Few have championed the rights of children or humanized the need for decent, equitable education like author Jonathan Kozol. In a wide-ranging interview with FAIR’s Steve Rendall, Kozol discussed media coverage of the system’s problems and the radical potential of education. The following is adapted from that conversation.
On the state of education policy
The most alarming news regarding public education in America is that the White House, under Barack Obama, has continued most of the benighted policies of the Bush administration, and many of its proposals are likely to worsen those positions.
First of all, we’re still faced, as we’ve been for decades, with gross inequalities in funding between wealthy and poor districts. There is nothing in the president’s Race to the Top or his recent blueprint for reauthorization of No Child Left Behind that will address this.
Second: We now are facing the deepest racial segregation in our public schools since 1968—not a word in the White House proposals that even touches on that subject.
Third: an encouragement of more and more corporate and private intrusion into public education. Example: charter schools, many of which are operated by either non-profit or for-profit corporations.
Fourth: evaluation of teachers and rewards and punishments for teachers, which began with a vengeance under the Bush administration. It’s still being tied, almost exclusively, to the scores of kids on standardized exams, as opposed to a full breadth of all the aspects of a teacher’s capability, including sensitivity to the differences between individual children. If teachers are rewarded or punished according to test scores and test scores only, or primarily, there will be more “drill and kill,” less opportunity for questioning by children, less opportunity for the teacher even to pause long enough to listen to the children.
And, of course, since arts and other subjects are not included in the tests, they will continue to be shortchanged. Lots of schools have virtually abolished arts and music. Some have canceled recess, because none of that contributes to the test scores.
Fifth: ignorant proposals for enticing college graduates into inner-city schools. There’s a great shortage of terrific teachers—although there are many, many wonderful teachers in the inner-city schools. What does Obama propose? Basically increased reliance on short-term teaching stints by unprepared and inexperienced young people.
One of his favorite programs is Teach for America, for example. Teach for America recruits sort of smart, sleek, privileged graduates of good colleges who know absolutely nothing about teaching and whose ability to relate to children is minimal, and who are going to stay for only two years in any case.
Sixth: The president, when he was campaigning, made enormous promises that virtually every child in poverty would receive preschool education. He has now scaled it down so drastically that we can expect the majority of kids in our poorest urban neighborhoods will continue to receive no preschool at all, or at most, perhaps, one very poorly funded year of something in the nature of Head Start—while the children of the wealthy will continue, as they do today, to get typically three years of rich, wonderful developmental preschool that their parents pay for before they even enter public school.
That’s grossly unfair, because a couple years later, in third grade, they’re all going to be tested on the same standardized exams. And we know in advance which ones will be found to be above proficiency—gifted, talented—and put on the road to superior high schools, AP and the finest colleges, and which ones, on the other hand, by third grade will be found to be developmentally delayed and frequently kept back, not promoted.
Finally: an unhealthy, unenlightened, increased emphasis on competition between kids and other kids, and schools and other schools—competition at all levels, embodied very well in the slogan that the president has been using, Race to the Top. Race to the Top is an abysmal phrasing and an abysmal concept. We don’t need to turn child against child and school against school in order to educate our children well. On the contrary, we need far more sense of mutual cooperation between children, and collegial cooperation between schools.
On education vs. education
First of all, media—I don’t mean all the media, there are of course exceptions—but, in general, when the media talk about what’s “good” for inner-city kids, black and brown kids particularly, they almost always gravitate towards business-minded goals, like “train them to be good employees, train them to show up on time, train them to follow the regimen prescribed at the highest levels,” rather than to explore their own imaginations or develop a critical consciousness in the face of accepted verities. They never make these recommendations for the children of the suburbs.
In the suburbs, parents want their kids to ask tough questions. They want their kids to learn how to think, to interrogate reality, so that they can grow up to be discerning citizens and effective participants in democratic combat. Inner-city kids, because of the emphasis on training them for low-level jobs, are essentially being indoctrinated in passivity. Nothing could be more dangerous in a democracy.
