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'A battle for the soul of education'

More Convention coverage:

Weston custodian honored as a Great Schools Hero

Wisconsin public schools are 'at a crossroads,' Burmaster says

Convention photo gallery

Kozol questions the
naming of schools

It is ironic that America's most segregated schools often are named for the people who fought hardest to overcome segregation, author Jonathan Kozol said in his WEAC Convention address.

"The most segregated ones are either named for Dr. (Martin Luther) King (Jr.), Rosa Parks or Thurgood Marshall. New York wanted to honor Jackie Robinson, who broke the back of apartheid in major league baseball, so they chose a school that's 99% black and perpetually on the failing list.

"I often wonder why we name these horribly segregated schools for people that black folks love. Why not name them for people they don't like?

"The William Bennett Academy of High Personal Morality?

"The Clarence Thomas Academy of Self Help and Self Hate.

"The George Bush Academy of Garbled Syntax and Inept Vocabulary.

"Save the name of Dr. King for schools that lived up to his dream," Kozol said.

Become part of
Education Action!

Education Action! is Jonathan Kozol's network of education activists. To become a part of it, to form a local affiliate, or to learn about plans and strategies, write to Education Action! at 16 Lowell St., Cambridge, MA 02138 or send a fax to 617-945-5562.

The federal government's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law has left us "in a battle for the soul of education," author and activist Jonathan Kozol told WEAC Convention-goers Thursday (October 26, 2006).

"And we're not going to win it," he said, "if we're passive and polite. We need you to be warriors for justice!"

In the Convention's keynote address, Kozol said that in inner city schools in particular, the testing pressures created by the NCLB law have created "a state of permanent anxiety" that is hurting schools and children.

Even though NCLB does not begin testing until 3rd grade, some schools are so worried that they are preparing children for them beginning in the 1st grade, he said. Some states are giving kids in kindergarten and 1st grade "bubble tests."

"Now, do you know how little a kindergarten child is? About the size of a good Thanksgiving turkey," he said. "They look at these tests. They pee in their pants. They start to cry."

The increasing reliance on high-stakes testing, he suggested, is having the effect of worsening the inequities between poor and wealthy children, families and schools.

While children from wealthy families receive pre-kindergarten education at exclusive schools, most kids in America do not get any pre-K education. About 4 million poor children who are eligible for Head Start are excluded because of shortfalls in federal funding. "More are excluded than receive it," he said.

"No, we need that money for Iraq," Kozol said sarcastically. "You could give three years of beautiful, rich developmental pre-K to every poor kid in America for every three months of that war."

Kindergarten teachers always know which children had pre-kindergarten education, Kozol said.

"In New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, wherever I go, they look around the room and they say, Jonathan, well maybe out of these 22 or 24 six of them got something that wealthy people would consider real pre-K.

"Meanwhile, I know what the wealthy get - because they tell me. My Harvard friends in New York typically send their kids to beautiful Montessori schools starting at the age of 2 or 2 and a half. ... Then they enter the top three schools at about $25,000 a year.

"And then they get to 3rd grade, and they all take the same tests (as poor children). Guess which ones score gifted and talented and are put on the first stage of that track that leads ultimately to honors and AP and university, and which ones are diagnosed developmentally delayed.

"And then we blame their parents, who are not giving them what we denied them.

"I think it is unspeakable and outrageous to impose so many high-stakes tests in the early grades of school when we have first denied these children any opportunity for preschool," Kozol said. "There is something deeply hypocritical in this society that holds a child ... accountable for her performance on a standardized exam but does not hold the president or Congress accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids."

Kozol, a former teacher who has visited hundreds of poor schools throughout the country and written several books about inequities in educational opportunities, said that while the NCLB law is hitting poor schools the hardest, it is denying educational opportunities - and the full educational experience - to children in all schools.

"Some suburban districts have gone so far as to abolish not just art and music and science or anything resembling real social science, they have even abolished recess," he said. "Atlanta is now building public schools without playgrounds. There is now no chance for any future superintendent who's more intelligent than the one there now to decide it would be nice to let children do something simply because it's fun and healthy.

"But the word fun doesn't appear in NCLB. I looked. I didn't find it. You won't find the word love there either. Or joy. Or kindness. Or compassion."

One kindergarten teacher told Kozol that her school's mission was to "prepare our children to sharpen America's competitive edge in the global marketplace."

"Why the hell should a 6-year-old give a damn about global marketing?

"In a good society, children are not used to serve the interests of corporations. It's the other way around."

Kozol said the worst result of NCLB and its "high-stakes mania" is that it is robbing classrooms of the creative ingenuity of the "poetic souls" who go into teaching.

"I believe that teaching is a beautiful profession, and the soul of that profession is its authenticity. Schools can survive without their rubrics chart, their scripts and timers, their numbered outcomes, and their AYPs. They can't survive without excited and exciting teachers. ... Teachers of young children, at their best, are not drill sergeants for the state or servants of global corporations. They have a higher destiny than that."

Background on Jonathan Kozol

Background on the WEAC Convention

Posted October 26, 2006

Education News