’s August 30th article “Teachers: Be subversive” features a wonderful interview with Jonathan Kozol. Kozol has recently published “Letters to a Young Teacher,” which reminds me thematically and stylistically to Paulo Freire’s books “Letters to Cristina” and “Teachers As Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach.” Kozol’s book “The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America” is one of several books sitting on my bookshelf that I’ve needed to pick up and read for many months. Along with John Dewey and Paulo Freire, I’ve recognized over the past few years that Kozol’s ideas about education, learning and politics are both thought provoking as well as foundational for those (like myself) wanting to better understand formal School cultures to effectively serve as a catalyst for constructive change.

I adamantly agree with Kozol that our nation’s focus on high-stakes, punitive testing for K-12 students has been extremely harmful and should be abandoned for more humane, genuinely helpful diagnostic assessments administered by teachers for the express purpose of helping identify skill areas of strength and weakness. Currently, high stakes test results are returned so late to both teachers and students that they are useless as diagnostic tools. There are many other reasons to abandon high-stakes, punitive testing of course– many school districts now administer batteries of “benchmark tests” throughout the school year to address the issue of timely feedback– and those educational cultures have certainly not been made humane or desirable as a result of benchmark exams. Abandoning high-stakes, punitive testing in schools is needed most because it is the moral path to take, in an educational culture which has (in many cases) reduced students into mere statistics. Kozol explains some of the benefits of this political course in the interview:

First of all, it would immediately relieve that sense that there’s always a sword above their heads, and that sword is empirically measurable testing. It would relieve the sense that every minute of the day has to be allocated to a predesignated skill. It would free them from the absurdity of posting numbers and the language of standards on their blackboards, which are of absolutely no benefit to a child. As Francesca once pointed out to me, no child’s going to come back 10 years later and say, “I’m so grateful to you for teaching me proficiency 56b.” It would free the teachers from all of that, and it would allow these young teachers, most of whom have majored in liberal arts, and who love literature and poetry, to flood the classroom with all those treasures that they themselves enjoyed when they were children, most of them in very good suburban school districts.

Thanks to Doug Noon (via his social bookmarks) for alerting me to this excellent article. I hope to read “Shame of the Nation” this fall, and hopefully “Letters to a Young Teacher” soon afterward. Let us hope our political leaders considering reauthorization of NCLB will take time to read and consider Kozol’s perspectives.

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5 Responses to Kozol on NCLB and the struggles of real teachers

  1. Wes,

    Your post title includes the word “real,” but you never address that distinction or use the word again in your post. Can you explain its relevance to your argument?



  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    Good question, Matthew. I had intended to draw out that distinction in the post but didn’t– my reference here is to the role Seymour Papert ascribes to “real teachers” in his book “The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.” I included a quotation in my post Striving to encourage natural learning at School from July 31st that highlights a distinction between what Papert calls a “technican” in the classroom, and a “real teacher.” Real teaching involves much more than transmitting content and being on the mandated page of a scope and sequence curriculum guide. Real teaching involves teachers making relational connections with students, differentiating learning opportunities as well as assessment options, and striving to invite learners into contexts of authentic inquiry rather than coerced fact retention. I elaborated a bit on this approach to instruction on my learning 2.0 post for the upcoming Shanghai conference. The connection to this article interview with Kozol is that NCLB and high-stakes, punitive testing environments encourage the role of teacher as technician, and discourage educators from taking on the role of the “real teacher.”

    Real education is cultural work, as Freire contends, and it is essential for the continued development and survival of democratic government, according to Dewey. I did not flesh this idea out enough in this post, and probably need to write a longer one with included quotations from both Freire as well as Dewey. The excerpts of the book Kozol shared in the interview suggest that he’s highlighting the struggle of “real teachers” who are resisting the pressures of our current educational environment to teach as technicians. That is encouragement I think more teachers need to hear.

    I hope this explains my post title a bit more. Thanks for asking for the clarification. I’ll be thinking and working on a longer post I can write about this soon.

  3. Gary Stager says:


    You might enjoy the interviews I conducted with Jonathan Kozol.

    “Jonathan Kozol Takes on the World” –


    “Speaking Out: An Interview with Jonathan Kozol” –

    I’ll be interviewing him again soon for District Administration Magazine. Stay tuned.

    Although I helped a wee bit behind the scenes (with research) on “Shame of the Nation,” my favorite recent book (past 20 years) by Kozol is “Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope.” It’s a profound work of beauty.

    I’m glad there is so much of his work online and more importantly, on your book shelf.


  4. […] Fryer on “Real” teachers [this is not a fashionable, snarky scare-quote – the issue at hand is the “real” […]

  5. Mirella McNulty says:

    “I agree that real teaching involves more than just conveying content.I strive to make relational connections with students and to make the learning experience fun.”


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