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recent interview with Jonathan Kozol

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  • Dr. Lapin
    A recent interview with Jonathan Kozol, reprinted from Salon. ______________________ Dr. Lapin Inicio del mensaje reenviado: De:
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 31, 2007
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      A recent interview with Jonathan Kozol, reprinted from Salon.

      Dr. Lapin

      Inicio del mensaje reenviado:

      Fecha: 30 de agosto de 2007 12:07:19 PM PDT
      Asunto: Teachers: Be subversive
      Responder a: moderator@...

      August 30, 2007

      Teachers: Be subversive

      Jonathan Kozol, author of "Letters to a Young Teacher,"
      talks with Salon about why No Child Left Behind
      squelches learning and reading Rilke's sonnets to first

      By Matthew Fishbane

      School days, writes Jonathan Kozol, should be full of
      "aesthetic merriment." But instead, too many of
      America's 93,000 public schools, particularly those in
      the inner cities, are what the poet Gwendolyn Brooks
      once called "uglifying," brimming with demoralizing
      indignities. Those indignities -- and also the acts of
      "stalwart celebration" that surface in classrooms
      across the country -- are the topic of Kozol's latest
      book, "Letters to a Young Teacher."

      Kozol, who will turn 71 this year, has written about
      race and class in the classroom before, most recently
      in 2005's "The Shame of the Nation" -- and in his
      latest work, an undercurrent of anger still simmers.
      But rather than descend into polemic, Kozol returns in
      "Letters" to his teaching roots, using a correspondence
      with a teacher he calls Francesca as a chance to pay
      tribute to the men and women who devote their lives to
      children every day.

      Francesca herself is "semi-fictionalized," a stand-in
      for the young educators -- almost all women -- who have
      been writing in remarkable volume to Kozol over the
      years. Still, Kozol insists that Francesca "is a very
      real person," "marvelously well-educated" and certified
      as a teacher. Written for an audience that is just
      becoming politically engaged, their exchange gives
      Kozol a forum in which to address No Child Left Behind,
      high-stakes testing, vouchers and other privatizing
      forces in public schools -- while at the same time
      leaving ample room to praise and celebrate the
      inspiring, human qualities he encounters in teachers,
      "empathetic principals" and, of course, kids.

      From page to page, the focus of Kozol's "Letters"
      shuttles from the mundane to the profound -- from loose
      teeth to the democratic aims of education -- in a
      thoughtful first-person that echoes another "buoyant
      spirit" of New England: Henry David Thoreau, who wrote
      in "Civil Disobedience," "as for supporting schools, I
      am doing my part to educate my fellow countrymen now."
      And in fact, Kozol's goals -- in calling for "a
      sweeping, intellectually sophisticated political
      upheaval" -- are no less lofty.

      Salon spoke to Kozol from his home in Byfield, Mass.,
      about the fun of first graders, the trouble with
      "utilitarian" teaching, and why No Child Left Behind is
      "the worst education legislation" in 40 years.

      Unlike some of your previous books, "Letters" strikes
      me as being more about teachers than students.

      Yes, that's true, although the students -- especially
      because they're young and so delightfully impertinent
      -- force their way into the story repeatedly. Like most
      teachers, Francesca talks about the children all the

      But it's true, the main purpose of the book is to
      describe what it's like to be a young teacher just
      beginning in an inner-city school at a time when there
      are unprecedented pressures, in part because of No
      Child Left Behind. It records a year of correspondence
      and visits with an irreverent young woman who also
      happens to be an excellent teacher. I think of the book
      as an invitation to a beautiful profession.

      Can you really call it an "invitation" when a huge part
      of your work is describing the many challenges teachers
      face in urban schools?

      Well, teachers have been profoundly demoralized in
      recent years and are often treated with contempt by
      politicians. There's a great deal of reckless rhetoric
      in Washington about the mediocrity of the teaching
      profession -- and I don't find that to be true at all.
      We are attracting better teachers and better-educated
      teachers today than at any time since I started out in

      I emphasize teachers because they are largely left out
      of the debate. None of the bombastic reports that come
      from Washington and think tanks telling us what needs
      to be "fixed" -- I hate such a mechanistic word, as if
      our schools were automobile engines -- ever asks the
      opinions of teachers. By far the most important factor
      in the success or failure of any school, far more
      important than tests or standards or business-model
      methods of accountability, is simply attracting the
      best-educated, most exciting young people into urban
      schools and keeping them there.

      In your letters, you spend a lot of time reassuring
      Francesca that it's OK to follow her instincts, or even
      encouraging her to be subversive, to disregard school
      policies if they don't make sense to her.

      I would say pleasantly subversive. In part that is
      Francesca's character anyway -- but I do recommend an
      attitude of irreverence on the part of teachers who are
      having tests and standards shoved down their throats
      from Washington. We try so hard to recruit exciting
      teachers into these schools, but nearly 50 percent of
      them quit within three years. In order to survive, they
      need to keep their individuality, their personalities,
      intact, and they need to fight to defend a sense of
      joyfulness that brought them to this profession in the
      first place.

