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The Learning Disabled Education Expert

Jonathan Kozol's crusade to prevent school reform.

Dec 31, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 16 • By JONATHAN LEAF
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Jonathan Kozol is back. The leftist education expert has been promoting his latest book--Letters to a Young Teacher--preaching his gospel on NPR stations, at radical churches, and at book stores across the country. He is a seductive figure in the pulpit, spreading a message of antagonism to every education reform. Though he claims that American schools are part of a domestic system of apartheid, he campaigns against charter schools, vouchers, testing, and any attempt to circumscribe the power of the teachers' unions.

Kozol's impact has been enormous. The national phenomenon of judges' compelling states to change their tax codes to increase funding for schools in poor districts was driven by the widespread credence given to his 1991 book Savage Inequalities, which sold over 250,000 copies in hardcover alone. As the Manhattan Institute's Marcus Winters noted, "Not only are many of his books bestsellers, but they have become staples on education-course syllabi. Even education researchers think his work has value: He has been cited 1,790 times in journals counted in the Social Science Citation Index, quite a feat for a popular author." Among those who praise him are Marian Wright Edelman, Bill Moyers, and Howard Zinn. When teachers' unions across the country fight voucher proposals, he is the first--often the only--authority they quote. But it is not only education professionals that Kozol has influenced. His 1967 account of his first weeks and months working as a teacher, Death at an Early Age, sold more than two million copies.

Necessarily, there have been many honors. Kozol is one of the few nonpoliticians to receive the National Education Association's annual Friend of Education award. (He won it before Bill and Hillary Clinton, before Paul Wellstone, and even before Ted Kennedy.) He has also won the National Book Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, the Conscience-in-Media Award of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, plus the Guggenheim (twice), Rockefeller, Ford, and Field fellowships.

This past summer Kozol was the subject of dozens of newspaper and magazine profiles for his "partial hunger strike" to oppose congressional extension of the No Child Left Behind program. And he doesn't stop at education causes; he is one of the token intellectuals signed onto, a celebrity group calling for the president's impeachment. His name is listed just between top-40 radio personality Casey Kasem and actress Jessica Lange.

One of Kozol's relentless campaigns is against charter schools--public schools run independently of local bureaucracies and often without the involvement of teachers' unions. Research on charter schools has shown that they often produce better results, and at lower cost, than regular public schools. What's more, competition from charter schools appears to prompt improved performance from regular public schools with which they compete for students and funds--as charter school advocates predicted. Kozol will have none of this.

In the September 2005 Harper's, he went on the attack. In an essay entitled "Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid," Kozol observed:

Many educators make the argument today that given the demographics of large cities like New York and their suburban areas, our only realistic goal should be the nurturing of strong, empowered, and well-funded schools in segregated neighborhoods. Black school officials in these situations have sometimes conveyed to me a bitter and clear-sighted recognition that they're being asked, essentially, to mediate and render functional an uncontested separation between children of their race and children of white people living sometimes in a distant section of their town and sometimes in almost their own immediate communities.

The possibility that some educators and politicians may merely wish to make these schools better worries and frustrates Kozol. For him, creating good schools in black neighborhoods for primarily black student populations isn't a good thing--and it shouldn't be the goal--it's a form of "apartheid."

Kozol particularly derides the education research of John Chubb and Terry Moe, whose groundbreaking work suggests that improving individual schools can lift student performance, irrespective of a student's socioeconomic background. This work is both important and controversial, and it's consistent with claims that Kozol himself has made throughout his career as a self-styled advocate for poor children that the conditions of schools are important. Yet Kozol dismisses their research out of hand as it argues for a market in education. He is a committed enemy of educational choice, and that matters more than data. Indeed, he has consistently suggested that collecting data on student performance is itself a serious problem.

Throughout his writings, Kozol has presented himself as concerned above all for the poor and for minorities, and he says that it is for this reason that he has made "defending" public education his foremost theme. Yet here's a strange thing: Kozol himself abhors public schools. As he quite rightly observed in the opening sentences of his 1981 book On Being a Teacher, the present-day public school is a "dehumanizing institution." "Students reside within this house of lies for only twelve years at a stretch. .  .  . Their teachers often are condemned to a life sentence."

On Being a Teacher is a very revealing book. It shows how odd Kozol is in the role of an education advocate. He thinks it is imperative for teachers to break down the dehumanizing distinctions, to stop thinking of themselves as being different in any way from their students and make all school records available to students. "The cumulative folder is the school board's version of the secret records kept on citizens by the FBI. It holds the same potential dangers for students." What's more, in the ideal school, he explains, students should not "line up elegantly beside the door, wait for [the teacher's] signal and then file to the stairs." This is behaving like "William Calley's soldiers marching to My Lai." Better still, a teacher should make regular unsupervised afternoon visits to her students' homes and become a "co-worker and friend." (Kozol does not bother addressing the risks of molestation this might present, nor speak of the effect of the loss of authority for the teacher.)

And then there is what he thinks students should be taught. He says children should learn that Abraham Lincoln was "profoundly racist," that Martin Luther King Jr. thought that "America is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world," and that John Foster Dulles was a warmonger like the Nazi diplomat Joachim von Ribbentrop.

