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NCLB Outrages

Author denounces ‘apartheid’ schools

As a result of NCLB, Kozol said, "teachers now live in a permanent state of terror and anxiety" over test scores. He sees NCLB as "a shaming ritual," The federal program was passed "to punish the public schools as an institution and pave the way for private vouchers."

By Jim Genaro

The United States’ educational system has declined into an apartheid system in which minority students are relegated to inferior schools with limited resources while white students enjoy a significantly higher quality of education, Jonathan Kozol told an overflowing audience of several hundred people at UNC Asheville’s Lipinsky Auditorium last Wednesday night.

To accommodate the size of the crowd, the school set up a video projector and public address system in the lobby of the auditorium.

Kozol is an author and education specialist who has worked with inner-city children for more than 40 years. His talk, which was titled “The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America,” was sponsored by UNCA’s Cultural and Special Events Office, as part of its Distinguished Speaker Series.

The audience included many educational professionals, which Kozol acknowledged by asking the teachers in the auditorium to raise their hands.

“I love to be with teachers,” Kozol told them. “They bring joy and beauty, mystery and mischief to the hearts of little pint-sized people.”

Throughout his talk, Kozol told several stories about his experiences with children in classrooms he visited. Often, he said, the enthusiasm of these young people and their desire to be acknowledged was moving to him.

In one case, Kozol asked a group of first-graders a question about the subject they were studying.
“Seven-year-olds, as every first-grade teacher knows, have only a theoretical connection with their chairs,” he joked.

In response to Kozol’s question, the children jumped up, many of them barely hanging onto their chairs, he said. One little girl in the front row particularly showed excitement, raising her hand and saying, “I know, I know the answer!”

However, when Kozol called on her, she said she didn’t know the answer to the question.

“She didn’t have a single thing to say,” Kozol told the audience. “She just wanted me to recognize that she was there. I think that’s humbling.”

Many of the inner-city children he has worked with are starved for attention, he said. They are crowded into classrooms that often include as many as 40 children for each teacher and are greatly underfunded, Kozol noted.

“I sometimes think that every so-called expert from the Ivy League towers up in Washington and every politician who speaks condescendingly about teachers ... ought to be obliged to come to a classroom once a year and teach a class — not only to read a story for 20 minutes while the TV cameras are on,” he told the audience.

The current state of education in the U.S. is at one of its worst points in history, he said, particularly for blacks. “Segregation has returned with a vengeance since the (William) Rehnquist court began to dismantle Brown vs. the Board of Education.”

His reference was to a 1954 landmark Supreme Court case that mandated desegregation by ruling that racially “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Fifty years later, segregation “is at its highest level since the death of Martin Luther King (Jr.) in 1968,” Kozol said. However, unlike the Southern segregation of Jim Crow, the current state of racial separation is worst in the North, he said — particularly in New York City and other large urban centers.
Kozol, who noted that he had been active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, said that now, when he visits schools where nearly every student is black, he realizes that “this post-millennial political apartheid is what Martin Luther King and all our leaders lived and died” fighting.

However, when talking to his upper-class, liberal, white friends, his protestations on the subject often fall on deaf ears, he lamented.

“They feel personally offended if I say, ‘You’re living in the bastion of American apartheid,’” Kozol said of his friends. “They get nervous because they secretly think I want to redistribute their wealth — which I do.”

During his conversations with these friends, they often cite their credentials as former participants in the civil rights marches in the 1960s, he said.

Today, however, “not one will send their children to predominantly black and Latino schools,” he added.
Kozol also had harsh words for conservative pundits — many of whom he has debated with on Fox News programs and other television shows.

Calling them “cold-blooded, neo-fascist intellectuals,” Kozol said, “They use words like sharpened knives that cut to the bone.”

He is often attacked personally in such debates, he said, and while the barbs hurt him, he added that “no matter whom I anger with my words, I intend to keep on speaking on this issue to my dying day.”
To put a human face on the plight of poor children, he told the story of Pineapple, a young girl living in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York City.

Her neighborhood, he noted, is the poorest congressional district in the country, “right next to one of the richest neighborhoods in the world, the Lower East Side.”

Pineapple “just loved life,” he said. “She refused to lie down in the darkness that New York had granted her and grovel in despair.”

Though she lived in squalor, the fifth-grader loved colorful clothes and once chided Kozol for always wearing the same black suit. “Go to a nice store and buy yourself a new suit,” she told him.