      In most suburban schools, teachers know their kids are
      going to pass the required tests anyway -- so No Child
      Left Behind is an irritant in a good school system, but
      it doesn't distort the curriculum. It doesn't transform
      the nature of the school day. But in inner-city
      schools, testing anxiety not only consumes about a
      third of the year, but it also requires every minute of
      the school day in many of these inner-city schools to
      be directed to a specifically stated test-related
      skill. Very little art is allowed into these
      classrooms. Little social studies, really none of the

      In some embattled school systems these high-stakes
      tests start in first grade, or even kindergarten, in
      order to get the kids used to the protocol of test
      taking -- yet a vast majority of low-income kids have
      no preschool before they enter kindergarten. According
      to Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense
      Fund, less than 50 percent of eligible children are
      provided with Head Start nowadays, and it's even worse
      in the poorest inner-city districts. Meanwhile, the
      children of my affluent Harvard classmates, or their
      grandchildren, typically have three years of
      developmental pre-K education. Then a few years later,
      they all have to take the same exam -- presuming the
      affluent kids go to public schools -- and so some are
      being tested on three or four years of education and
      some on twice as many years.

      Is that what you said recently when you went to speak
      to the Democrats on the Senate education committee?

      Yes. I think the tests in their present form are
      useless, because although President Bush promoted them
      by saying, "All we want to do is help these teachers
      see where their students need more help," the results
      typically don't come back before the end of June. What
      is the teacher supposed to do when she finally sees the
      test scores in the middle of the summer, send a
      postcard to little Shaniqua, saying, you know, "If I
      knew last winter what I know now, I would have put more
      emphasis on the those skills"?

      I recommended to the Democrats that they replace these
      tests with diagnostic tests, which are given
      individually by the teacher to her students. They are
      anxiety-free and you don't have to wait six months for
      McGraw-Hill or Harcourt to mis-score them, as they
      often do. The teacher gets results immediately. And
      it's not time stolen from education because she
      actually learns while she's giving this test.

      After the Supreme Court decision last June on
      segregation in Seattle's school districts, you wrote a
      critical Op-Ed in the New York Times about a transfer
      provision in No Child Left Behind that says that if a
      student is in a perennially failing school, that child
      must be permitted to transfer to a high-performing
      school. Can you explain your argument?

      The idea of the provision is that a child's parents
      should be able to transfer the child to a successful
      school in their district if the child's school has
      proven to be a hopeless failure. The trouble is, there
      aren't enough schools in overwhelmingly poor and
      minority inner-city districts to which a child can
      transfer. So less than 3 percent of eligible kids have
      transferred during the years since No Child Left Behind
      came into effect.

      I proposed that the transfer provision be amended not
      only to permit but to require states to make cross-
      district transfers possible -- so that a student in the
      South Bronx could be transferred to Bronxville, which
      is, I have tested in my car, only about a 12-minute
      drive. It would be a very simple amendment to add and
      it would drive a mighty blow against the deepening re-
      segregation of our urban schools, without making any
      reference to race. Justice Kennedy, in his partial
      concurrence, pointed out that strategies like these,
      which are race-neutral, would certainly be

      How would those changes help to retain the wonderful
      young teachers you write about?

      First of all, it would immediately relieve that sense
      that there's always a sword above their heads, and that
      sword is empirically measurable testing. It would
      relieve the sense that every minute of the day has to
      be allocated to a predesignated skill. It would free
      them from the absurdity of posting numbers and the
      language of standards on their blackboards, which are
      of absolutely no benefit to a child. As Francesca once
      pointed out to me, no child's going to come back 10
      years later and say, "I'm so grateful to you for
      teaching me proficiency 56b."

      It would free the teachers from all of that, and it
      would allow these young teachers, most of whom have
      majored in liberal arts, and who love literature and
      poetry, to flood the classroom with all those treasures
      that they themselves enjoyed when they were children,
      most of them in very good suburban school districts.

      You use a lot of military language like "combat,"
      "assaults" and "capitulation" and return again and
      again to the idea that the administrative brass doesn't
      know what the grunts are living through. Are our
      schools really war zones?

      Yes, they are. You rightly called teachers "grunts," in
      that they are the ones who are doing the actual work.
      In the inner-city schools these classrooms are not
      simply the front lines of education: They're the front
      lines of democracy. No matter what happens in a child's
      home, no matter what other social and economic factors
      may impede a child, there's no question in my mind that
      a first-rate school can transform almost everything. So
      long as the teacher is energized and highly skilled and
      her personal sense of exhilaration in the company of
      children is not decapitated by a Dickensian agenda.

