Children left behind


Author and education activist Jonathan Kozol arrived at Rockefeller Chapel Wednesday evening in a suit and tie, but by the time he took the podium a few minutes later, he'd shed his jacket and rolled his sleeves up past his elbows. "My heart is very heavy nowadays," he told an audience of mostly teachers as he launched into a 90-minute declamation against the No Child Left Behind Act. Instead of true learning, he said, the 2001 law focuses on pumping schoolchildren with "mini-chunks of amputated knowledge." Its strictures, Kozol said, have sparked the exodus of young, talented teachers from urban public schools and stifled classrooms with "protomilitary instruction." Standardized exams now often begin in kindergarten, he added, and teachers spend as much as half their time drilling students in test-taking. Faltering scores can mean punishment for both teachers and schools.

Kozol called No Child Left Behind less an attempt at education reform than a "shaming ritual to discredit the entire system of public education itself." He added, "Strict classroom rules and sanctions and threats won't make wizards out of bad teachers."

He did offer a few words of encouragement. His most recent book, Letters to a Young Teacher, recounts his correspondence with a first-year elementary-school teacher he calls "Francesca." Working in Boston—where Kozol began his own teaching career in 1964—Francesca resists "teaching to the test," and the book offers strategies, he said, for "how to rebel against the things teachers find abhorrent" while keeping their jobs.

Kozol is also pushing for solutions from Capitol Hill. Since July 4 he has fasted to protest the No Child Left Behind Act—during his talk he looked and sounded frail—and he has formed an advocacy organization to push legislators, in particular Senate Education Committee Chair Ted Kennedy, to change the law, which comes up for reauthorization this fall. Sign-up sheets for Education Action! passed through the audience as he spoke. "I don't want to be alone in this fight," he said.


Photo: More than 70 days into a fast protesting No Child Left Behind, Jonathan Kozol brought his case against the education law to a Rockefeller Chapel audience.

September 13, 2007