In his new book Letters to a Young Teacher, Jonathan Kozol tells the truth about education in America: segregation is as bad a problem as it's been since Brown v. Board of Ed, high stakes testing and other failed policies are driving students and teachers into the ground, and the often overlooked process of teaching and learning is a beautiful thing.
Last year, I met Mr. Kozol at a conference on New York City's dropout rate. There, Kozol gave the greatest speech I have ever heard. He preached with fire and dirt in his voice and held nothing back as he took the activists, politicians, and journalists in the crowd to task. My friends from the NYC Student Union and I, who came to the conference as representatives of New York City's hundreds of thousands of public high school students, were instantly captivated by this short old man with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows (as though he was ready to plunge his fists deep into the muck of the New York City School System), telling this group of very important people that they had got it wrong.
Kozol pointed out that all of them, seated together in this stuffy florescent-lit conference room, had made the same mistake as many policy makers in America. They had skipped over the one issue that when spoken aloud made everyone in the room simultaneously cringe: Race.
As Kozol points out in Letters American schools are at worst levels of segregation since the 1950's. Stuyvesant High School, New York City's flagship elite high school, has gone from being 13% African American 25 years ago to now being only 2%. You read that correctly. The school that has been called the greatest public school in America, a beacon of hope for the oppressed communities of one of the world's most diverse cities, is only 2% African American.But as Kozol notes, this situation is not the worst aspect of the segregation. In New York and California, seven out of every eight black students attend a school that is entirely African American. The problem of segregation is not an end in itself.
As our primary and secondary schools become more segregated, their failures multiply. In New York City and Chicago, Kozol says, the two school systems that educate a combined 10% of all African American students, 70% of students fail to graduate in four years and most of them never graduate at all. As we now see, when these schools fail, the problem of inequality continues into higher education. Over the last fifteen years, the number of African American enrollment in Law Schools has declined severely. Hopefully, a decline in the number of African Americans in political office and other important leadership positions does not decline as well.
Poor education systems seem to follow low income and minority students. According to Kozol, this failure results from poor national education policies. The No Child Left Behind Act has created a culture that makes low performing schools worse. It's emphasis on high stakes testing has crippled teachers and students in many low income areas. Slowly more money is allocated towards testing and test prep and less time is spent on actual teaching and learning. This stifles the creativity of America's teachers and demeans their profession, making them mere voice boxes for poorly constructed curricula instead of the intelligent and interesting people they are.
This system also leaves low income students, with less access to special tutors or small classes reach the third grade, they are slotted into gifted, regular or remedial tracks and are usually stuck with these "castes" until the end of their academic experience. Kozol puts it perfectly when he says:
There's something deeply hypocritical in a society that holds an eight or nine year old accountable for her performance on a high-stakes standardized exam but does not hold the Congress and the President accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids six or seven years before.
However, for all his harsh criticism of American education there is an unmistakable love for the process of teaching and learning in Letters. We see this in the playful nickname he gives a young girl he meets in a low performing elementary school: Pineapple. This is a man who loves children and like many great teachers, seems to gain as much wisdom from them as he gives to the rest of us.
That love of education is what made this short old man, with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, who spoke with fire and dirt in his voice, so special. There was more than anger in his words. There was the experience of really being a teacher and with that all of the difficult, joyous and sometimes too complicated to describe moments that a young teacher faces... and that those who make educational policy too often do not understand. There was also a warm admiration of all of those who fight in the trenches of American public schools, a proud recognition of the hard work and caring it takes to bring students from groups that are so often pushed aside in our society into successful participants in Democracy.
If nothing else, what one should take from Letters to a Young Teacher, is a profound sense of respect for all of these men and women who pursue a low paying, low class job for the greatest good our country can produce: a future.
In the best school systems in the world (namely Finland and Alberta, Canada) teachers are revered and given the same societal status as Doctors and Lawyers. This respect for teachers seems to help them have a greater, more positive effect on their students and brings graduates from the top third of their college classes (as opposed to the bottom third in the US) into the teaching profession.
What we need in American schools, maybe more than anything else, is a respect for these teachers and their opinions on how schools should be run, whether that means lowering class sizes, reducing the number of high stakes tests, editing stale curricula or anything else. It's time that policy makers looked at those who are actually in our schools from day to day for the answers of how to fix America's schools.