This afternoon, educator and author Jonathan Kozol–who has taught in public schools and written extensively about inequality within the public schools system–spoke at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in downtown Grand Rapids to an overflow crowd as part of the University’s “Conversations on Poverty & Economic Justice series.” Kozol’s lecture, titled “Advocating for Equity: Looking Behind the Curtain of No Child Left Behind” was a scathing critique of the No Child Left Behind Act that was passed by Congress in 2001.
Kozol framed his talk through a discussion of his new book, Letters to a Young Teacher, in which he prints a series of sixteen letters to a first grade teacher in an inner city school district whom he calls “Francesca.” Kozol explained that her experiences mirrored his in many ways, with the two beginning their teaching careers in the same Boston school district. He visited her classroom over the course of a year and in his visits he observed that her kids “grew and learned” at a phenomenal rate, despite the fact that she chose to ignore the No Child Left Behind mandates and government guidelines. These mandates and guidelines are set, Kozol explained, to “ensure” that students will “succeed” on standardized tests now administered extensively in public schools around the country.
Kozol–who referred to the guidelines as a means by which to ensure that “not a moment of a school day is wasted on something the teacher wants to teach” or anything “exhilarating” for either students or teachers–repeatedly criticized the mandates contained within No Child Left Behind. He told the audience that many conservative proponents of No Child Left Behind have become enchanted by the idea of “phonics” with many “lunatics in Washington who think that phonics are a magic pill” for everything wrong in society. Francesca refused to use the phonics readers encouraged for inner city schools. These readers, according to Kozol, are completely devoid of anything meaningful or interesting for students. At the same time, they are reserved for inner city students while suburban districts teach kids reading and writing through books.
Despite the mandates and scripting encouraged by No Child Left Behind—which is so extensive that some teachers are using timers and scripts–Francesca taught her students to read and write using stories from their own lives and by using books such as “The Hungry Caterpillar” or “The Grouchy Ladybug.” These techniques got her students interested and she supplemented it with a wealth of multicultural books and poems that she loved. Kozol explained that Francesca did this in spite of colleges that teach that African-American kids learn different than Caucasian kids. Such thinking has led many education departments around the country to teach that African-American students must have “test-driven learning” and military regimentation that leaves little time for discussion or interaction between students, their classmates, and their teachers.
Francesca’s teaching style quickly came up against people in her school who said that “black kids couldn’t learn this way.” In this sense, Kozol argued that Francesca represented the thousands of teachers in coming out of education schools who–despite what they are being taught in some cases–are among the best teachers he has seen in forty years. He said that many teachers like Francesca are enthusiastically taking jobs in inner city or poor rural schools only to hit a “stone wall of state standards” that limit how they can teach. Kozol said that 50% of such teachers are quitting within three years. These teachers never blame the kids, the neighborhoods, or the parents, but rather they say they are quitting because of No Child Left Behind and the ensuing shift towards teaching via a script designed with the goal of preparing students to take standardized tests.
This testing starts officially in third grade, although Kozol said that some districts are starting it in Kindergarten. Many students in inner city schools–lacking the opportunities for Pre-K education allotted to their peers in the suburbs–are struggling. He argued that the lack of Pre-K education is a sort of “cognitive decapitation” that is ensuring that students in inner city schools will not do as well as their suburban counterparts. Kozol used this discussion to bring up a common theme in his work that money does indeed have a profound impact on education. He reminded the audience that it is only inner city schools–which are dependent in many cases on Title I funding for schools in poverty–that are “under the sword” of No Child Left Behind as suburban schools can fail to meet standards and simply ask their taxpayers for more funding. He further argued that more funding means more Pre-K education, telling the audience that the wealthiest residents of the United States have long recognized the importance of Pre-K education and consequently send their kids to a variety of expensive institutions. Kozol also said that funding can lead to smaller class sizes, explaining that suburban districts have smaller class sizes than inner city school districts. He again cited what the most privileged in society do, telling the audience that the schools that most Senators send their kids to have class size capped at 12 students. Kozol asserted that if small class sizes and individual attention are good enough for the children of Presidents and CEOs than they are good enough for all Americans. He said that if we “don’t believe that, it is hard to believe there is democracy in the United States.”
Kozol argued that No Child Left Behind is the worst education law he has seen. He explained that it says nothing about a host of important issues including class size, cultural diversity, segregation, or unequal funding, while it talks extensively about testing. Kozol told the audience that educators, teachers, and future teachers must speak out against No Child Left behind, arguing that it is nothing less than an “all out war” on teaching. He further urged Schools of Education to overcome their tendency to be “politically antiseptic” and take positions against No Child Left Behind.
He concluded by telling the audience how Francesca formed relationships with students and visited them and their families outside of the classroom. Eventually, her experiences led her to speak out publicly and write exposes of the conditions in inner city schools. This echoed his experience of developing relationships with students and their parents, with Kozol telling the audience how his principal told him it would “ruin his professional dignity.” Kozol said that this view has been internalized by many educators who tell young teachers that it is “professional” not to be honest, subversive, playful with children, or generous. This has created a clime in which young teachers are encouraged to be “drill sergeants for the state” rather than the “warriors for justice” that are needed.