The Magazine

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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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.