Today's Reading Assignment
Sol Stern, writing in Monday's New York Post, on Jonathan Kozol's latest education crusade-cum-diet. Mr. Kozol, who reportedly lost 30 pounds while researching and writing his 1996 book Amazing Grace: Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, is at it again. In recent months, he's dropped the same amount of weight, in protest of President Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. And coincidentally, it's a theme that Kozol also addresses in his latest book, Letters to a Young Teacher, which was just released.
As Mr. Stern reminds us, if you don't know who Jonathan Kozol is, you should. He's become an icon for the education establishment and the mainstream press, railing against inequalities in the education system that leave minority youngsters ill-prepared for higher education and life in general. Unfortunately, Mr. Kozol's prescription for reform is more of the same: more spending per pupil in poor neighborhoods, newer schools, better pay for teachers. Kozol, a skillful writer, can cite enough horror stories from visits to the South Bronx (and other locations) to make a stirring argument.
But a closer examination reveals the folly of Mr. Kozol's position. Empirical data from the past 40 years demonstrates that more money doesn't mean higher achievement; per pupil spending has increased geometrically since the late 1960s, but average scores on college entrance tests actually declined during the same period. True, ACT and SAT scores aren't the only benchmarks, but they indicate that massive infusions of local, state and federal money haven't produced expected results.
Additionally, Mr. Kozol dismisses data that tends to undercut his arguments. For example, per-pupil spending in Washington, D.C., is higher than many rural or suburban districts in the south, but test scores in the nation's capital are much lower. Additionally, parochial schools in the nation's poorest neighborhoods have long out-performed their publicly-funded counterparts, while spending far less per pupil--and paying their teachers significantly less. So much for that more-money-means-a-better-education theory. And, not surprisingly, Kozol is a strident opponent of school vouchers.
Which brings us to Kozol's latest crusade, against the No Child Left Behind program. As Mr. Stern discovered, Kozol has come up with an imaginative reason why the law is so evil:
He says it creates unbearable pressures in urban classrooms, driving young teachers out of the profession. You see, the law mandates annual reading and math tests - which results in a "miserable drill-and-kill curriculum of robotic 'teaching to the test' " - and idealistic, well-educated young teachers just can't take it.
He quotes the first-grade teacher to whom his letters are written: "I didn't study all these years in order to turn black babies into mindless little robots, denied the normal breadth of learning, all the arts and sciences, all the joy in reading literary classics."
Kozol asserts that half of all new teachers in urban school districts quit within five years because of NCLB testing mandates. He's about right on how many leave, and correct that this high turnover is a big problem. But his only evidence as to the cause is his own word. He says he has personally heard from "hundreds of thousands" of those teachers (as he told WNYC's Leonard Lopate) about their frustrations with NCLB testing.
But the real reasons that young teachers leave the classroom is far different, as Sol Stern explains:
In fact, the problem of new teachers leaving has been studied extensively - by reputable scholars and many school districts. In those investigations, anger over testing hardly shows up as a cause. But one factor that does come up repeatedly is the lack of adequate preparation that teachers receive from their education schools.
Hmm. What are ed schools doing instead of preparing their charges for the reality of inner-city schools? For young thing, forcing our future teachers to read Jonathan Kozol's awful books, full of misinformation and outright lies about the causes of school failure. A study by Hunter College Education Dean David Steiner found Kozol's books among the most frequently assigned texts in ed-school courses.
Having worked as a middle school teacher (history and vocational studies), I can attest to the truth of Mr. Stern's analysis. And let me add a few more reasons to the list: Unruly and disruptive students; incompetent administrators; dangerous school environments; a radicalized union (that abandoned classroom teachers for a political agenda years ago), and school systems that willingly toss educators overboard, to appease community "activists" and other special interest groups.
Compared to those issues, NCLB is a minor inconvenience, even if it means tutoring sessions to impart skills that should have been mastered in earlier grades. And, in fact, many teachers actually welcomed the program because it (a) implemented a degree of accountability in public education, and (b) it documents improvement in student performance, something that's quite useful in lobbying for pay raises, promotion and tenure. Better still, recent studies suggest that NCLB has helped spur a recent increase in student test scores, after years of decline.
But Kozol and his supporters aren't interested in those results. Because NCLB challenged the education status quo, it has to go, and opponents will use any trick in the book to prevent its re authorization. That's why the education establishment is so quick to accept Kozol's dubious claim that testing requirements are driving teachers from the classroom--and they're equally willing to let him indoctrinate the next generation of educators in the old, idealized (and failed) ways of teaching our children.