Protect kids from meaninglessness by Larry M. Edwards

“My friends, life goes so fast, use it well,” Jonathan Kozol advised a packed house Saturday afternoon.

Strange advice from a renowned author, educator and public school advocate? Not really. Not when it’s recognized that what Kozol means is that our children’s lives are too precious to waste by teaching to standards composed of pretentious gibberish; their lives too precious to waste on meaningless “rubrics,” “competencies” and “proficiencies;” their lives too precious to waste on high-stakes tests that have no diagnostic value and detract from education, but fail to improve it.

“Please don’t let this numerical disease invade your public schools,” he pleaded during his Featured Presentation, saying the state of education is in crisis and educators must challenge robotic instruction.

With jacket off, sleeves rolled up and wearing blue canvas shoes, Kozol sounded more like a backwoods preacher than a Harvard graduate. He even apologized for it. But when his 86-minute sermon ended, he received a standing ovation.

The author most recently of The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, he stated he is not opposed to testing or high standards — or the teaching of phonics to young readers.

“Tests used judiciously are instruments of guidance to good teachers and warning signals to society,” he said. “But tests and standards without prior equity, without equal resources for all children, are not instruments of decent change. They are simply clubs with which to bludgeon children from the hour of their birth and are humiliating to administrators and their teachers.”

The audience erupted in thunderous applause.

The disgrace of America’s public schools, he contends, is the “hyper-segregation” of inner-city schools. Some schools are nearly all minority students, either all black or a mix of black and Latino students. He cited a school district in the South Bronx with 11,000 students, of whom just 22 are white. A classroom photograph from that school is indistinguishable from a photograph of a Mississippi school in 1935, he said. Spending in the Bronx district is $11,000 per pupil a year. In suburban districts just minutes away, per-pupil spending ranges from $19,000 to $23,000.

Under President George W. Bush, less than 50 percent of New York children eligible for prekindergarten programs actually get to attend them, even though the state claims to have universal prekindergarten, he said. Meanwhile, affluent parents in New York City spend $23,000 a year to send their children to elite “pre-Ivy” preschools.

But inner-city schools are being held hostage by the No Child Left Behind Act. More affluent suburban schools can afford to disregard it, but inner-city schools need the money.

“All children may be equal in the eyes of God, but they are not equal in the eyes of public education,” said Kozol, who was fired from his first job as a 4th-grade teacher in 1964 for reading a Langston Hughes poem to his students. The justification for his firing was “curriculum deviation” — the book was not on the approved list.

Although he conceded he is “criticized mercilessly” by social conservatives, Kozol vowed never to stop fighting for equity in the public schools. “I won’t help America do an end run around apartheid in public schools,” he said.

“It is outrageous to hold a little girl who’s 7 or 8 years old accountable for her performance on a standardized exam but not to hold the Congress or the president of the United States accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids six years earlier,” Kozol contended.

He read from an unidentified school district’s rubric “for filing in a stairway” that he obtained. The document was a 32-point scorecard for grading a student’s ability to stand quietly in an orderly line. “It sounds like Hitler youth,” he said.

He spoke of “curriculum cops” who enforce “polysyllabic gibberish,” and he read to the conference audience standard 67-B from the New York state 3rd-grade English language arts curriculum that he noticed on the wall of a classroom he was visiting: “The children will demonstrate a competency in production of a narrative procedure.”

Kozol quipped: “You know, I went to a good college. I majored in English. I don’t know what the hell that means. It’s not even grammatically correct.”

He said he asked the classroom teacher to translate. The teacher told him it just means writing a story.

Why don’t they say that? Kozol wonders.


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