Jonathan Kozol began his career as a fourth-grade teacher in 1964 at a segregated inner-city Boston school. The Harvard College graduate had 35 students but no classroom. And the school was so crowded, he taught in the auditorium.
Forty-three years later, Kozol, who is the author of numerous books including college-classroom classics like Savage Inequalities and Rachel and Her Children , is continuing his battle against the cultural and legal forces that worsen inequality in our public schools—urban schools, in particular.
Kozol, who's speaking in Portland this week, calls those schools the "front lines of democracy." His latest book is Letters to a Young Teacher , based on correspondence Kozol kept with an ambitious—but at times insecure—teacher at the beginning of her career.
"They say it's the most cheerful book I've ever written, and I know why," Kozol, 71, tells WW from his home in Massachusetts. "It's because it's intended as an invitation to young people to enter what I still believe to be a beautiful profession."
i]WW:[/i] You've been on a partial fast since July 4. Why?
Jonathan Kozol: The initial decision to go on a partial fast was the calamitous U.S. Supreme Court decision on June 28 that is known as the Louisville-Seattle case. It not only reversed Brown v. Board of Education by prohibiting state-ordered integration programs, but went to the incredible extreme of also prohibiting totally voluntary programs. That just stunned me. I continued the fast in order to place pressure on old friends of mine who are now in the U.S. House and Senate to make sweeping revisions in the federal education bill No Child Left Behind, which is coming up for debate.
Can't you find anything nice to say about No Child Left Behind?
There is one aspect of No Child Left Behind that could be turned into a positive if the Democrats have the guts to do what needs to be done. NCLB includes a transfer provision for kids who are in chronically low-performing schools. Only about 2 percent of kids who attend such schools have been able to transfer to high-performing schools, because there aren't enough such schools within inner-city districts. Congress can amend that provision to require states to facilitate and also finance the right of students in low-performing schools to transfer across district borders, to attend high-spending and highly successful districts that are only 20-minute rides from their front doors. The Supreme Court ruling, as bad as it was, does leave that loophole.
Who's done more harm to public schools: George Bush with his No Child Left Behind or Bill Gates with his zeal for carving public high schools into smaller academies?
I wouldn't blame George Bush, because No Child Left Behind is no longer his bill. Within a matter of months, this will be a Democratic bill. If it's not sweepingly revised, it is the Democratic leadership that I will condemn most strongly. I think Bill Gates probably recognizes by now that he made a very grave mistake in mindlessly supporting the proliferation of small, boutique schools, which have been even more segregated than the typical urban school. They are designed around themes that are deemed appropriate to different castes and races. I hope that Mr. Gates is rethinking his notion that you can do an end-run around separate and unequal schooling by creating "small" and "innovative" separate and unequal schools. That was not Dr. King's dream.
This year, Portland Public Schools' youngest students will be using new textbooks from the publishing giant Pearson Scott Foresman. What do you think of that choice?
Pearson Scott Foresman has a notorious record for turning out some of the most mediocre, test-driven materials for elementary schools. Portland would have done much better to have spent that money on buying hundreds of thousands of real books for the children.
Portland's former superintendent, Vicki Phillips, called her plan to give all schools the same textbooks a mission to promote "equity" in a school district burdened by racial and economic disparities. Was she leveling the playing field?
Far from leveling the playing field—what she has achieved is to provide all of the children in Portland with an instructional approach that would be rejected out of hand in almost any first-rate suburb.
Did you know Phillips now works for Gates as the education director of his foundation?
Oooh. I won't even comment.
Kozol will be speaking at First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1126 SW Park Ave., on Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 7 pm, and at Powell's at Cedar Hills Crossing in Beaverton on Thursday, Oct. 4, at 7 pm. The event at the United Church of Christ is $15 through TicketsWest. The one at Powell's is free. Kozol's partial fast means he drinks liquids and eats only when he has heart pain. He has lost 29 pounds.