Friday, March 02, 2007

My critique of Jonathan Kozol

Since Kozol is so widely read and admired and since so many people have joined this email list recently, I thought it would be worth sharing two emails from last year and the year before in which I explained why I think "he's a dangerous crackpot who will cause this country's most vulnerable children immeasurable harm."
In 2005, I wrote the email below, which began:
I applaud Jonathan Kozol's passionate commitment to America's most disadvantaged schoolchildren and for shining a light on the (to quote the title of one of his books) "savage inequalities" in our schools. That being said, his diagnoses of the problems and his remedies leave much to be desired... [see below for the rest of this email]
But in June of last year, after learning more about what he was up to, I arrived at a far harsher conclusion, which I still stand behind:

I've always been a little muted in my criticism of Jonathan Kozol because, while I felt he was misguided in his view that simply spending a lot more money would somehow fix our schools (all evidence to the contrary), at least he wasn't doing children any direct harm.

I take it back. In light of his email below, in which he outlines the organization he's forming to try to kill NCLB entirely, I now think he's a dangerous crackpot who will cause this country's most vulnerable children immeasurable harm. He writes about "the murderous impact of the NCLB legislation" and "our efforts 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."

Doesn't Kozol realize that, while NCLB may have some warts and need to be tweaked, it's the best thing that's ever happened to disadvantaged children?! For the first time, school systems can no longer sweep these children under the rug and are FINALLY being measured, which is the first requirement of accountability.

Kozol may well understand this, but it's now clear to me that he is a stooge for the unions, masquerading as a researcher and advocate. Yeah, he's an advocate all right -- but for the ADULTS in the system, not the children!

To read Kozol's letter, which triggered my email, see:
Finally, for an insightful and detailed ripping of Kozol's dangerously wrong-headed views, see this article in Education Next, "Check the Facts: Savage Exaggerations", at:, which concludes:
It’s difficult to visualize the system Kozol wants for us. Beyond his insistent pleas for an equitable distribution of the money in education, he provides few specifics. In fact, though, the best argument against Kozol’s prescription is that the money spent on American public schools doubled over the past 30 years—yet outcomes in education have remained as savagely unequal as ever and will remain so until the incentives of urban schools are changed. To the extent that it persuades people to avoid reforms that change school incentives in favor of ever-increasing school spending, Jonathan Kozol’s work is an impediment to the very thing that he claims to desire most: a day when urban minority children receive an acceptable education.

My critique of Jonathan Kozol, originally written on 10/5/05:

I applaud Jonathan Kozol's passionate commitment to America's most disadvantaged schoolchildren and for shining a light on the (to quote the title of one of his books) "savage inequalities" in our schools. That being said, his diagnoses of the problems and his remedies leave much to be desired:

A) He correctly laments the fact that our schools are re-segregating, but offers no ideas to remedy this. I too don't like highly segregated schools (or society for that matter), but spending a lot of time trying to solve what may prove to be an unsolvable problem strikes me as useless. Nor is this one of my big issues. In visiting roughly 10 KIPP schools nationwide, I've seen ONE (I'm not exaggerating) white student, yet this hasn't been a barrier to incredible success.

B) Kozol argues that schools serving low income and/or minority children spend a lot less per student than schools in carefully selected high-income suburbs -- and therefore seems to be arguing that if we just spent a lot more money, things would improve. He then belittles anyone who questions the wisdom of pouring more money into an obviously broken system by saying that anyone who sends their kids to expensive private schools has no right to ask such a question. What nonsense! First of all, he conveniently ignores the fact that some of the very worst school systems like Newark and Washington DC spend the most -- far more than average suburban systems. And he doesn't (perhaps because he can't) give a single case study of a school system that suddenly spent a lot more money, resulting in marked improvement. In fact, sadly, there are case studies that show the opposite, such as Kansas City. Here's what Joe Williams wrote about KC in his new book, Cheating Our Kids (p.7):

