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Jonathan Kozol Headshot

Why I am Fasting: An Explanation to My Friends

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This morning, I am entering the 67th day of a partial fast that I
began early in the summer as my personal act of protest at the vicious
damage being done to inner-city children by the federal education law
No Child Left Behind, a racially punitive piece of legislation that
Congress will either renew, abolish, or, as thousands of teachers
pray, radically revise in the weeks immediately ahead.

The poisonous essence of this law lies in the mania of obsessive
testing it has forced upon our nation's schools and, in the case of
underfunded, overcrowded inner-city schools, the miserable
drill-and-kill curriculum of robotic "teaching to the test" it has
imposed on teachers, the best of whom are fleeing from these schools
because they know that this debased curriculum would never have been
tolerated in the good suburban schools that they, themselves,
attended.

The justification for this law was the presumptuous and ignorant
determination by the White House that our urban schools are, for the
most part, staffed by mediocre drones who will suddenly become
terrific teachers if we place a sword of terror just above their heads
and threaten them with penalties if they do not pump their students'
scores by using proto-military methods of instruction -- scripted
texts and hand-held timers -- that will rescue them from doing any
thinking of their own. There are some mediocre teachers in our
schools (there are mediocre lawyers, mediocre senators, and mediocre
presidents as well), but hopelessly dull and unimaginative teachers do
not suddenly turn into classroom wizards under a regimen that
transforms their classrooms into test-prep factories.

The real effect of No Child Left Behind is to drive away the tens of
thousands of exciting and high-spirited, superbly educated teachers
whom our urban districts struggle to attract into these schools.
There are more remarkable young teachers like this coming into
inner-city education than at any time I've seen in more than 40 years.
The challenge isn't to recruit them; it's to keep them. But 50 percent of
the glowing young idealists I have been recruiting from the nation's
most respected colleges and universities are throwing up their hands
and giving up their jobs within three years.

When I ask them why they've grown demoralized, they routinely tell me
it's the feeling of continual anxiety, the sense of being in a kind of
"state of siege," as well as the pressure to conform to teaching
methods that drain every bit of joy out of the hours that their
children spend with them in school.

"I didn't study all these years," a highly principled and effective
first-grade teacher told me -- she had studied literature and
anthropology in college while also having been immersed in education
courses -- "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, all the spontaneity and power to
ask interesting questions, that kids are getting in the middle-class
white systems."

At a moment when black and Hispanic students are more segregated than
at any time since 1968 (in the typical inner-city school I visit, out
of an enrollment that may range from 800 to 4,000 students, there are
seldom more than five or six white children), NCLB adds yet another
factor of division between children of minorities and those in the
mainstream of society. In good suburban classrooms, children master
the essential skills not from terror but from exhilaration, inspired
in them by their teachers, in the act of learning in itself. They're
also given critical capacities that they will need if they're to
succeed in college and to function as discerning citizens who have the
power to interrogate reality. They learn to ask the questions that
will shape the nation's future, while inner-city kids are being
trained to give prescripted answers and to acquiesce in their
subordinate position in society.

In the wake of the calamitous Supreme Court ruling in the end of June
that prohibited not only state-enforced but even voluntary programs of
school integration, No Child Left Behind -- unless it is dramatically
transformed -- will drive an even deeper wedge between two utterly
divided sectors of American society.

This, then, is the reason I've been fasting, taking only small amounts
of mostly liquid foods each day, and, when I have stomach pains, other
forms of nourishment at times, a stipulation that my doctor has
insisted on in order to avert the risk of doing longterm damage to my
heart. Twenty-nine pounds lighter than I was when I began, I've been
dreaming about big delicious dinners.

Still, I feel an obligation to those many teachers who have told me,
not as an accusation but respectfully, that it was one of my books
that diverted them from easier, more lucrative careers and brought
them into teaching in the first place. Some call me in the evenings,
on the verge of tears, to tell me of the maddening frustration that
they feel at being forced to teach in ways that make them hate
themselves.

I don't want them to quit their jobs. I give them whatever good
survival strategies I can. I tell them that the best defense is to be
extremely good at what they do: Deliver the skills! Don't let your
classroom grow chaotic! A teacher who can keep a reasonable sense of
calm within her room, particularly in a school in which disorder has
been common, renders herself almost inexpendable.

