Jonathan Kozol has a new education book out, which means that he hasnt been eating. Kozols books always come backed by a PR campaign portraying him as someone who courageously exposes the racism of Americas inner-city public schools and even suffers physically alongside the people he writes about. For example, when Amazing Grace, Kozols 1995 book about poor minority kids trapped in lousy schools in the South Bronx, first appeared, the author had lost 30 pounds and had begun suffering from asthma, like so many of the people who live in the neighborhood, the New York Times reported.
With his new book, Letters to a Young Teacherconsisting of letters to a (possibly imaginary) first-grade Boston public school instructorKozol is again winning press plaudits, this time by actually fasting. In a glowing Boston Globe profile, columnist Sam Allis observed that Kozol has been on a partial fast since the Supreme Court in late June all but banned voluntary school desegregation plans. His belt is working overtime to keep his pants up. I tell him he should eat. A few weeks later, though, Kozols fans and friends received a somewhat different spin on the fast. In a Huffington Post article, Kozol described his refusal to eat solid food as a personal act of protest against George W. Bushs racially punitive No Child Left Behind education law. Kozol claimed to have shed 29 pounds so far.
Kozols fast will have to go on for a long time if hes going to get public attention for this latest crusade, however. Theres nothing particularly new or courageous about protesting against NCLB. A broad political coalition has formedranging from the National Education Association to state education superintendentsurging that NCLB be radically revised or scrapped altogether. Even conservative Republicans are jumping on the anti-NCLB bandwagon.
Still, nobody else has come up with anything as imaginative as Kozols explanation of why NCLB is so awful for inner-city schools. In Kozols view (and this is his new books main theme), NCLB creates unbearable pressure in urban classrooms to pass the annual tests in reading and math that the law mandates. This results in a miserable drill-and-kill curriculum of robotic teaching to the test, which is driving all the idealistic and well-educated young teachers out of the profession. I didnt study all these years in order to turn black babies into mindless little robots, denied the normal breadth of learning, all the arts and sciences, all the joy in reading literary classics, Kozols eponymous young teacher complains. Kozol asserts that 50 percent of all new teachers in urban school districts quit within five years because of the testing mandates.
The 50 percent attrition rate is approximately correct, and its one of the most serious problems faced by urban schools. But how does Kozol know that NCLB is to blame? Well, Kozol says, hes heard from hundreds of thousands of quitting teachers (as he told WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate) whove expressed frustration with NCLB testing.
As it happens, though, reputable scholars such as Eric Hanushek, Stephen Rivkin, and Richard Murname have studied the urban attrition problem, and school districts have conducted exit surveys of new teachers leaving the job after less than five years. Contrary to Kozols impression, testing hardly registers as a reason for leaving. One factor that does turn up, however, is the lack of adequate training that teachers get from education schools.
If ed schools arent preparing future teachers for the reality of inner-city classrooms, what are they doing? Among other things, theyre forcing students to read Jonathan Kozols books, brimming with misinformation about the causes of school failure. A study by Hunter College School of Education dean David Steiner found that Kozols books were among the most frequently assigned ed-school texts.
Like Kozol, I sometimes hear from teachers and prospective teachers. Heres what a student at NYUs Steinhardt School of Education recently wrote to me: Essentially, Kozol is the foundation on which the Steinhardt program is built. He is introduced in . . . a freshman course that serves to elucidate current political debates concerning education. Unfortunately, theres pretty much no one on the syllabus to debunk him. And thats a pretty good explanation for why new teachers find themselves clueless when they step into urban classrooms.