There is very little that I can find in the media about empowering the poorest of the poor to receive the kind of rich, culturally deep, even traditionally cultural education that will allow them to someday compete with rich kids to get into our finest universities. No, if we gave inner-city kids the kind of powerful critical skills and wonderful advanced curricula that I see in the good suburban high schools, for example—where the kids can take any of 20 different AP courses, including Japanese History and Culture or Russian Poetry in the 19th Century, subjects that are unimaginable in the inner-city schools— if we were giving that to all the poor kids in America, a lot of rich kids wouldn’t be able to walk right into Harvard, Yale and Princeton. There’d be a much wider pool of talent ready to compete with them. I see it as a disguised form of—a polite form of—class warfare.
On telling stories
I get to know the kids by walking the streets…walking the corridors of schools. I’ve done this for years. Everyone can’t do that. But I try to convey as much of that as I can by spotlighting lots of individual, wonderful children in books like Amazing Grace and more recently Shame of the Nation. And because I focus more on individual children, readers seem to be fascinated. And I suppose that’s why these books become bestsellers, which always surprises me, because I’m a passionate liberal in a very conservative age.
The media do almost nothing of this nature; I’m thinking particularly of the New York Times, because that’s the nation’s newspaper of record, and the one that other newspapers imitate. The only times in the entire year when the New York Times really writes heart-wrenching and vivid portrayals of the gross injustice undergone by poor children is before Christmas when they are promoting their charity [Season of Giving/Neediest Cases Fund]. And then, for about three weeks, four weeks, they run one moving story every day. And then they do the same in June when they’re pumping the readers to make contributions to their summer camp…the Fresh Air Fund. And then the other 10 months, they are forgotten, and they’re introduced, generally, if at all, in negative ways.
Or the typical coverage is to spotlight super successful inner-city kids who—despite segregation, inequality, overcrowding, inexperienced teachers, miserable curricula, a miserable testing agenda—magically succeed and get a scholarship to Exeter, on to Georgetown or Berkeley or University of Chicago. In other words, trying to make a virtue of exceptionality. And that doesn’t help all. In fact, it’s just another way of condemning the vast majority for whom no miracles exist.
On charter schools
It’s interesting; the media never recommend charter schools for rich suburban districts, where the editors and journalists typically live. Why? Because they know those public schools are marvelous. And despite the complaints you hear now and then, I keep going back to the good suburban systems and they are still preparing the majority of their students superbly. The graduates of those schools are still, just as they were when I was a kid, walking right into the best colleges in America.
Why propose privatization for our children? I’m speaking as a white person who went to Harvard; why propose it for our children? No, no, this is the solution of choice for the children that we’ve isolated from the mainstream of America.
On what good coverage would look like
If I had my way, I would, No. 1, have the newspapers going to the only people who really know what happens in these schools, and those are the teachers in the building. Instead of demonizing them, spend hours and hours in the classroom with a lot of teachers, not just the one who typically makes the headlines because she’s molested, you know, a 13-year-old student or something of that sort, or he has—but, you know, the zillions of teachers who work their hearts out year after year, day after day, love the children, go out and buy materials for the kids, buy wonderful books for their students so that kids aren’t limited to the test drill materials that the school systems buy. Visit them on Sundays, when they’re giving up their entire afternoon and evening to prepare lessons for the week ahead.
And also listen to the children a lot, and quote them in their stories, and stop quoting the same three experts every time. They’re always quoting the same people: One of them is Chester Finn, who is a benighted descendant of Bill Bennett’s archaic legacy; Diane Ravitch, who’s their current hero just because she’s changing her mind, somewhat, on the policies that she helped put in place, and she deserves credit for that, so they’ll probably stop praising her soon. And occasionally they give one sentence to someone like me, just to show they’re, what’s the expression, equal? But they usually give me the back of their hand, frankly.
I think we have to do two things: essentially we have to fight to transform the media, but we also have to try much harder to get around the media, get around the corporate media, and use the internet and other ways of reaching the mainstream of the nation to present a deeper truth than the major newspapers and networks are ever likely to provide.