Monday, January 21, 2013

Jonathan Kozol on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., poverty and class size

Every year on Martin Luther King Jr. birthday, I try to honor this man’s great memory on this blog.  Today I watched Obama’s inauguration; he gave a great speech, particularly on issues like climate change, and probably the most progressive since he was elected; except for a gaping hole when it comes to education. 

During the last campaign, Obama spoke about cuts to public schools and the need to reduce rising class sizes; yet this wasn’t mentioned today.  All he said today about education was the vague need to “harness new ideas…to reform schools” and hire more “science and math teachers.”  

I suppose it could have been worse; he could have pushed Race to the Top and charters, but it is not wholly satisfying when we see how public education is being absolutely decimated by budget cuts, the over-emphasis on testing, the wholesale closing of neighborhood schools, the expansion of privatization, and online learning—with several of these negative trends actually encouraged by the policies of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.  How can a man as thoughtful as Obama support these policies? The cognitive dissonance his speech evoked in me today, as before, is extreme. 
So instead, I am posting the video below of a panel discussion, hosted by Tavis Smiley aired two days ago on CSPAN, in which Smiley and notable guests, including Jeffrey Sachs, Cornel West, Jonathan Kozol, Rep. Marcia Fudge, and many others discussed the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the continuing scourge of inequality and poverty in America. 

 [Spoiler alert:  Newt Gingrich recounts how he toured schools with Al Sharpton and Arne Duncan, saying he would support 15 kids per class and more funding for education if only schools could be privatized through the expansion of vouchers and charter schools.]
The entire program is well worth watching, but especially from minute 27 on, when Jonathan Kozol speaks about the link between poverty and class size.   Here is an excerpt from his eloquent remarks:
 “I get so angry every year on Martin Luther King’s birthday when I hear politicians who turn their back totally on everything he lived and died for; never lifted a finger to bring an end to apartheid schooling….Doctor King did NOT say someday in canyons of our cities north or south we will have test-driven, anxiety-ridden, separate and unequal schools.  We’ve ripped apart his legacy and then we use his name in vain….
“The only tried and proven avenue of exit for the poorest children in this country from the destitution of their parents is to give them absolutely terrific, exciting and expensive public education, and to fund it not simply at the same high level as the richest levels of the suburbs but at a higher level because those children need it more….

In the past few years, class size has been soaring in our schools because they’ve been laying off teachers.  I walk into public schools in New York where I find 36 children in a 4th grade class, right back to the 1960's.  I walk into a high school in Los Angeles with 40 kids in a 10th grade social studies class...
“There are a lot of factors that go into terrific education, but one thing I know for sure is that the size of a class a teacher teaches is one of the most important factors in the entire pedagogic world.  I’ve heard plenty of old time conservatives – Pat Buchanan once yelled at me on TV and said, that’s nonsense, I had 50 in my class, it didn’t hurt me.  I said, well, I’m not sure. 
“But the fact of the matter, let’s be blunt about it.  I have rich friends, and these are people who read my book, and say to me, Jonathan, does class size really matter for those children?  And I always ask them where their kids go to school, and how many children in their classes, and typically if they’re in a lovely suburb its 16, 18.  Parents panic when it gets to 21.  And if they go to lovely private schools like Sidwell Friends here in Washington, it’s more like 15.  And then I see these kids packed into classrooms where there are more children than chairs. 
“If very small class size and the intimate, affectionate attention this enables a good teacher to give to every little girl and boy; if that’s good for the son of a prosperous physician or a successful lawyer or the daughter of a Senator, or the President himself, then it’s good for the poorest child in America.”

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