s and 70s to make classrooms more democratic, creative and child-centered. She remains a proponent of national curricula, a patently absurd solution in search of a problem.

That said, I will read the rest of the book and share my thoughts as warranted. I just felt it was my obligation to warn my friends and colleagues that although I recommend  The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,  you should read it with a fresh new battery in your BS detector.

New Ravitch bookEducation historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education for the first President Bush, Diane Ravitch has just published an extraordinary book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. The book should be required reading for every policy-maker, citizen and educator.

The extraordinary reporting found in the book can not help but convince Americans that their public education system is endangered by the politicians, billionaire mischief-makers, foundations and business groups professing to “fix” the “broken” system.

Similar accusations have been leveled before in books by Alfie Kohn, Susan Ohanian, Gerald Bracey, Herb Kohl, Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Linda Darling-Hammond and others. What makes this book so extraordinary is that it was written by a proponent of many of the reforms Ravitch herself now admits are destroying public education.

That’s right, Dr. Ravitch is the rare scholar/leader who when confronted by the actual application of theory is capable of rethinking her assumptions. Ravitch has also severed ties to many of the conservative think-tanks with whom she no longer shares similar views and has had the courage to expose her change-of-heart and mind publicly in this book and in the spectacular blog, Bridging Differences, she writes with (CMK 2010 guest speaker) Deborah Meier.

Ravitch challenges the current fetishes of merit pay, mayoral control, charter schools, vouchers and standardized testing while also questioning the statistical plausibility of the test score miracles being touted by politicians like Arne Duncan and NYC Mayor Bloomberg. At the same time, Ravitch advocates a national curriculum (albeit a richer one than proposed), an idea I find extremely troublesome. Without sentimentality, Ravitch’s new book is a love letter to public education and the democratic ideals it fosters.

The story of personal transformation late in life is generating an unprecedented level of publicity for a book about education. I am most grateful to Dr. Ravitch for placing these issues at the center of mainstream media debate for the first time. I intend to write something substantive about the book once I have an adequate chance to digest it. In the meantime, I recommend you read the following reviews of the book.

  1. Little Dead Schoolhouse – Boston Globe 2/28/10
  2. “Teacher Ken’s” comprehensive review of the book for the Daily Kos – 2/28/10 (highly recommended)
  3. Business principles won’t work for school reform,  former supporter Ravitch says – Washington Post – 2/26/10
  4. Los Angeles Times review – 2/28/10
  5. Why You Should Read Diane Ravitch’s New Book – Washington Post – 2/26/10

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