At the same time, I always recommend a healthy dose of sly irreverence
and a sense of playful and ironical detachment from the criticisms of
those clipboard bureaucrats who come around to check on them.
(Teachers call them "the curriculum cops" or "NCLB overseers.") I
urge them to develop mischievous and inventive ways to convince these
gloomy-looking people that whatever they are teaching at that moment,
no matter how delectably subversive it may be, is, in fact, directly
geared to one of those little chunks of amputated knowledge, known as
"state proficiencies," they are supposed to be "delivering" at that
specific minute of the day.

But I've also felt the obligation to bring this battle to its source
in Washington. I've tried very hard to convince a number of the more
enlightened Democrats who serve on the Senate education panel to
introduce amendments that will drastically reduce our government's
reliance upon standardized exams in judgment of a child, school, or
teacher, and attribute greater weight to factors that are not so
simple-mindedly reducible to numbers.

Sophisticated as opposed to low-grade methods of assessment would not
only tell us whether little Oscar or Shaniqua started out their essays
with "a topic sentence" but would also tell us whether they wrote
something with the slightest hint of authenticity and charm or simply
stamped out insincere placebos. (A child gets no credit for
originality or authenticity under No Child Left Behind. Sincerity
gets no rewards. Endearing stylistic eccentricity, needless to say, is
not rewarded either. That which can't be measured is not valued by
the technocrats of uniformity who have designed this miserable piece
of legislation.)

On a separate battlefront, I've also tried to win support for an
amendment to the law that will take advantage of one of the loop-holes
in the recent segregation ruling, an opening that Justice Kennedy has
offered us by his insistence that criteria that are not race-specific
may be used in order to advance diversity in public schools.

There is a provision in No Child Left Behind that permits a child in a
chronically low-performing school to transfer to a more successful
school. Up to now, it hasn't worked because there aren't enough
successful schools in inner-city districts to which kids can transfer.
The Democrats, I've argued, have the opportunity to make this option
workable if they are sufficiently audacious to require states to
authorize a child's right to transfer across district lines, and
provide financial means to make this possible, so that children
trapped in truly hopeless schools could, if their parents so desired,
go to school in one of the high-spending suburbs that are often a mere
20-minute ride from their front door.

I was surprised that none of the senators with whom I spoke rejected
this proposal as too controversial or politically unthinkable. More
than one made clear that they enjoyed the notion of helping to
"improve" a flawed provision that the White House had included in the
law for reasons that most certainly were not intended to enable
inner-city kids to go to beautiful suburban schools with 16 or 18
children in a room, instead of 29, or 35, or 40, as in many urban
systems.

It was, however, on the testing issue that I received the most
explicitly unqualified and positive response. Several of the senators
made a lot of time available to think aloud about the ways in which to
get rid of that sense of siege so many teachers had described and to
be certain that we do not keep on driving out these talented young
people from our schools.

The only member of the Democratic leadership I have been unable to get
through to is the influential chairman of the education panel, Senator
Ted Kennedy, who, one of his colleagues told me flatly, will
ultimately "call the shots" on this decision. I've asked the senator
three times if he'll talk with me. Each time, I have run into a cold
stone wall. This has disappointed me, and startled me, because the
senator has been a friend to me in years gone by and has asked for my
ideas on education on a number of occasions in the decades since I was
a youthful teacher and he was a youthful politician.

Senator Kennedy is, of course, a very busy man and has many other
issues of importance he must deal with. But it's also possible, aides
to other senators suggest, that he does not wish to contemplate
dramatic changes in the law because he co-sponsored the initial bill
in a deal with the Republicans. He is also renowned as a gifted
builder of consensus in the legislative process. Lending his support
to either of the two proposals I have made would almost surely
guarantee a knockdown battle with conservative Republicans and,
perhaps, with some of the Democratic neoliberals as well.

Still, Senator Kennedy has displayed a genuine nobility of vision in
defense of elemental fair play for low-income children many times
before. Is it possible that he may rise to the occasion once again?
If he does, I may finally listen to the worries of my friends and
decide it's time to bring this episode of fasting to an end. If not,
I'll keep slogging on. It's a tiny price to pay compared to what so
many of our children and their teachers have to go through every
single day.