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STILL ASKING! But what will happen to Baltimore’s kids? Jonathan Kozol’s still asking: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 14, 2005

KRUGMAN GETS IT RIGHT: Three cheers for Paul Krugman! Somehow, he’s able to state a simple fact—a simple fact which most career liberals still avoid like a bad case of plague:
KRUGMAN (10/14/05): I don't believe that I'm any better than the average person at judging other people's character...

But many people in the news media do claim, at least implicitly, to be experts at discerning character—and their judgments play a large, sometimes decisive role in our political life. The 2000 election would have ended in a chad-proof victory for Al Gore if many reporters hadn't taken a dislike to Mr. Gore, while portraying Mr. Bush as an honest, likable guy. The 2004 election was largely decided by the image of Mr. Bush as a strong, effective leader.

So it's important to ask why those judgments are often so wrong.

For our money, “took a dislike” is rather mild. But duh! Candidate Gore was crazily trashed by the mainstream press from March 1999 through November 2000. Given the narrow way the campaign was decided, it’s perfectly obvious that the race was decided by this astounding behavior. But as we’ve seen in the past few days, many career liberals will lie in your face before they’ll state this bone-simple fact. They’ll pretend it was really “the Bush campaign.” Or some Noise Machine or another.

“Something we were withholding made us weak,” Frost opined. Career liberals, in thrall to that mainstream press, just keep on withholding the truth. This morning, Krugman shows how easy it is to do the thing these people won’t do. Krugman shows how easy it is to stand up and state a plain fact.

STILL ASKING: For readers in the Washington area, we’ll suggest you consider this Sunday event—a Q-and-A session with Jonathan Kozol concerning his new book, The Shame of the Nation. 7 P.M., at Politics and Prose. (If you live in Philly, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, California, see upcoming events listed here.)

Last month, we attended Jonathan’s previous Politics and Prose session and we were somewhat disappointed. For our taste, we thought he was a bit too partisan; when’s the last time you heard a Democrat or a liberal say three words about urban education, after all? Although we’ve never thought that modern conservatives have any solutions to urban ed miseries, at least they do stand up and discuss it. We don’t think No Child Left Behind makes much sense for urban schools. But Jonathan’s views on the motives behind it are much tougher than ours.

But after that session, we read Kozol’s book, and we thought it was simply transplendent. We’re not inclined to think, as Jonathan does, that “resegregation” is the principal problem for minority education, but we thought his argument there was instructive—and there are major parts of the book which we simply love. For example, we were thrilled by “False Promises” (Chapter 8), in which Kozol reviews forty years of foolishly heralded “solutions” to the problems of urban education. He discusses silly pimping of the latest hot program; silly pimping of the latest hot principal (or superintendent); the silly pimping of all test score upticks; and the silly pimping of the latest new program from the latest American president (as long as the president’s last name is Bush; Jonathan omits President Clinton’s approach to the schools, which was very much like Bush and Bush’s). “Idols crumble,” Jonathan writes. “New ones are erected and then crumble too.” This chapter provides an important discussion of our feigned interest in low-income children. We love to write those feel-good tales in which we pretend that success is upon us. We’ve never seen this subject discussed so well. This chapter is very important.

And good grief! We also loved “Treasured Places” (Chapter 12), in which Jonathan describes some urban schools which treat their children very well—and describes the schools’ children and teachers. “You have to sit down in the little chairs in first and second grade,” Kozol writes at one point in this book. “I don’t think that there is any other way to find out what the lives that children lead in school are really like” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/9/05). Has anyone ever described the view from those chairs as well as Kozol? God bless the brilliantly named Mr. Bedrock, a teacher at New York’s P.S. 30. And what will become of Serafina, the “absolutely brilliant child” in Bedrock’s class who’s the subject of Kozol’s most poignant narrative? “You know, I’m just eleven,” she says, at the end of this heart-breaking story. What will become of Serafina? And what will become of the less (academically) gifted children who were lucky enough to spend a year inside Mr. Bedrock’s happy class?

No one else provides the view from those chairs or describes the kids in those chairs half so well. And that’s why we loved one other part of The Shame of the Nation. We loved the way Kozol describes these schools’ low achievement levels.

Alas! When it comes to urban schooling, everybody likes to pretend that things are better than they actually are. Mayors sometimes like to pretend; it reduces “white flight” (and black flight too). Superintendents sometimes like to pretend; it sometimes gets them promoted. Teachers sometimes like to pretend; if they can gimmick up test scores, it sometimes gets them higher pay. And newspapers simply love to pretend; they love to type the feel-good tales which let readers think that all is well, or at least getting much, much better. But Kozol doesn’t pretend in this book. Repeatedly, he tells a hard story.

