NCLB and The Poisonous Essence of Obsessive Testing
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.
Jonathan Kozol received the National Book Award in Science, Philosophy, and Religion for Death at an Early Age in 1968. His newest book, Letters to a Young Teacher, was published two weeks ago by Crown.
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