Kozol calls for education reform
Kozol frequently urged teachers to teach students in ways that celebrated learning, life and love, and not to be "drill instructors for the state."
By Toben Shelby
Dr. Jonathan Kozol received a warm welcome both at an open forum and while delivering a lecture Nov. 1, as he discussed the state of the education system in America, addressing serious issues such as segregation and the No Child Left Behind Act.
Mixing an irreverent, humorous tone with the serious nature of the topic in a style similar to Jon Stewart’s, Kozol was able to keep audience members on the edge of their seats as he gave firsthand accounts and humorous yet frightening anecdotes of problems in our nation’s education system.
“Everything bad I have to say about education applies to every school district in America – except this one,” he said in the opening minutes of his lecture. Kozol was able to draw laughs out of an audience composed mostly of teachers and education students, with guests such as Anchorage School District superintendent Carol Comeau in attendance.
Kozol, a former teacher and Harvard graduate, recently completed his book “Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America,” which investigates how the public school system is hurting students, especially minorities and low-income students.
“(The school system) works very, very well for rich people,” he said at the open forum. The middle class also does well, but “the schools that aren’t doing well are the schools that are most badly cheated of necessary resources, and they are the schools that serve our poorest kids,” Kozol said.
Kozol spoke of a teacher he met with from the South who had been teaching for 15 years and had only taught one white student. Conversely, Kozol said, there are elite schools up north that have only white students. He referred to such places as “postmodern, millennial-apartheid wheat-germ academies,” which he said are very liberal in every way except for race.
Using strong language, Kozol described what is happening in the nation’s schools as cultural genocide, where different ethnic backgrounds are viewed as hindrances that must be smoothed over to conform to government standards of aptitude.
“They prepare teachers as if they are going to be technicians of proficiency instead of warm and glowing human beings, in love with childhood,” Kozol said.
This is especially glaring at the elementary level, where some schools have eliminated recess to allow for more training for benchmark exams.
Later in the evening, Kozol spoke of some of the conditions of poor inner city schools, where there are seven lunch periods to accommodate overcrowded student populations, who dine in the basements of their dilapidated schools.
“Aesthetics count,” he said. “They draw the line of cast and class.”
Kozol also recounted his visit to Freemont High in southcentral Los Angeles, where class sizes ranged from 35 to 45 students each. Kozol said that he’s been in heated discussions with many people, such as Patrick Buchanan on Crossfire, who said that class size isn’t an issue.
“They say a good teacher can do OK with 40 kids, but they (those teachers) could work wonders with 18 kids,” he said.
Kozol said that today students are viewed with price tags on their heads and that equality in education is not a current reality.
“In the eyes of God, I’m sure all children are equal – but not in the eyes of America,” he said.
Throughout the evening, Kozol directed many of his grievances toward the Republicans and President Bush’s No Child Left Behind act, but he was clear that Democrats were not without blame either.
“Democrats lost their guts and capitulated to Bush’s act,” he said.
No Child Left Behind is ineffective in judging what a student has learned, Kozol claimed, drawing applause from the audience. Reports are being returned too late to be of use to teachers, as many results do not come in until late summer or early fall after the tests.
“What are teachers supposed to do, send a postcard?” Kozol said.
Kozol frequently urged teachers to teach students in ways that celebrated learning, life and love, and not to be “drill instructors for the state.” He said that NCLB misses the point of what teaching is really about.
“You won’t find the words love, joy, spontaneity or compassion in NCLB – I’ve looked,” he said.
Despite Kozol’s sometimes-acerbic comments, professor Hilary Seitz, from the College of Education, said Kozol was spot-on in his remarks.
“What he spoke about applied to issues abroad and in Alaska,” she said. “The evening lecture was very powerful; a lot of my students were nodding their heads. I could tell they were proud to be in education.”
The quality-of-education levels for low-income or minority students are very applicable to Alaska, as Seitz said that the educational quality is much better for those who can afford the preschool opportunity.
“Alaska is one of 11 states that do not have state-funded pre-kindergarten,” she said. Appropriate preschool opportunities are something that Kozol believes is vital to proper development and education of children.
Toward the end of the evening, Kozol was asked about the deeper issues of segregation and class struggles that go beyond what happens in education. He said that of course there are larger issues to be considered with segregation, “but I need to carve out a section in which I can hope to see victory."
northernlight.org, University of Alaska, Anchorage
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