Kozol on Hunger Strike to Protest NCLB

No one knows this because the Second Gulf War has driven every other serious issue in the country (except the economy) onto the back pages of our papers and off our TV screens altogether, but the effects of Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act on our public schools have been, in many communities, nothing short of catastrophic. Jonathan Kozol, legendary education activist and author of the seminal work on schools as instruments of injustice, Death at an Early Age, has been on a hunger strike for three months protesting the upcoming reauthorization of the NCLB.

kozol_jonathan Jonathan Kozol appeared shrunken in his chair at Harvard’s Memorial Church, his blazer tossed aside, the sleeves of his pinstriped shirt rolled up to the elbows to expose bony arms. His thin ankles, swathed in black socks, disappeared into his signature navy blue Keds.

Over the past 24 hours, he had consumed only half a bowl of frosted cornflakes, half a cheese sandwich, several glasses of grapefruit juice, and a French vanilla latte, a treat he granted himself before beginning his lecture this week to hundreds of teachers and education activists packed into the church pews.

Since early July, the 71-year-old education warrior of the 1960s has shed 29 pounds from his slender 5-foot-9-inch frame, subsisting on a mostly liquid diet. His point: to protest the federal No Child Left Behind Act now up for reauthorization. He said he will continue his partial fast until US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who sponsored the original bill, agrees to drastically overhaul what Kozol called a punitive law that relegates urban schoolchildren to an inferior, stripped-down education and demoralizes teachers, who he believes are forced to teach to the test.

For my money, you can strike the word “believe”. Every teacher I know (and having been one for some years, I know quite a few) is furious about it. Classes have been turned from educational instruments into test-prepping courses, and school administrators worried about their funding (and find me one who isn’t) have been ruthlessly striking down any curriculum plan that includes elements of a subject not likely to be found on the MCAS (Mass Comprehensive Assessment System, the test that was developed to meet the requirements of the NCLB). Kozol argues that NCLB’s primary legacy will be the re-institution of segregated schools.

No Child Left Behind, Kozol believes, has plunged urban education back to the dark ages before desegregation. Under the law, schools whose test scores don’t improve each year could eventually be shut down, a specter hanging over a disproportionate number of city schools that educate mostly poor, minority children.

“We have apartheid schools, and MCAS has unwittingly introduced an apartheid curriculum,” said Kozol during an interview, likening inner-city classrooms to test prep factories. “I’m determined to mobilize teachers and parents to fight this bill aggressively and bombard Senator Kennedy with a very clear message: If he fails to introduce dramatic revisions to No Child Left Behind, it will be devastating to the enormous faith we’ve had in him all these years.”

Frankly, as far as I’m concerned, it already has been.

I’ve been very proud of Teddy for decades. He’s been a tireless force for progress in education and health care, a powerful advocate for the poor, workers, and women, and he was one of the very few Democrats willing to fight Bush’s war while the rest of the DLC-led party – including our other Senator, John Kerry – was tripping all over itself trying to be the first to cave in. I can only remember having one major disappointment with him all these years (and one minor one, over the proposed windfarm in the ocean off the Vineyard) and that was – and is – his unwavering support for this terrible bill.

For the last 50 years, American schools have struggled, not always with success, to shed their original role as warehouses of child care and what amounted to corporate training grounds for future employees, in order to adopt a real education system similar to the one European countries have enjoyed for several centuries. It hasn’t been easy, particularly since the low-tax advocates began heavily influencing state and national education policy based solely on a desire to get education cheap, forcing the schools to experiment with educational innovations on shoe-string budgets that often meant the eradication of whole programs, especially in the arts and humanities, which low-taxers with their lack of imagination or interest in anything but their wallets considered “frivolous”.

From the very beginning, what we could see and Teddy for some reason could not was that Bush’s NCLB was a sop to the low-taxers and to a corporatocracy that didn’t want to pay for anything not directly connected with its own needs. Conservative forces attacked the school system without mercy for 20 years, claiming it was “failing our children” when in fact what it was failing was the corporatocracy’s need for cheap labor – workers just skilled enough to do the worker-bee jobs corporations needed to fill but not educated enough to demand their rights.

In the late 80’s they got tired of waiting and moved all those jobs to low-wage, low-tax countries with even worse educational systems than ours and a much larger pool of the desperately poor they could exploit with wages that even by the countries’ own standards didn’t provide living money. But they continued to make alliances with the low-taxers in an effort to strip the schools of anything beyond fundamental Readin’, ‘Ritin’, and ‘Rithmetic. The alliance was particularly unhappy with humanities and civic courses since the first had no relevance to employment and the second tended to produce citizens rather than drones, as became clear when students were the major force for social change in the 60’s – which I remind you began well before the draft was an issue.

From the git-go, the function and intent of the NCLB was to force our entire educational system back into the 19th century when penmanship was more important than comprehension and rote learning of facts and dates was the core of all curricula, and to do so by making the testing of primary skills valued by the dominant commercial culture the sole determinant of a school’s success. Kozol, I think on balance rightfully, calls the racial re-segregation of classrooms an “unintended consequence” but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t predictable. Some of us were saying when the bill was first introduced that its effects were going to inevitably include lopping poor school systems, many located in minority neighborhoods with few resources, off the Federal money-tree altogether and encourage yet another round of white flight.

But its major success has been in turning our classrooms into something approaching boot camps.

During his lecture at Harvard this week, Kozol likened No Child Left Behind to a “shaming ritual” in which the federal government holds up “impossible demands without money to pay for it.” Against this backdrop, it’s no wonder that half of urban teachers quit within their first three years, he said.

“Wonderful teachers should never let themselves be drill sergeants for the state,” he said, peering at the crowd through gold wire-rimmed glasses. “I don’t want them to quit. I want them to stay. But I want them to stay and not lose their souls.”

I could say the same about the kids.

The NCLB could conceivably do some good but not until and unless it’s subjected to drastic revisions and divorced from the punishment phase. As is, it’s an educational abomination, an insult to parents and students alike, a mechanism to encourage racial and class segregation, and a doorway to total corporate control of our schools. Since the likelihood of its being re-written in a form that isn’t any of those things is excessively remote, it ought to be unceremoniously dumped.

Our children and our society deserve better than this.

3 Responses to “Kozol on Hunger Strike to Protest NCLB”

  1. I got a book you might like, let me know if you want me to send you it. didn’t know you were a teacher, you would also probably be much better equipped to analyze than I.

  2. mick says:

    I’d be interested in the book but I feel I ought to warn you that tho I taught for 10+ years. I was a theater/theater tech/film/acting teacher w/out a college degree. I’m told that doesn’t count.

  3. Oh…


    No book for you then..



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