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Jonathan Kozol: Fire in the Ashes and the Children of the South Bronx

Jonathan Kozol. (Photo: Maureen Sill / Flickr)
Jonathan Kozol celebrates and, in some cases, mourns, the life changes his now-adult subjects have undergone since last he wrote about their education in the South Bronx’s impoverished elementary schools. Truthout interviews Kozol on his latest book, Fire in the Ashes.

For nearly 50 years, Jonathan Kozol has documented the landscape of impoverished America. Since the appearance of his path-blazing memoir, Death at an Early Age, which detailed his experiences as a teacher in the Boston public school system, Kozol has produced perhaps the most influential body of work illustrating the links between broken schools and the perpetuation of socioeconomic injustice for the poor in America. At the heart of this campaign are a series of books looking at life in the South Bronx. The portrait Kozol paints is as harrowing in its descriptions of institutional failure and structural violence, as it is hopeful in its stories of the resilient children that populate New York City’s streets, schools and churches.

Fire in the Ashes, Kozol’s latest effort, returns to the lives of the children featured in previous books, and traces the trajectory of their journeys from little kids to young adults. Some have survived and are thriving. Others are dead. Yet whether celebrating their successes or mourning their loss, Fire in the Ashes underscores the moral necessity of educational opportunity for all children, and makes a persuasive case that the future of our nation’s democracy depends on it.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with him about his new book, the privatization of public schools in the United States, the education policies of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and the lives of his closest friends in the world – the children of Fire in the Ashes.

What motivated you to write Fire in the Ashes, and why now?

I first got to know a bunch of kids in Mott Haven in the early 1990s. Mott Haven, as you might know, was then and is still today the poorest neighborhood in all of the South Bronx, which remains the poorest Congressional district in the nation. These were extremely poor children. I met most of them when they were 6 or 7 years old. I didn’t go to the South Bronx as an interviewer. I never write books in that way. I went there because teachers invited me to visit their schools and I got to know the children – I would see them at school, at their afterschool program, at their church. The children would invite me to meet their moms and their dads, their grandmothers, and we became deep friends. I wrote three books about them over the next ten years. A few years passed, and people started asking me, “What happened to those kids? Did you keep in touch with them? How many survived and how many didn’t?” So, I thought it was time to write Fire in the Ashes in order to keep faith with those kids.

It wasn’t difficult. They kept in touch when they became teenagers and young adults. They would call me, I’d keep coming back to visit with them. As they got into their 20s some of them would come up to Cambridge to visit with me for a weekend, and they persistently kept texting me, which was a whole new world. I had to learn how to decode the abbreviations in their charming little messages to me. And some of them, I am sad to say, did not survive. Three (it’s interesting to note that they were all boys) had had a very rough time in their elementary schools and in their early teenage years. They’d gone to some of the most deeply segregated, unequal and dysfunctional schools I have ever seen in the United States. All three of those of those boys ultimately killed themselves. But there were other kids – a far larger number – who managed to rise above the odds, partly because of their own grit and guts, but also because of the well-timed intervention of grownups, particularly some of the teachers in the schools of the South Bronx who recognized their gifts. By the way, it should be said that most of these kids did terribly on their standardized exams. They hated that whole test-prep regimen that started when they were in elementary school. But partly because of well-timed intervention these kids were able to win some really triumphant victories.

Philanthropic intervention, about which you seem ambivalent and at times uncomfortable, seems to be one of the two interrelated determinants in the lives of the children you profile in the book. Can you speak more about this?

One child who dominates the book to a degree is a little girl named Pineapple. I met her when she was in kindergarten at PS 65 in the South Bronx. At that time the school was not only grossly underfunded but also in terrible physical disrepair with very large class sizes. Pineapple had 36 classmates in her classes for a couple years in a row. Teachers kept quitting in despair. They’d leave in the middle of the year – at one point in her schooling, Pineapple had seven teachers in the course of two years. The city tried to compensate for huge classes and teachers disappearing by a rigid uniformity in methods of instruction and constant grilling for exams. This just preceded the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and was like a model of NCLB. It was very similar in its demands. And it didn’t work; it didn’t work for any of the kids. Instead of getting wonderful books to read in order to learn how to read – which is the way I learned how to read and how children in really good suburban schools learn how to read – they got these pit pat phonics readers which had no plot, no pictures, no stories but were better than Ambien at putting people to sleep. By the time Pineapple was in fifth grade, I sat down with her and discovered to my horror that this bright little girl whose conversational skills were terrific couldn’t read or write a sentence longer than four or five words. She had been artificially retarded by the drill and kill agenda that had been foisted on her school. I was just heartsick.

With the help of an Episcopal priest in the neighborhood who also knew Pineapple very well, we – the priest and I – did something that really went against our values because we both profoundly believe in public education. The priest did everything she could to encourage the teachers – she gave them tremendous moral support. But when we discovered that Pineapple was still at second grade level in the fifth grade, she did what any rich parent would have done – she pulled Pineapple out and put her in a terrific and very expensive prep school for rich children, not one of these self-promoting and bombastic charter schools with names like “Academy for Leadership and Law” – they all seem to be named for marketing purposes, not accuracy. Schools in the suburbs would never be given these sorts of names! It would be considered embarrassing and cheap. And besides, the rich suburban schools don’t need to advertise success in this way. They have small class sizes, well-treated teachers and enough room for innovation. They know their kids are going to succeed. They don’t need to play these games.

Suddenly Pineapple had 15 kids in her class instead of 36 and teachers who weren’t working under the sword of test-driven, scripted curricula but who were allowed to develop really exciting curricula and had time to actually listen, to encourage Pineapple to ask questions, to think critically. They were able to entice her to learn for its own sake. And all of a sudden, her love of learning came alive. In 10th grade, she said to me, “That was my breakthrough year. From that point on, I knew I could do it, that I could go to college.” No one in her family had gone to college, nor had anyone else she knew in her neighborhood. Certainly not a four-year college.