How did Kozol arrive at these unorthodox opinions? Curiously, although he has made his name as a former teacher speaking out for more money for ghetto schools, he actually only taught ever so briefly--for just a portion of one semester in 1964--in a ghetto school. Indeed, while he has written extensively about secondary schools, and always with a smug and assured tone of inside knowledge, he was never a regular high school teacher. His own teaching experiences were almost entirely in an elementary school in the affluent suburb of Boston where he grew up. He has so little real knowledge of the poorest schools that his books contain risible errors and suspicious-sounding quotations.

Kozol never intended to be a teacher. He wanted to be a novelist and authored the comically bad Fume of Poppies (1958). Here's an excerpt:

Before the warm fire, Wendy and I took off our clothes. She slipped off her sweater, pulled it over her head, raising her arms. The white of her belly was lovely and gay. The fire beat at us. Then she took off her britches. Her legs stood arrow-tall on the floor.

The novel is a Bildungsroman describing the protagonist's affair with a proud Wasp-y girl, their troubles, and their eventual marriage.

Not many years after the book's failure, Kozol took his first job teaching, in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He was soon fired, his dismissal arising out of his decision to teach some Langston Hughes poems to his fourth-grade students even though Hughes was not on the list of accepted writers that the district's school board provided him. In Death at an Early Age, Kozol presents himself as an effective and inspiring teacher who arrived following a period during which the children to whom he was assigned hadn't had a regular teacher in months. He claims that even though the children made progress during his time as their instructor, he was seen as a troublemaker and was instructed not to ever seek employment in the district ever again.

The logic here is consistent with Kozol's view that urban public schools are grossly mismanaged, "dehumanizing," and troubled. What's peculiar is that he could not draw the obvious moral of his story. The problem with the Roxbury public school class he led was not a want of funds to find a good teacher. In spite of the low pay offered, the school had unearthed a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar and published novelist to teach their fourth graders. No, the difficulty was that the school didn't want a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar. In Kozol's view, he made the mediocrities running his school uneasy, and they preferred a rotating stream of substitute teachers to a teacher who made them feel inadequate. Might competition have been a remedy for this entrenched and willful fecklessness?

The philosophy Kozol presents in On Being a Teacher is a curious amalgam of traditional Marxism and racial grievance-mongering. He emphasizes the importance of concealing one's extreme left-wing views. So, while he devotes an entire chapter to the subject of teaching children not to give the Pledge of Allegiance, he also advises parents and teachers on how to prevent this decision from appearing on a student's transcript. The book includes a model letter from a parent requesting that his child not give the Pledge and the suggestion to threaten legal action if the child is written up in any official or unofficial records for refusing to recite it.

For Kozol, the primary job of a school is to prepare the student, and so society, for radical transformation. He attacks Arizona's stated policy that it is the job of the schools to "augment a child's love of country .  .  . appreciation of traditional values." On the contrary, Kozol writes, "schools exist primarily to destroy such loyalty." He is harshly critical of 19th-century public school advocate Horace Mann for endorsing the school system as a way to protect "the rights of person, property and character." Rather, according to Kozol, schools must enlighten students about essential truths. For example, children should know:

In plain terms, "Free World" ends up with three simple meanings: free opportunities for very large profits by the U.S. corporations; free use of land or harbors by the U.S. military; free opportunity for the uninhibited exploitation of the poor, carried out by the power of a self-serving upper-class that operates in close collaboration with the military forces.

Kozol goes on to say that teachers should use textbooks written by students as a way of utilizing new viewpoints and getting away from the flag-waving in the standard history textbooks written, as they are, by professionals. The things Kozol has to say about actual teaching in this supposed study of the essentials of pedagogy are almost always off the wall.

Throughout his books, Kozol is unwaveringly scathing about the United States. It is a running theme. As is his admiration for life in Fidel Castro's Cuba. His writings on the country clearly demonstrate his loyalties. In Children of the Revolution (1980), written after expeditions to Cuba in 1976 and 1977 and as Cuban troops were arriving in Africa with the goal of turning Angola into a totalitarian state, Kozol presented an astonishingly romantic view of Communist dictatorship. Did he really think that the country's claim of 2 percent illiteracy rate was accurate when UNESCO researchers, as he acknowledges, found rates many times higher? Did he really think that it was important that "El Jefe" himself worked on the model sentences used for teaching adult illiterates to read like, "The campesinos now at last are owners of their land"?

The book is full of Cuban workers claiming that production had skyrocketed since the revolution and students who lack the "sense of anguish .  .  . of almost any secondary school in the United States." For Kozol, this is a consequence of the absence of capitalist conflict and exploitation and the "sense of shared achievement--hard work that remains at all times one good notch below the level of competitive obsession--and always too, a willingness to laugh, and tease, and play, especially to tease oneself." A Cuban woman explained to him that "freedom means you are free from international capitalist exploitation!" Another explained that "freedom of speech is going to be important if you want to build up solidarity among the people in a land that is oppressed." And a Cuban man told him: "In our society we are already free from exploitation now." (Italics in the original.)

