School days, writes Jonathan Kozol, should be full of “aesthetic merriment.” But instead, too many of America’s 93,000 public schools, particularly those in the inner cities, are what the poetGwendolyn Brooks once called “uglifying,” brimming with demoralizing indignities. Those indignities — and also the acts of “stalwart celebration” that surface in classrooms across the country — are the topic of Kozol’s latest book, “Letters to a Young Teacher.”
Kozol, who will turn 71 this year, has written about race and class in the classroom before, most recently in 2005′s “The Shame of the Nation” — and in his latest work, an undercurrent of anger still simmers. But rather than descend into polemic, Kozol returns in “Letters” to his teaching roots, using a correspondence with a teacher he calls Francesca as a chance to pay tribute to the men and women who devote their lives to children every day.
Francesca herself is “semi-fictionalized,” a stand-in for the young educators — almost all women — who have been writing in remarkable volume to Kozol over the years. Still, Kozol insists that Francesca “is a very real person,” “marvelously well-educated” and certified as a teacher. Written for an audience that is just becoming politically engaged, their exchange gives Kozol a forum in which to address No Child Left Behind, high-stakes testing, vouchers and other privatizing forces in public schools — while at the same time leaving ample room to praise and celebrate the inspiring, human qualities he encounters in teachers, “empathetic principals” and, of course, kids.
From page to page, the focus of Kozol’s “Letters” shuttles from the mundane to the profound — from loose teeth to the democratic aims of education — in a thoughtful first-person that echoes another “buoyant spirit” of New England: Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in “Civil Disobedience,” “as for supporting schools, I am doing my part to educate my fellow countrymen now.” And in fact, Kozol’s goals — in calling for “a sweeping, intellectually sophisticated political upheaval” — are no less lofty.
Salon spoke to Kozol from his home in Byfield, Mass., about the fun of first graders, the trouble with “utilitarian” teaching, and why No Child Left Behind is “the worst education legislation” in 40 years.
Unlike some of your previous books, “Letters” strikes me as being more about teachers than students.
Yes, that’s true, although the students — especially because they’re young and so delightfully impertinent — force their way into the story repeatedly. Like most teachers, Francesca talks about the children all the time.
But it’s true, the main purpose of the book is to describe what it’s like to be a young teacher just beginning in an inner-city school at a time when there are unprecedented pressures, in part because of No Child Left Behind. It records a year of correspondence and visits with an irreverent young woman who also happens to be an excellent teacher. I think of the book as an invitation to a beautiful profession.
Can you really call it an “invitation” when a huge part of your work is describing the many challenges teachers face in urban schools?
Well, teachers have been profoundly demoralized in recent years and are often treated with contempt by politicians. There’s a great deal of reckless rhetoric in Washington about the mediocrity of the teaching profession — and I don’t find that to be true at all. We are attracting better teachers and better-educated teachers today than at any time since I started out in 1964.
I emphasize teachers because they are largely left out of the debate. None of the bombastic reports that come from Washington and think tanks telling us what needs to be “fixed” — I hate such a mechanistic word, as if our schools were automobile engines — ever asks the opinions of teachers. By far the most important factor in the success or failure of any school, far more important than tests or standards or business-model methods of accountability, is simply attracting the best-educated, most exciting young people into urban schools and keeping them there.
In your letters, you spend a lot of time reassuring Francesca that it’s OK to follow her instincts, or even encouraging her to be subversive, to disregard school policies if they don’t make sense to her.
I would say pleasantly subversive. In part that is Francesca’s character anyway — but I do recommend an attitude of irreverence on the part of teachers who are having tests and standards shoved down their throats from Washington. We try so hard to recruit exciting teachers into these schools, but nearly 50 percent of them quit within three years. In order to survive, they need to keep their individuality, their personalities, intact, and they need to fight to defend a sense of joyfulness that brought them to this profession in the first place.
In most suburban schools, teachers know their kids are going to pass the required tests anyway — so No Child Left Behind is an irritant in a good school system, but it doesn’t distort the curriculum. It doesn’t transform the nature of the school day. But in inner-city schools, testing anxiety not only consumes about a third of the year, but it also requires every minute of the school day in many of these inner-city schools to be directed to a specifically stated test-related skill. Very little art is allowed into these classrooms. Little social studies, really none of the humanities.
In some embattled school systems these high-stakes tests start in first grade, or even kindergarten, in order to get the kids used to the protocol of test taking — yet a vast majority of low-income kids have no preschool before they enter kindergarten. According to Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, less than 50 percent of eligible children are provided with Head Start nowadays, and it’s even worse in the poorest inner-city districts. Meanwhile, the children of my affluent Harvard classmates, or their grandchildren, typically have three years of developmental pre-K education. Then a few years later, they all have to take the same exam — presuming the affluent kids go to public schools — and so some are being tested on three or four years of education and some on twice as many years.