Friday, June 23, 2006

I Saw Jonathan Kozol Last Night

The esteemed author of Savage Inequalities and The Shame of the Nation was speaking Friday night at the school at which I teach. I have only read brief excerpts from Kozol's books and an article here and there. I was completely unprepared for how passionate, informed, funny, and caring he really is. And his message is an important one.
It is Kozol's contention that we are abandoning our poorest kids to lousy educations because we refuse to spend the resources on the poor that we need to. The source of the funding disparities in American education? Reliance on property taxes as the chief source of school funding, which means that in devastated inner city schools, the money just isn't there. He made a number of powerful and compelling points, which I'd like to summarize briefly:
  • The states with the four most segregated school systems (in order) : New York, Illinois, Michigan, and California.
  • Sometimes wealthy people who spend over $40,000 a year on New England prep schools for their teenagers will ask Kozol, "Is money really the answer to education problems?" Kozol said that sometimes he just simply replies, "Well, it sure seems to work for your kids."
  • His greatest inspiration and close friend? Fred (Mr.) Rogers, whom Kozol called one of the greatest advocates for children ever to bless our country. Kozol told a wonderful anecdote. He and Mr. Rogers were visiting an inner city school. A delighted little six year-old boy ran up to Mr. Rogers, hugged him, kissed him on the head, and said, "Welcome to my neighborhood!" (I kind of choked up hearing that because the ability to inspire that kind of love in children is rare. I genuinely respected Fred Rogers, who was a beautiful human being in every way, a genuine hero.)
  • Kozol asked, (my paraphrase) "Why do the best people have the worst schools named after them?" He cited Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson as examples, each of whom generally has wretched schools named in his honor. He asked why can't the bad schools be named for the people who are truly hostile to public education, like William Bennett, Clarence Thomas, or George W. Bush?
  • Kozol earned my lasting gratitude for saying what I've contended for a long time: the purpose of "No Child Left Behind" is to humiliate the public schools by demanding such high standards (my favorite example is 100% math proficiency in all high school students by 2014) that no public school could possibly meet them. This will allow the Radical Right to label the public schools as failures, and "soften the ground" (Kozol's phrase) for privatization of the school system and vouchers.
  • Kozol ripped into high stakes standardized testing, saying it is doing terrible damage to genuine teaching. Many inner city principals are now so terrified of looking bad on standardized tests that they have their teachers doing nothing but drilling for the test, sometimes even to the point of reading scripts to the children, from which there can be no deviation. (This is tragic, in my view.)
  • American public schools are more segregated now than at any time since the death of Martin Luther King.
  • There are schools in Los Angeles so crowded that one teacher Kozol met had six classes a day of approximately 40 kids each. If you're not a teacher, you may not fully appreciate how staggering a burden that actually is. The school, with 5,000 kids, only has classrooms for half of them. The other half learn in trailers that have been set up next to the schools. How can kids in a such a setting compete on an equal basis with kids from beautiful, well-funded suburban schools? (My school is the latter, fortunately for me.)
  • There needs to be more emphasis on aesthetic beauty in our schools. Ugly, decrepit surroundings kill the spirit of children. (Hear hear!)

I fully intend to immerse myself in Kozol's books, and I urge all teachers (and anyone else who cares about education) to sign up for his e-mail list. He is a true friend of teachers, principals, and above all, kids. And of course, that makes him a true friend of America.

No comments: