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City Journal Autumn 2007.
Autumn 2007
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Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice
by Sol Stern
Breaking Free.
 
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False Prophet
Sol Stern

Who’s to blame for urban teacher flight: George W. Bush or Jonathan Kozol?

Jonathan Kozol has a new education book out, which means that he hasn’t been eating. Kozol’s books always come backed by a PR campaign portraying him as someone who courageously exposes the racism of America’s inner-city public schools and even suffers physically alongside the people he writes about. For example, when Amazing Grace, Kozol’s 1995 book about poor minority kids trapped in lousy schools in the South Bronx, first appeared, the author had “lost 30 pounds and had begun suffering from asthma, like so many of the people who live” in the neighborhood, the New York Times reported.

With his new book, Letters to a Young Teacher—consisting of letters to a (possibly imaginary) first-grade Boston public school instructor—Kozol is again winning press plaudits, this time by actually fasting. In a glowing Boston Globe profile, columnist Sam Allis observed that Kozol “has been on a partial fast since the Supreme Court in late June all but banned voluntary school desegregation plans. His belt is working overtime to keep his pants up. I tell him he should eat.” A few weeks later, though, Kozol’s fans and friends received a somewhat different spin on the fast. In a Huffington Post article, Kozol described his refusal to eat solid food as a “personal act of protest” against George W. Bush’s “racially punitive” No Child Left Behind education law. Kozol claimed to have shed 29 pounds so far.

Kozol’s fast will have to go on for a long time if he’s going to get public attention for this latest crusade, however. There’s nothing particularly new or courageous about protesting against NCLB. A broad political coalition has formed—ranging from the National Education Association to state education superintendents—urging that NCLB be radically revised or scrapped altogether. Even conservative Republicans are jumping on the anti-NCLB bandwagon.

Still, nobody else has come up with anything as imaginative as Kozol’s explanation of why NCLB is so awful for inner-city schools. In Kozol’s view (and this is his new book’s main theme), NCLB creates unbearable pressure in urban classrooms to pass the annual tests in reading and math that the law mandates. This results in a “miserable drill-and-kill curriculum of robotic ‘teaching to the test,’ ” which is driving all the idealistic and well-educated young teachers out of the profession. “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’s eponymous young teacher complains. Kozol asserts that 50 percent of all new teachers in urban school districts quit within five years because of the testing mandates.

The 50 percent attrition rate is approximately correct, and it’s one of the most serious problems faced by urban schools. But how does Kozol know that NCLB is to blame? Well, Kozol says, he’s heard from “hundreds of thousands” of quitting teachers (as he told WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate) who’ve expressed frustration with NCLB testing.

As it happens, though, reputable scholars such as Eric Hanushek, Stephen Rivkin, and Richard Murname have studied the urban attrition problem, and school districts have conducted exit surveys of new teachers leaving the job after less than five years. Contrary to Kozol’s impression, testing hardly registers as a reason for leaving. One factor that does turn up, however, is the lack of adequate training that teachers get from education schools.

If ed schools aren’t preparing future teachers for the reality of inner-city classrooms, what are they doing? Among other things, they’re forcing students to read Jonathan Kozol’s books, brimming with misinformation about the causes of school failure. A study by Hunter College School of Education dean David Steiner found that Kozol’s books were among the most frequently assigned ed-school texts.

Like Kozol, I sometimes hear from teachers and prospective teachers. Here’s what a student at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education recently wrote to me: “Essentially, Kozol is the foundation on which the Steinhardt program is built. He is introduced in . . . a freshman course that serves to elucidate current political debates concerning education. Unfortunately, there’s pretty much no one on the syllabus to debunk him.” And that’s a pretty good explanation for why new teachers find themselves clueless when they step into urban classrooms.

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More by Sol Stern:
The Real Common Core Story
Who Is Carmen Fariña?
The Redemption of E. D. Hirsch
More . . .
If you liked this story, you may also be interested in:
The Plot Against Merit
The “Affirmative Consent” Trap
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