Facing backward on his horse, Kozol rides again

Once upon a time, Jonathan Kozol played a formative and constructive role in my career. Death at an Early Age, his evocative tale of the tribulations of inner-city school children and the trials of a novice Boston teacher, appeared in 1967--two years after the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, three years into the War on Poverty, and just as I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. It strengthened my resolve to plunge into the icy, swirling waters of education reform.     

Since then, I've learned a lot about what makes schools (and kids) tick and what sorts of reforms have a chance of transforming American K-12 education into an enterprise that, in fact, leaves no child behind.         

Alas, Kozol has learned nothing. He's been writing the exact same stuff for four decades, blaming the woes of urban education (and urban kids) on racism, inadequate spending and, of late, testing. (See the expert unmasking of Kozol by Marcus Winters in the spring 2006 issue of Education Next.)

Kozol's latest crusade is to strike a blow at standards-based reform in general and NCLB in particular. On June 16, he circulated an update written for those "Education Activists who have asked me: where do we go next?"

Kozol's answer: he's formed a new group called "Education Action" in order "to fight racism and inequality and the murderous impact of the NCLB legislation ... with the goal of mobilizing educators to resist the testing mania and directly challenge Congress, possibly by a march on Washington, at the time when NCLB comes up for reauthorization in 2007." 

He notified his mailing list that Education Action is now headquartered in a house that "we've purchased for this purpose" (but which also seems to be Kozol's home address) in a lovely, leafy neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts, just off high-rent Brattle Street and a few short blocks from Harvard Square. The perfect place from which to crusade for equality.

"We are already in contact," he wrote, "with our close friends at Rethinking Schools, with dozens of local action groups like Teachers for Social Justice in San Francisco, with dynamic African-American religious groups that share our goals, with activist white denominations [whatever that may mean], and with some of the NEA and AFT affiliates, in particular the activist caucuses within both unions such as those in Oakland, Miami, and Los Angeles. But we want to extend these contacts rapidly in order to create what one of our friends who is the leader of a major union local calls a massive wave of noncompliance."

A massive wave of noncompliance, huh? Just what disadvantaged American school kids need. That will surely close the learning gap and guarantee them basic skills and core knowledge. But there's more. Kozol and his allies are also "determined that we turn the growing, but too often muted and frustrated discontent with NCLB and the racist policies and privatizing forces that are threatening the very soul of public education into a series of national actions that are explicitly political in the same tradition as the civil rights upheavals of the early 1960s. We want to pull in youth affiliates as well and are working with high school kids and countless college groups that are burning with a sense of shame and indignation at the stupid and destructive education policies of state and federal autocrats."

The phrase "time warp" doesn't quite do justice to this view of education--and of politics. It may be more like profound cynicism blended with self-aggrandizement. Kozol has grown wealthy by selling books to educators and speaking at their conferences. Now he's joining--even seeking to lead--the anti-NCLB backlash among educators, all the while waving his familiar flag of racism and injustice, yet refusing to offer any plausible alternatives for fixing our failing urban schools.

If he has his way, those inner city kids will stay ignorant forever--and he can keep penning outraged (but best-selling) books about their mistreatment at society's hands. Where's the real injustice in this picture?

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