July 24, 2024

Jonathan Kozol Takes on the World (2006)

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.

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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?

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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 …

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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.”

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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.

Gary Stager: 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 …

Gary Stager: Matters?

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.

Gary Stager: 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