Kozol's most influential book remains Savage Inequalities. In it he argues for a redistribution of funds for schools in ghetto neighborhoods and against school reforms that might help children escape from these schools. That the book has become a touchstone is undeniable--it has been cited by judges in rulings on school funding. But it is not a work of investigative reporting or scholarship; it is rather a polemic by a true believer indifferent to facts and evidence.

Savage Inequalities opens with a 37-page account of the horrors of a school in the almost all-black city of East St. Louis, Illinois. The narrative includes discussions of toxic waste in the area of the school building, understaffed classrooms, the chipped paint in the halls, and the bad food in the cafeteria. We are even told that there is the possibility of cholera and typhoid in East St. Louis. As a contrast with this school, Kozol reports on a lovely white school in a nearby suburb. But, on the last page of the opening chapter, he slips in an immensely interesting fact: School spending in East St. Louis is above the average in the state! The school's rock-bottom achievements are not the result of rock-bottom spending. How then can increased funding be the solution if it isn't the cause of the supposed problem?

Nor is this the only instance where Kozol relies on examples that are overturned by data. Later in the book, he makes an extended comparison between schools in Princeton, New Jersey, and troubled ghetto schools in Jersey City. Kozol mentions that Princeton was the highest-spending district in the state. He fails to mention that Jersey City was only slightly behind it in spending on a list of the state's dozens of school districts.

Savage Inequalities is full of barely credible details. For example, he describes a high school chemistry lab section in the East St. Louis school which has too many students attending--typically more then 30--making it hard for the teacher to supervise. I found myself wondering which East St. Louis chem lab has too much attendance. As a former teacher in an urban public high school, I'm inclined to think such a class purely mythical. As in so many instances where Kozol refers to or quotes someone providing dubious evidence, no name is provided for the teacher. Throughout Savage Inequalities are batches of quotations from teachers and administrators that sound peculiarly like Kozol's own writing. A teacher--again not identified--in my hometown of Trenton matter-of-factly refers to the problem of "immiseration." It hardly inspires confidence in his assertions.

And then there are the obvious inventions. Kozol claims that a teacher in the South Bronx can't find seats for her students as she has 40 kids in her class. But New York City schools are not allowed to have more than 34 students in a high school class and 27 in a grade school class unless the subject is a special one like physical education or music. Even if a teacher wants to keep extra students in a class, a union rep will file a grievance and force a change. Additionally, there is again the question of whether a ghetto school really has the problem of too much student attendance. In many years working in such schools in New York City, I have never seen a regular high school class after the first week of the semester with 25 students, and I have rarely seen one with 20. I did, however, once arrive to assist with a class in Harlem, which had four adults--two teachers and two teachers' aides--but only two students.

Absent from this extended diatribe is any data to support his main contention that school spending and class size play a role in educational outcomes--i.e., performance as measured on exams. There are several reasons for this evasion. The first is that little such data exists. As academics have known for many years, states that spend more on their schools often have the worst educational performance and some of the states that spend the least per pupil--like North Dakota and Utah--have among the best.

There is also little reliable evidence that class size influences educational performance. Kozol likes to cite a single study done in Tennessee 20 years ago. But many other studies have come to opposite conclusions--and, even in the one Tennessee study, the effects found were small. In any event, Kozol has been quite open for many years about his hostility to state-mandated testing of students, maintaining that such exams are both racist and inherently damaging to students.

This remains the refrain in Letters to a Young Teacher, his newest book: All reforms are racist and bad for students. Among its chapter headings is "The Single Worst, Most Dangerous Idea"--about vouchers. They are such a bad idea because "of how hard it is for many of the parents .  .  . to get to the place they're supposed to go on the appointed day, and then to make a well-informed decision." It is much easier, of course, for enlightened people like Jonathan Kozol to make sensible decisions for other people's children.

He is also against vocational schools for low-performing students, even though research shows that such schools raise income levels and other basic quality of life indices for low-performing students. His animosity towards parochial schools as an alternative to the worst public schools goes without saying--no matter the mountain of evidence for their virtues in improved student performance and behavior, and their modest cost. He also attacks the Gates Foundation, which is spending vast sums on ghetto schools as he has long called for, because the foundation is insufficiently geared towards putting black and white children into the same classroom.

As we have seen, Kozol dislikes the current public schools, is against choice and competition among schools, disdains vocational instruction, and sees state-mandated testing of students as misleading, unhelpful, and biased. He is a deeply frustrated man. We live in a prosperous society that rejects his goal of radical social reform, and so Kozol spends his life promoting resentment. Confronted by facts and evidence that stand contrary to his ideals, he seeks to poison the wells of argument by throwing in intellectually dishonest terms like apartheid and by emphasizing half-baked notions for which there is no consistent evidence.

A wealth of research now exists arguing for school choice, and decades of failure by a unionized, monopoly public school system presents a clear message about what needs to be done to improve our schools and to better the lives of those rich and poor who attend them. But Jonathan Kozol, like so many true believers, is past examining the facts. Ironically, he is an education expert incapable of learning.

Playwright Jonathan Leaf worked for many years in New York City's public schools.