Hungering for Educational Justice
by Lois M. Meyer
University of New Mexico
National Book Award-winning author and educator Jonathan Kozol recently explained to an almost overflow audience at the University of New Mexico (UNM) why he appeared thin and weak. For three months he has been on a hunger fast for educational justice. Why? Because he can no longer stomach the gross injustices he witnesses in classrooms and schools across the nation. Last July 1, two days after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Brown vs. Board of Education, the historic 1954 decision that outlawed segregated schools and mandated school integration, Kozol began his hunger fast against Ă˘€śthe racist agenda inherent in the federal education reform act [No Child Left Behind} signed into law by President Bush in 2001Ă˘€ť. His hunger strike is partial Ă˘€“ he supplements a liquid diet with some solid nourishment at his doctorĂ˘€™s request to sustain life. But, he added, Ă˘€śIĂ˘€™m old now so IĂ˘€™m not afraid to do or say what I believe is right.Ă˘€ť
We donĂ˘€™t hear much about hunger strikes these days. Obesity, sure, bulimia, maybe, but not hunger strikes. Our appetite for the likes of American Idol and Desperate Housewives seems insatiable, while the idea of self-inflicted hunger as a principled act of political protest and personal conviction causes us intellectual if not gastric distress. Fasting for justice seems way more extreme than Extreme Makeover. Non-violent hunger fasts may have helped Gandhi and Cesar Chavez tumble colonial empires and unionize California lettuce fields, but that was decades ago. Today both nonviolence and hunger fasting seem to have been deleted from our consciousness and from our menu of possible political actions.
And fasting for educational justice? How would that improve the test scores of low achieving children, or help failing schools meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)? In this age of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), even our concept of educational justice is so shrunken and deformed by government spin that we act as though test scores - rather than childrenĂ˘€™s creativity and excitement about learning, or the priorities and cultural rights of parents and communities - are what matter.
Many in the UNM crowd of new and experienced teachers, school administrators, university students and professors, and concerned parents, were familiar with what Kozol has said and done in the past. He has worked in inner-city schools for more than 40 years, giving voice to childrenĂ˘€™s experiences of public schooling in disturbing books such as Death at an Early Age, The Shame of the Nation, and Savage Inequalities. His newest book, Letters to a Young Teacher, recounts his year-long dialogue with an inexperienced first-grade teacher in a segregated Black school in his home town, Boston. In it he promises to describe Ă˘€śthe joys and challenges and passionate rewards of a beautiful professionĂ˘€ť Ă˘€“ teaching.
Kozol made good on his promise, and in doing so, he fed a deep hunger in the audience that night. Public school teachers are hungry to hear a public figure of KozolĂ˘€™s stature commend them with awe and pride and gratitude for their skills and commitment to teaching. NCLB lays the blame for childrenĂ˘€™s poor test scores on teachers and schools, and by implication, on parents and communities, especially poor communities of color. It ignores mounds of data that document the increasing inequalities among communities and social classes in family income, health supports, even basics like adequate food and housing, all factors that influence performance on achievement tests and studentsĂ˘€™ opportunities to learn. Instead, NCLBĂ˘€™s single-minded and simplistic solution to educational inequalities is to hold educators, children and parents Ă˘€śaccountableĂ˘€ť. In other words, they are blamed and shamed as the Ă˘€ścauseĂ˘€ť of the educational Ă˘€śfailureĂ˘€ť of the very children our society refuses to insure and opts instead to segregate, underfund, push out of school, and ignore.
In stark contrast, Kozol celebrated the contributions of education professionals as the strength and soul of public education. He encouraged especially young teachers and those who are preparing to teach: Ă˘€śTeachers I meet today are some of the most gifted and enthusiastic I have ever seen. Especially those who teach young children should not permit themselves to be drill sergeants of the State or trainers for corporate global capitalism.Ă˘€ť
Children command most of KozolĂ˘€™s attention, real children with names like Pineapple and Ariel and Shaniqua who populate the classrooms where he visits and volunteers time. He denounced the educational injustices these children endure in the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth Ă˘€“ resegregated schools; overcrowded classrooms; narrow, test-driven curricula; rote, drill-and-kill teaching methods. Though labeled by NCLB as Ă˘€śfailuresĂ˘€ť, the spirit of these children is inspiring Ă˘€“ most still hunger to learn.
The federal lawĂ˘€™s misplaced, child-damaging priorities are masked in deceptive rhetoric about Ă˘€śstandardsĂ˘€ť and Ă˘€śexcellenceĂ˘€ť and Ă˘€śglobal competitivenessĂ˘€ť. NCLB pretends to address quality education for children but its real concerns are different. Ă˘€śWhy should kindergartners care about the global marketplace?Ă˘€ť Kozol demands. Ă˘€śThey care about bellybuttons and elbows and furry caterpillars.Ă˘€ť Curiosity about their world and joy in discovery, not test scores or world markets, are what propel young children to learn.
Some words never appear in NCLB at all, Ă˘€śwords like curiosity, creativity, laughter, and delight.Ă˘€ť Some parents and communities, and undoubtedly legislators, can demand for their children the best education money can buy, an education that still challenges and delights. But too many Black and Hispanic and Native American kids, and those with special needs or those who are still learning English, are force-fed a stripped down, debased and test-driven curriculum. KozolĂ˘€™s conclusion was unflinching: Ă˘€śIt is deeply hypocritical to hold 8 or 9 year olds accountable for their academic achievement but not hold Congressional delegates and the president accountable for not providing poor kids with the same education they themselves insist on giving to their own kids.Ă˘€ť
Syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrete Jr.Ă˘€™s recent column (Ă˘€śDismantle No Child Left Behind and Watch us FailĂ˘€ť, Oct. 1) is a stark example of the deceptive education talk fueled by NCLB. Navarrete claimed to speak in defense of the needs and wants of children Ă˘€śwho donĂ˘€™t vote, or give money, or twist arms, or pay union duesĂ˘€ť. Yet Navarrete never talked about children at all, not about their feelings, their interests, their dreams, or their reaction to being labeled as Ă˘€śfailuresĂ˘€ť. Instead, NavaretteĂ˘€™s column berates teachers unions, the Democratic-controlled Congress, and Ă˘€ścertain RepublicansĂ˘€ť for seeking to eliminate the most punitive NCLB requirements. Navarrete applauded U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings as a Ă˘€śferocious defenderĂ˘€ť of NCLB.
Ferociously defending NCLB is a far cry from defending children and quality instruction and educational justice for all. Kozol understands, as did Gandhi and Chavez before him, that hunger for educational justice demands principled political action if we are to dismantle federal education legislation that intellectually starves our neediest children.
Lois M. Meyer
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES