At times as he spoke in the Memorial Church last Thursday (Sept. 20) Jonathan Kozol, educator, activist, and author, sounded more fervent than an impassioned man of God preaching eternal salvation.
“I’m 71 years old; I’m too old to bite my tongue. … I intend to keep on fighting in this struggle ’til my dying day,” he said.
But the salvation that Kozol was advocating was for the public school system in the United States, a system that, in his view, requires, if not divine intervention, at least a drastic overhaul.
In an appearance co-sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s (HGSE) Askwith Education Forum, the Cambridge Forum and the Harvard Book Store, Kozol discussed his new book “Letters to a Young Teacher,” a series of letters he wrote to “Francesca” a “glorious, excited, glowing, first-grade teacher” at an inner-city school in Boston. Through the correspondence, the book examines topics Kozol has addressed throughout his career, but focuses in part on the fairly recent “No Child Left Behind” legislation, a bundle of requirements that he argues kill the ability of children to learn and develop through their own curiosity.
The law, passed in 2001, requires, among other things, that all students in primary and secondary schools perform at grade level in reading and math by 2014. It mandates greater school accountability and includes punitive measures for those schools that fall short. Kozol contends that the law disproportionately affects inner-city schools and drives away promising young teachers by forcing them to use a scripted curriculum that only prepares students to take tests and not actually engage and learn.
He claimed that the law was “created as a shaming ritual by which to discredit the entire concept of our public schools by holding up impossible demands without the funds to pay for them.”
Kozol graduated from Harvard in 1958 and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford. In 1964 he took a job as a teacher in a public school in Roxbury, which led to his book “Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools.” The work received the National Book Award in Science, Philosophy and Religion in 1968. He has written numerous books on the subject since.
Recently, Kozol has spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C., urging the Democratic leadership in Congress to make what he calls “radical change” to No Child Left Behind in part by drastically reducing the amount of high-stakes testing. A vote to reauthorize the federal law is expected this fall, with the Bush administration pushing to broaden its scope. Kozol is also mobilizing teachers with Education Action, a network of educators whom he hopes will carry on his efforts. He encouraged people in the crowd to sign up.
“I pray the young people will join in forces with us older guys,” he said. “Honestly … we need you to carry on.”
To further his cause, the Boston native has been on a partial hunger strike since July and has lost 29 pounds. His slender frame and at times hoarse voice were evidence last week of the toll his fast has taken. He called the hunger strike a way to “keep faith with the kids who trusted me” and to promote his campaign for the need for sweeping change.
At the beginning of his talk, Kozol asked those in the crowd who were teachers to raise their hands. The air was quickly filled with scores of arms, and a loud wave of applause acknowledging them echoed around the hall.
“I always feel safer when I am in a room with teachers,” he said.
What followed were his stories of the touching, silly, fascinating world of the children he met through his visits to Francesca’s classroom. He testified to the child’s ability to engage and blossom in the presence of a gifted, dedicated guide. But his lightness was punctuated by serious moments. His voice registered a grave tone as he warned of the impending doom of the country’s public education system should it remain, as he claims, broken by No Child Left Behind.
During the questions that followed, Kozol encouraged dissent. Responding to one audience member, who asked how teachers and parents should oppose “moronic mandates,” he said they could simply boycott the tests as some communities have done.
“I’d like to see more suburbs doing that because they can afford to take that risk,” he said.
He also addressed his feelings toward Teach For America, an initiative designed to encourage a selective group of college graduates and professionals to teach in schools — often in urban areas — for two years. Kozol said the program was marred by the lack of teaching experience of its members.
With its resultant high turnover rate and limited training, he contended, “it sort of like builds in instability in inner-city schools … and throws people into the classroom knowing nothing about children.”
He urged new teachers who join the program to make “an inward promise to yourself that you are going to stay for seven years.”
Many young teachers and students stood in a long line after the talk, waiting to have Kozol sign copies of “Letters to a Young Teacher.”
“He really has a love and appreciation for kids and that comes through when he talks,” said Andy Shin, who is enrolled in HGSE’s School Leadership Program. “His voice reminds us what really is important, which is kids.”