JONATHAN Kozol has a new book out, which means that he hasn't been eating lately. Let me explain: According to his publisher, every Kozol book is a "courageous expose" of racism in America's inner-city public schools, and the PR campaign always paints the author suffering physically alongside the families and children he writes about. But he knows his audience - the media, and the education academies, continue to eat it up.
Thus, as part of the publicity campaign for "Amazing Grace," his 1996 book about poor black and Hispanic children trapped in lousy schools in the South Bronx, a New York Times reporter was convinced to write that while researching the book. Kozol "lost 30 pounds and had begun suffering from asthma like so many people who live" in the neighborhood.
But the PR strategy for his new book faced a challenge. "Letters to a Young Teacher" consists entirely of Kozol's writings to a first-grade Boston public-school teacher (possibly fictional).
It would be hard to convince even an education reporter that writing letters caused anything like the suffering he endured in the South Bronx. So Kozol decided to inflict some pain and suffering on himself: He went on a fast.
Cutting calories is still good for selling books: In a glowing profile in The Boston Globe, columnist Sam Allis reported, "He 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, Kozol gave his fans and friends a somewhat different spin on the fast, now supposedly well into its third month. In "Why I Am Fasting," an article for the Huffington Post, he said that refusing to eat solid food was his "personal act of protest" against President Bush's No Child Left Behind education law.
Kozol revealed that he had already shed 29 pounds - by sheer coincidence, almost exactly the amount of weight he told reporters he lost during his South Bronx ordeal.
But he's going to have to lose a lot more if he expects to get public attention for his latest crusade - there's nothing particularly courageous about protesting NCLB. The National Education Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, the state education superintendents; countless others - are all urging Congress to radical revise the law or scrap it altogether. Even conservatives are jumping on the bandwagon.
Still, 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.
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.
I sometimes hear from teachers and prospective teachers, if not in the multitudes Kozol claims. 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 Inquiries into Teaching and Learning II, 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 are left clueless about what they are about to face in the urban classroom.