I’m very proud to say that Pineapple did go to college. She’s currently a senior at a very fine liberal arts college in New England. I never liked that she had to be pulled out and put in a prep school. The best news for me – this isn’t in the book, she told me this recently after the book had gone to press – is that Pineapple has decided to stay an extra year in university and get certified to become a teacher in the public schools. She wants to go back to the South Bronx, as she put it when we talked a few months ago, to “help the ones I left behind.” This isn’t only an academic victory, but a deeply human one. A moral victory. Some kids that get the special opportunities that Pineapple received figure, “Well, now I cash in. I can go into business, make a lot of money.” Pineapple wants to go back and serve the children in her neighborhood. And that’s true of five of the other kids in the book, as well, including one who didn’t go to college but developed tremendous leadership skills on his own and is now back in the Bronx working with young people who had a tough time when they were children.

The second factor, of course, is the quality of schooling the children receive. Critics of the book, like Wendy Kopp, have attacked you for not properly contextualizing the stories of these children within the broader scope of the educational reform movement of the last 15 years or so, and have suggested that your arguments are outdated and unnecessarily pessimistic. How do you respond to this charge?

What I found infuriating was that she completely ignores the fact that 90 percent of the book has nothing to do with the education wars in which she’s involved. It is written novelistically – most of the book is made up of the gripping stories that people tell me about real children, not abstractions. Wendy Kopp lives in the world of abstract policy. I live in the world of children who have itchy elbows. A teacher once told me, “You know, first-graders are squirmy little people.” My book is about those squirmy little people, and how they have forged a sense of contributive maturity as they’ve grown older. I was very angry that she apparently didn’t read the majority of the book. And also, I might say that her review is slyly deceptive. She went on for paragraph after paragraph saying all these wonderful things about me. Of course, when that happens, I’m thinking “Uh oh. There’s a bomb about to be dropped.” And at the end, she lambastes me for ignoring the entire privatizing movement with which she is intimately involved. I made clear in the book that I oppose that movement, but I didn’t write about it because it wasn’t of any interest to me. She is very closely involved with the whole agenda of getting tough on public school teachers with the most punitive methods of accountability, of measuring every little thing a child learns with numbers, but ignoring that which can’t be numbered. And she’s very close to what Diane Ravitch nicely calls the Billionaire Boys Club which would like nothing better than to dismantle the public education system altogether, or at least demoralize teachers to such an extent that the system itself will disintegrate. I think she’s just upset that I fail to see this movement as a significant and positive trend in our society. I think it’s very dangerous.

Turning to current events, and the politics of the presidential election, I’m wondering what you make of the past four years? How would you rate the educational policy performance of the Obama administration, and the tenure of the Arne Duncan?

Let me start by saying that my criticism of Arne Duncan has been somewhat distorted by the press. What I said was that Arne Duncan has apparently accepted the fact of apartheid schooling in America and is trying very hard to create high-scoring separate-but-not-equal schools. One of Wendy Kopp’s cohorts wrote something to the effect that I had accused him of creating segregated schools or something like that which missed the point entirely. It’s not his fault that our country is so polarized and our schools are so segregated. All I was saying was that he doesn’t pay attention to that issue.

President Obama’s first term in office has been better for intentions than for actual changes in planning and policy. I do believe, and he has said several things to this effect, that he would like to provide universal preschool or at least far more preschool for our children. He has made clear at intervals that he has doubts about this whole mania of teaching to the test, and he has periodically spoken respectfully of teachers, but his policies have not greatly changed the agenda of his predecessor, George Bush. President Obama still places far too much emphasis on relentless testing with standardized exams.

There are a number of things about his own signature piece of education policy, Race to the Top, that trouble me. One is that although it offers local districts waivers or exemptions from aspects of NCLB, it set up a number of rules whereby states that want to get a waiver have to put an even sharper sword over their teachers’ heads – measuring their teaching ability by the test scores of the students, which is the worst possible way understand the quality of a teacher. Any rigid, non-reflective but psychologically docile teacher can read from a test prep manual and pump the test scores by a couple of points, if that’s the game. But really great teachers, and there are an awful lot of them in New York City, I might add – wonderfully creative and interesting teachers – these sorts of teachers were not educated in that manner. They were educated in the full scenario of culture. They were educated in classrooms where there exists a continuity between the individual items you study as opposed to classrooms where cognition is broken up into tiny little packages that can be numbered. This creates, in my mind, a balkanized form of learning. I hate it. Race to the Top unfortunately encourages the perpetuation of that ethos. The second thing is the name itself – it is highly revelatory. “Race to the Top” suggests a reversion to the same idea that George Bush was advancing, essentially the idea that education is a race in which each school, each child, each teacher is in competition with one another. A race to the top suggests that inevitably a lot of schools will be left at the bottom.

I regret that. I also happen to think that the jargon of public education is terribly important. Jargon is not neutral; it also contains a bias of some sort. And I think the very name, Race to the Top, implies the very opposite of what should constitute the aims of education.

The president, with his very fine intelligence, still believes, I think, that public education is a sacred legacy that should be preserved.

I think that giving the poorest kids in America wonderful preschool, and three years of it, starting when they are two-and-a-half, is absolutely crucial. If President Obama were ever to ask me how to close the race gap in this country, I would say, “Take all those billions of dollars that you are giving to the corporations and pour that money into ensuring three years of rich developmental preschool for very poor children, and put the rest into cutting class sizes in half at the elementary school level, and offering really strong, intelligent support to teachers instead of scaring the daylights out of them.” That’s what I’ll tell him when he invites me to the White House.

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