Thursday, October 04, 2007

Teacher's teacher strikes nerve

Teacher's teacher strikes nerve
Portland lecture - Jonathan Kozol finds a receptive audience filled with educators
Thursday, October 04, 2007
The Oregonian

I t didn't take long Wednesday night for Jonathan Kozol to win over the nearly 400 people who showed to hear him speak at First Congregational United Church of Christ.

As he was in downtown Portland in front of an audience with a high concentration of teachers, he targeted the right combination of perceived evils: President Bush and the No Child Left Behind Act.

Kozol, a 71-year-old author and activist, delivered his points through "Francesca," a teacher in a Boston elementary school who is the focal point of his most recent book, "Letters to a Young Teacher."

"She got so angry when she'd hear the president say, 'All we want to do is get our teachers to aspire to excellence,' " Kozol said. "She'd say: 'Thank you Mr. President. I never thought of that before. I thought my goal was to struggle to achieve mediocrity.' "

It was one of many moments that brought laughter from the audience.

And such passages and statements were the type that met the expectations of Sean Haskell, a 36-year-old Southeast Portland resident and band teacher at H.B. Lee Middle School.

"He's willing to take a very unpopular, very realistic look at what is happening in our society," Haskell said. "And he's willing to back it up with statistics. It kind of goes outside the mainstream arguments that you hear discussed in the media."

Kozol's visit comes on the heels of Portland Public Schools announcing the hiring Monday of Carole Smith as its new superintendent. The 46,300-student district -- Oregon's largest -- is facing tough challenges, including closing the achievement gap -- largely between white and black students -- at its schools, and particularly high schools.

And for Kozol, No Child Left Behind is not the answer. Implemented in 2002, the federal law aims at improving performance of U.S. primary and secondary schools by increasing standards of accountability for states, school districts and schools.

No Child Left Behind fans have credited it for raising student achievement to record levels. Critics have pointed out that achievement was rising faster in the years before that law took effect than it has since 2003.

Haskell, who has read Kozol's book "Savage Inequalities," is among the doubters.

"No Child Left Behind was not designed by teachers or with much input from the educational community," he said.

Kozol, often mixing his tone between mocking of a system he thinks is failing children and teachers and empathy for those same children and teachers, said, "There are thousands of wonderful young people -- probably hundreds of thousands -- like Francesca coming into our public schools today.

"I meet them everywhere," he added. "It's not hard to recruit them."

Kozol said they'll even go to the inner city, poorest rural and reservation schools. The problem is keeping them once they get there, he said. And that's what needs to be fixed.

"This is their way of fighting on the front line of democracy," Kozol said. Still, he said, 50 percent quit within the first three years.

"And when I asked them why they're feeling demoralized; they're ready to quit, thinking of quitting. Again and again, the No. 1 answer they give me is, it's this sense of constant anxiety within these test-driven inner city schools," he said.

"The sense that every minute of the school day you're under this scrutiny of stern business-minded technocrats in Washington or in the state capitals . . . There's no room for my personality. There's no room for me to hear my children's real voices."

That, Kozol believes, need to change.

He said in the wealthiest suburbs it's different. "They don't like this testing nightmare," he said. But, he said, those districts have residents with the financial resources to insulate themselves from being punished by having their federal money withheld if they don't follow the rules.

"So, the richest suburbs can say, 'Take it,' " Kozol said. "But the inner city schools are running scared."

And Kozol wonders if this really is what the president had in mind with No Child Left Behind.

"When President Bush was selling this to Congress . . . he kept saying, 'All we want to do is help the teacher, identify where little Shaniqua's weaknesses were,' " Kozol said.

"Now, I don't want to be mean to President Bush," he said, "but sometimes I wonder what planet he lives on."

Wade Nkrumah: 503-294-7627;

©2007 The Oregonian

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