"Sometimes we even crank up the intensity with which we write these checks, but because the system is built in a way that puts other needs ahead of children, our students don't benefit. In Kansas City, Missouri, where tumultuous conditions wore out 20 school superintendants in 30 years, a court ordered that an extra $2 billion be spent over a dozen years [$167 million/year] (between the mid-1980s and late 1990s) as a supplement to the district's $125 million per year operating budget to improve education for minority students. School officials used the unprecedented cash infusion to boost teacher salaries and build 15 new schools [both among Kozol's big recommendations]. They included such pricey luxuries like an Olympic-size swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo and a model United Nations chamber with simultaneous translation capability. Unfortunately, after a dozen years very little had really changed and the district still failed to meet any of the state's performance standards. Structure matters in education, particularly when school systems are configured in ways that assure that the needs of adults are addressed first and foremost."

Hear, hear!

C) Kozol spends a large part of his article bashing in the most inflamatory language possible scritped curriculums such as Success for All. He makes it seem bizarre and sprinkles his description with quotes from teachers like "A warm and interesting woman, she later told me she disliked the regimen intensely" and “I can do this with my dog" and “I know that my teaching SFA is a charade . . . [but] if I don’t do it I won’t be permitted to teach these children.”

His experience is the polar opposite of mine: I visited a school in NYC that had embraced SFA -- thanks to funding from a friend of mine -- as part of a broader improvement program that included tutors for kids that needed help, extra time on reading, etc. SFA is indeed a carefully defined curriculum, but the teachers I spoke with praised it and when I pushed them on the issue about which I've heard so many complaints (that it is too regimented and doesn't allow any individuality), the teachers did not agree at all. For example, while the curriculum called for reading at a certain time, each teacher could pick the book he/she wanted the kids to read. Most importantly, the school's scores had skyrocketed.

While Kozol drowns the reader in endless statistics during certain parts of his article, he doesn't present a single one to support his claim that SFA and similar programs don't work. While I don't claim to be an expert on this topic, from what I understand, there's quite a bit of data that SFA does, in fact, work.

This makes sense to me, intuitively. If a school is fortunate enough to have brilliant teachers, then a highly structured curriculum probably isn't necessary. But we know that schools serving low-income, minority kids get the bottom of the barrel when it comes to teachers, so in such cases it makes sense to me that a highly structured curriculum would result in a significant improvement in outcomes.

This also explains Kozol's lament that “The rich get richer, and the poor get SFA." Until the system is fixed to the point where EVERY school has a team of great teachers, using SFA and similar programs -- at least in the most troubled schools -- makes a lot of sense to me...

D) Kozol also goes out of his way to bash "high-stakes tests", writing:

Three years later, in third grade, these children are introduced to what are known as “high-stakes tests,” which in many urban systems now determine whether students can or cannot be promoted. Children who have been in programs like those offered by the “Baby Ivies” since the age of two have, by now, received the benefits of six or seven years of education, nearly twice as many as the children who have been denied these opportunities; yet all are required to take, and will be measured by, the same examinations. Which of these children will receive the highest scores? The ones who spent the years from two to four in lovely little Montessori programs and in other pastel-painted settings in which tender and attentive and well-trained instructors read to them from beautiful storybooks and introduced them very gently for the first time to the world of numbers and the shapes of letters, and the sizes and varieties of solid objects, and perhaps taught them to sort things into groups or to arrange them in a sequence, or to do those many other interesting things that early childhood specialists refer to as pre-numeracy skills? Or the ones who spent those years at home in front of a TV or sitting by the window of a slum apartment gazing down into the street? There is something deeply hypocritical about a society that holds an eight-year old inner-city child “accountable” for her performance on a high-stakes standardized exam but does not hold the high officials of our government accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids six or seven years earlier.

But Kozol misses the point here: it's precisely BECAUSE kids who haven't had many advantages are so far behind that testing is NECESSARY. Without testing, how is anyone to know how far behind they are, how can a hue and cry be raised, how can we get extra help for those kids?

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