      I've received at least 30,000 letters, calls and e-
      mails or written notes handed to me from young teachers
      in the past two years alone: These teachers by and
      large are very well-educated and they are highly
      idealistic. And they know something that the testing
      and standards experts don't seem to know: namely, that
      the main reason for learning to read is for the
      pleasure it brings us, not for the utilitarian payoff
      of being able to read your orders.

      So you take issue with the argument that children need
      to be prepared for the realities of the marketplace.
      But isn't that what they will face?

      Yes, children do have to be prepared for the economic
      world -- but the invasion of the public schools by
      mercantile values has deeply demoralized teachers. I've
      been in classrooms where the teacher has to write a so-
      called mission statement that says, "The mission of
      this school is to sharpen the competitive edge of
      America in the global marketplace."

      Francesca once said to me, "I'm damned if I'm going to"
      -- I don't think she said "damned," because she's too
      polite; maybe "darned" -- "treat these little babies as
      commodities or products. Why should they care about
      global markets? They care about bellybuttons, and
      wobbly teeth, and beautiful books about caterpillars."
      I think we have to protect those qualities.

      Most of the teachers we're trying so hard to recruit
      into these schools, then driving out, tend to be the
      children of the 1960s generation, and they are steeped
      in civil rights values, and those who have gone to good
      colleges and universities come into these schools with
      what I would call almost a preferential option for
      minority children of the poor. But no matter what
      they've read beforehand, they're generally stunned at
      the profound class and racial segregation they
      encounter. It's not as if they didn't know that this
      was the case, but when they're suddenly in a class, as
      Francesca was, with not a single white child and only
      three white kids in the entire building, it hits them

      Is that how Francesca experienced it?

      Francesca and I once had a long talk. I tend to say
      that we've basically ripped apart the legacy of Brown
      v. Board of Education, but it was she who first pointed
      out to me that we haven't even lived up to the mandate
      of Plessy v. Ferguson, because our schools are
      obviously separate but they're certainly not equal.

      Now, especially with the recent Supreme Court decision
      [on segregation], there's a sense of profound anger
      among these teachers. A sense that everything they grew
      up to believe is good and right is being discarded by
      our society. They also note that despite all the
      fatuous claims from the secretary of education, the
      achievement gap between the races has not closed. And
      even worse, the cultural gap has actually widened
      because of the narrowing of the curriculum in these

      Francesca, despite the fact that she refused to teach
      to the test, managed to be very effective in teaching
      skills, and her children did well. Apparently you don't
      need to hire Princeton Review to come into your school
      and use scarce education funds to pay them to create
      artificial test-score gains.

      You're an advocate now. Have you ever considered going
      back to the classroom yourself?

      All the time. When I was visiting Francesca's class, I
      was jealous of her. When I give lectures what usually
      happens is some teacher or principal in the audience
      will grab me at the end and say, "Do you have four
      hours tomorrow morning before you leave? Would you
      visit my school?" and I always try to do it. And then I
      don't want to leave because it really brings my spirits
      back. I love the unpredictable. I love the whimsical in
      children. I love it when a child asks me what you might
      think is a funny question, like, "Do you feel sad
      because you're old?" Or, "Is it lonesome to write?"
      It's a wonderful question, don't you think?

      I'm still very healthy and I sometimes think I would
      love to go back and teach first grade or second grade.
      First grade, under the best conditions, is what I call
      the miracle year, because that's the year when -- if
      you're in a reasonably good situation, and if your
      children have a little pre-K, and if they've had a good
      kindergarten year -- it's in first grade that you see
      the children go from knowing letters only as images,
      the shapes of the letters, to suddenly writing and
      reading. Writing real sentences and reading real books.
      That's a miracle to me. To me that's more dramatic than
      anything that happened to me at my four years at

      This book revisits some of the topics -- like dealing
      with unsupportive administrators -- from your 1981
      book, "On Being a Teacher." Why did you feel the need
      to return to those subjects?

      Well, I've spent more time with other teachers since
      then and spent so much time in classrooms that -- I
      can't quite explain why. I know this book has a
      political cutting edge and it's going to make me a lot
      of enemies in Washington from the right-wing think-tank
      types. I'm sure they won't be sending me any bouquets
      from the Heritage Foundation, or the Manhattan
      Institute. But it's the first book I've ever written
      where I actually enjoyed it every day, and it's because
      there's enough in it, and because I think of it sort of
      as an invitation to the dance. I think the book, in a
      strange way, is kind of a cheerful book. Wouldn't you
      say so?

      Somewhere between naive romance and sophisticated

      I hope it's not naive. It's not a theoretical book,
      like, wouldn't this be wonderful? or something. It's
      based on being there. Francesca's kids did well. At the
      same time, she did not stick to the standards. I don't
      think there's anything in No Child Left Behind about
      reading the sonnets of Rilke to first graders.

      -- By Matthew Fishbane

      Copyright (c)2007 Salon Media Group, Inc. 


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