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An Interview With Educator and Author Jonathan Kozol (Opinion)

Jonathan Kozol, longtime educator and the author of many influential books, including Savage Inequalities,Death at an Early Age, and The Shame of the Nation, has just published his latest book, An End to Inequality.

The new book discusses how children of color in many schools are shortchanged, as well as ways to provide them with an educational experience of high quality.

LF: In the book, you write that some of the practices found in what might be called “no excuses” school—like SLANT—can result in “performing learning” instead of actual learning. Can you say more about this issue?

Jonathan Kozol:

Your question slightly misconstrues the point I’m making. The teacher aide in Boston who described SLANT and Bubble Hugs at the public school where she was teaching saw this as “performative behavior,” as if the children were filling a role in a play that had been written to dictate their behavior. It was, she believed—and I agree—part of a protocol intended to suppress the voices and uniqueness of young children and to establish a coercive uniformity.

She noted that it would have been unthinkable in the white suburban school that she had attended as a child. The entire agenda and the punitive code of discipline by which it’s been accompanied have been enforced primarily in schools to which children of color are confined.

So, first we isolate these children in separate and underfunded and often dreary-looking schools in shameful disrepair and then we treat them as defective little people who cannot learn in normal ways like children in the mainstream of America.

LF: You highlight the role of school segregation in reducing equitable opportunities for students of color and underscore a Massachusetts program called METCO as a successful example of school desegregation. What is it and why has it succeeded while so many other efforts have failed?

Kozol:

School segregation, as Gray Orfield and his colleagues at the Civil Rights Project have documented clearly, is now at its highest level since the early 1990s, but many of the school officials with whom I’ve talked in recent years appear to find no fault with this and have quietly turned their backs on the legacy of Brown and the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Instead, they tend to place their faith in repetitive cycles of highly publicized “reform,” as if to prove that separate education need not be unequal.

In An End to Inequality, I speak of this as “the search for perfectible apartheid.” That search, unsurprisingly, has proved to be futile. As Nikole Hannah-Jones, among others, has observed, there is only one thing that has narrowed the gap between the races when it was seriously attempted. That one thing, she argues, has been school integration.

You asked about the urban/suburban integration program in the metro Boston area. The voluntary program, which is known as METCO, began in 1966 and has become a model of carefully tailored and culturally sensitive cross-district integration. More than 3,000 children of color from inner-city neighborhoods ride the bus to more than 30 predominately white and wealthy and progressive suburbs. In purely academic terms, the program is remarkably successful. Virtually all the kids who ride the bus to these well-funded districts graduate from high school in four years, and almost all go on to four-year colleges.

But, wholly apart from these impressive numbers, the leaders and parent activists in METCO have placed a high priority on enabling children to reach across the lines of class and race without the loss of their cultural identities. They look to the receiving districts to develop an atmosphere of learning in which multicultural instruction is more than tokenistic. They don’t use the word “desegregation,” because it is not simply a matter of moving bodies from one district to another. They explicitly speak of METCO as an “anti-racist” program.

A number of the METCO students with whom I’ve kept in touch went on, after their college years, to become teachers in the public schools. One example: A student named John Walker, who rode the bus from Boston to the nearby Brookline district and then went on to college where he majored in the arts, decided to go back to Brookline as a teacher in the elementary grades. A gifted guitarist, he skillfully combined folkloric music and the blues of the Mississippi Delta with the teaching of Black history, following the course of Black migration northward to Chicago.

I watched him once playing his guitar while his 3rd grade students sat around him in a circle. Asian, white, Black, and Latino, they were holding hands and singing along with the song he was performing. I remember thinking: This is the kind of integrated classroom that ought to be a model for America.

LF: You’ve been fighting for change in education for many years. What has sustained you during that time, and what advice can you offer to others about how they can sustain themselves as they engage in similar struggles?

Kozol:

I often ask myself that question. More than anything else, I think it’s been my very close friendships with the families of my former students that seem to keep me going.

My reunions with these families and their frequent visits to my home give me a lot of moral support as age begins to take a toll on me. I hesitate to give advice to others, but, ever since my first year as a teacher, I have looked to the parents of my students for the sense of camaraderie that sustains me in the struggle we have shared.

LF: You criticize the emphasis on standardized testing in schools today. What alternatives would you recommend for identifying what schools and instructional strategies are working well and which are not?

Kozol:

I am not mindlessly opposed to every form of testing. What I do oppose is allowing repetitive testing to become a tyranny that reduces education to robotic drilling for the next round of exams. I’ve been in too many urban schools where children no longer have much chance to read a book for pleasure but are limited, instead, to tiny chunks of test-aligned materials, sometimes called “text passages,” which are deemed to be the most efficient strategy for pumping student scores.

I’m thinking of the words of a curriculum administrator who told a reporter from The New York Times, “So maybe we aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that the novel would have gotten across.” Teaching an out-of-context “concept,” while denying children time to enjoy the book itself, is hardly the way to invite our children to a lifelong love of reading.

I am not suggesting the abandonment of deliberate instruction in necessary skills. I have always believed, for example, that the teaching of phonics ought to be a part of any reading program for children who have not already gained these skills before they enter school.

At the same time, I also believe that early exposure to enticing books ought to be a parallel activity. I see no reason why children cannot enjoy a book like Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, the now-classic work of Kevin Henkes, even while they’re learning how to sound out words like “Lilly,” “purse,” and “purple.” The marginalization of “the book” itself strikes me as a form of cultural starvation.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

Kozol:

Given that I’m 87, I doubt that I will live to see the transformations for which I’ve struggled all these years. But I hope this book will help to stir a younger generation of discerning students and their teachers to challenge an arid and undemocratic system and help to set the table of instruction with a feast of riches.

LF: Thanks, Jonathan!

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