He describes the way those over-pimped plans have routinely failed to produce long-term progress. And he describes the way those heralded principals often leave schools just the way they first found them. For example, what about bullhorn-wielding Joe Clark, who became the hero of Reagan-era iconography? Kozol tells a sad story:

KOZOL (page 199): When I visited the school in 1990, its famous principal had already departed...Whatever promise had been represented by his highly visible presence had departed with him. He left behind a grim and stolid school where classes in the language arts took place in a dingy basement, full-grown adolescents I observed had to squeeze their bodies into desks that were the size appropriate for elementary school, and English classes that I visited were stripped of literary content and were used almost exclusively, according to their teachers, to drill students for exams. The average reading level of the students was below sixth grade.
Kozol doesn’t document that highlighted claim. This is an occasional weakness of the book, indeed, Jonathan even suggests the possibility that he might be understating the degree of progress being made in our urban schools. (See page 336, where he cites Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, a man whom Kozol admires. “[He was] candid in expressing disagreement with me on occasion. Casserly believes more progress has been made in raising the achievement levels of black and Hispanic students in our urban districts than the data I’ve examined and my own experience in visiting the schools would support.”) Few questions are more important, and this question should be examined in detail—rather than in the boosterist newspaper pieces which jump on the latest, shaky score gain and attribute it to some mayor’s brilliant policies. But for our money, we found it thrilling to read a book which persistently failed to shill and pretend, as so much urban ed writing does. What’s going on at L.A.’s Fremont High, for example? Before he describes its questing students, Kozol plays the crone there as well:
KOZOL (page 175): Fremont High School in Los Angeles enrolls almost 5,000 students on a three-track schedule, with about 3,300 in attendance at a given time. “The campus sprawls across a city block, between San Pedro Street and Avalon Boulevard in South Central Los Angeles,” the Los Angeles Times observes. A “neighborhood fortress, its perimeter protected by an eight-foot steel fence topped by spikes,” the windows of the school are “shielded from gunfire by thick screens.” According to teachers at the school, the average ninth grade students reads at fourth or fifth grade level. Nearly a third read at third grade level or below. About two thirds of the ninth grade students drop out prior to twelfth grade.
Drop-out rates are a well-known matter of fact, except, of course, in urban districts (like the Houston district once run by Rod Paige) which now fake and falsify drop-out rates to keep the public dumb and happy. (These districts care so little about their kids that they baldly lie about them.) But it’s rare today to see a writer reminding us of those low reading levels. We live at a time when mainstream institutions would rather tell tales about urban kids than try to raise a finger to help them. We were persistently thrilled to see Kozol lay out what he takes to be the hard truth.

At our own recent Aragon High School reunion, we saw the kids with whom we grew up during a very special time. (The Bay Area in the early 60s? Come on!) A sampler: Sheldon Schuster is now president of the newest Claremont College. Gregg Herken wrote this well-received book about the birth of the atom bomb. Karyn Kruttschnitt will soon be DA of Santa Clara County. And Carlene Martin (with us, co-commissioner of Aragon rallies—a key post) is now a Utah state senator. (“Careful—we may be in different parties,” she warned us. But so what? Here at THE HOWLER, we admire our friend, Carlene Martin.) And oh yes—Diane Cantua helps run The Service League of San Mateo, which works “to rebuild the lives of inmates, former inmates, their children and families in a program to help prisoners reintegrate into society” (and she does a hundred things besides). And Mike Loy—God bless Mike Loy!—is head of the Aragon PTA, and helps run San Mateo’s Little League too. Meanwhile, everywhere we went in San Mateo, we saw the faces of gorgeous, vibrant kids. We saw Rich Spencer’s mitt-pounding kid (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/4/05). We saw two giggling eight-year-old girls as they splashed in the fountains at Shoreline Park. We saw young teens slurping mocha at Starbucks. We saw an Aragon student body that, to our eye, looked amazingly good.

To us, San Mateo’s kids looked good. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we were just 14 ourselves, Marilyn McGuire, one year older, said something to us that we’ve never forgotten. “I’m afraid I won’t get the chance to grow up,” she said one day, during Aragon’s brunch. (Ten free minutes after second period. Didn’t every high school have it?) We heard from Marilyn a few years ago when her dad, Ben McGuire, passed away. When we were at Aragon, Ben was the classic, wise-cracking head of boys phys ed—the coach every guy loved to match wits with. But then, we had an amazing array of inspiring, exceptional, smart teachers.

We Aragon kids got that chance to grow up. San Mateo’s kids look good today, too. But what about the kids here in Baltimore? How good a chance do they get to grow up? Jonathan Kozol is still asking that, for example in his flat-out great book.

THEY GREW UP TOO: Down the Alameda, at much-maligned Hillsdale High, Steve Kelly was our rival basketball center. After graduation, he went to Oregon State, where he became a 7-foot high jumper. Steve, our Borel Junior High classmate, was a great guy—and a very good athlete. Not that it did him all that much good when he had to do battle with Aragon.

Egad. John Radetich was also a San Mateo County kid of that era (San Carlos High). He jumped 7-1 at OSU (as Kelly’s teammate), then 7-6 as a pro. Today, he’s athletic director at the Boys & Girls Club of Albany, Oregon—“someone who's devoted his working life to helping kids fulfill their potential.”

More: “John Radetich attributes his own sports accomplishments to the support he received as a youth.”