Kozol heeded the young girl’s command and came to visit her a while later in a brand-new suit.
But Pineapple was not happy with the suit, which was black, just as the last one had been.
“John, I know you get upset sometimes to see what we go through,” the child said. “But you don’t have to always dress in black.”

Pineapple’s appreciation for color and beauty despite her bleak conditions was one of many instances in Kozol’s career when he said he felt blessed to know these children.

Despite his privileged upbringing and Ivy League education, Kozol noted that he never saw his work as charity.

“I’ve never felt that I’d collected colonial blessings in Harvard Yard and was going to go sprinkle them on the children of the poor,” he told the audience. “I went to search for blessings and I find those blessings every single time.”

The schools Kozol attended were generally quite underfunded, he said. While schools in the Bronx are allotted about $11,000 per student each year, a predominantly white school only seven minutes away receives about $19,000 per student — and “in the beautiful suburbs of Long Island,” students are generally allotted about $22,000 each.

“We say that all our children are of equal value in the eyes of God,” Kozol said. “In the eyes of God, my friends, I’m sure they are. But not in the eyes of America.”

He compared the conditions of children such as Pineapple, whom he called “America’s cheap children ... our Kmart babies” with those who attend costly preparatory schools that often cost as much as $40,000 per year to attend.

Many of his friends send their children to such schools, he said, yet when pressed about the issue of spending disparities between white and black students, they often ask, “Can you really buy you way to a better education?”

Sometimes when he’s had a couple of drinks, Kozol said he responds by saying, “I don’t know — it seems to do the trick for your kids, doesn’t it?”

The great tragedy of this disparity is that many children who are very intelligent and articulate are not getting the education they need to apply their talents, he said.

Kozol told a story of visiting a classroom in the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles, where the teacher had six 10th-grade classes daily — each with an average of 40 students.

“How the hell do you teach 40 students?” Kozol asked the teacher.

“Try,” she replied, handing him a lesson book. Kozol proceeded to spend the next two hours with the teenagers, many of whom stayed an hour after school to continue the discussion.

The students were extremely articulate when talking about their lives, he said, and clearly quite intelligent.

Shortly after, the students all wrote to him in a packet of letters sent by the teacher.

“I read them on the plane and my heart just sank,” he said. The letters were written at a third-grade level.

“It was like seeing spirit locked in stone,” he said.

The underfunding of some students is particularly sad, given the abundance of wealth in the U.S., he argued.

“If this were Haiti, this would be understandable,” Kozol said. “But we’re not a third-world nation — we’re the richest country in the world.”

Some of Kozol’s harshest criticisms were directed at test-driven teaching programs, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2001 law which mandates a set of tests that must be passed by students to qualify them to move on to the next grade — and for their schools to receive federal funding.

“The main problem is that the tests that it mandates ... are useless to our teachers,” he said.

Kozol noted that when President Bush was promoting NCLB, he argued that the tests would give teachers an idea of where students needed help.

The problem with this, Kozol said, is that the tests are generally administered between January and March, but the results are not known until June — when school is over for the year.

Furthermore, he noted, the tests “are not diagnostic. They don’t tell you anything about a child’s needs.” Instead, they simply give a pass/fail score.

However, Kozol said he sees a more insidious agenda at work in the legislation. “I think it was intended as a shaming ritual,” he said. The federal program was passed “to punish the public schools as an institution and pave the way for private vouchers.”

Furthermore, by holding children back a grade on the basis of a single test score, the law is making it more likely that they will eventually drop out of school altogether, he added.

“Every time a child is held back one year, it decreases by 50 percent the chance they will graduate,”
Another problem with the program is that while it mandates goals that must be met, Congress has not provided adequate funding to meet those goals, he noted.

“I have a problem with a system that will hold a seven-year-old girl accountable for what she has learned, but it does not hold the president and Congress accountable for what they have denied to her.”

As a result of NCLB, Kozol said, “teachers now live in a permanent state of terror and anxiety” over test scores.

This causes them to teach to the test, rather than teaching the children in a useful, constructive way, he argued. Everything is measured and quantified in this new educational environment.

One of the most absurd examples of this, he said, is a study that was conducted to assess numerical values to the manner in which children file through halls. The study assigned 32 values to the level of focus, orderliness and pride exhibited by students as they walk in a line.

This, Kozol said, represents “the triumph of empirical school management.”

— Jim Genaro
Asheville Daily Planet


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