Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sandra Tsing Loh reviews Jonathan Kozol

I've heard Sandra Tsing Loh on NPR and liked her humor. Here she reviews Kozol's Letters to A Young Teacher. Not so much of a review as a criticism and a way to push her story out, but funny nevertheless. Her criticism is that Kozol is ignoring parent participation. Some excerpts:

Through his somber, exquisitely detailed accounts, I’ve watched countless poor black children begin as charmingly inquisitive and hopeful 5-year-olds, and then, as years pass, as concentric circles of chain-link fence close in, to the beat of that grim government drum, I’ve seen their once-bright spirits dim, heard their once-mellifluous questions ebb to dull monosyllables. I have ridden this roller coaster so often that at one point I took my tower of Kozols to my therapist’s office and despairingly set them on her glass coffee table, like a basket of orphaned kittens. Pfizer should develop a special antidepressant—“Zokol: for when you’ve read too much Kozol.”

... I wept over Kozol’s books for years, but I myself am no freedom fighter. If I could have afforded either a $1.3 million house in La CaƱada or $40,000 a year to send my two girls to a private school (that is, if we’d gotten into said school; I confess that, even though I described my older daughter as “marvelously inquisitive” when we applied, we were wait-listed) I wouldn’t waste two minutes on social justice. Let them spell cake! (Which is to say, let them spell it “kake.”) We tried to flee to the white suburbs, but we failed, and in failing, we seem to have fallen out of the middle class, because today my daughters attend public school with the urban poor.

... But whither the “white” people? If you’d asked me five years ago what ethnic mix in a school would feel “comfortable” for our family (my husband being white, me being a Southern California native of German-Chinese extraction), I would have guessed, if not two-thirds white, or if not half, certainly at least a third—a third whitish English-speaking children, like mine. A third with freckles, striped shirts, and lunch boxes of tuna-fish sandwiches, the totems I myself grew up with in this region in the ’60s. But, as I’ve since learned, in 21st-century Los Angeles, expecting such a relatively high percentage of pale children is statistically unrealistic. Today, the Los Angeles Unified School District is overwhelmingly Hispanic (73 percent), the remaining quarter a roiling mishmash of black, yellow, perhaps a dab of red, and white. In fact, it is less than 9 percent white, and since the technical LAUSD definition is “non-Hispanic white,” that includes children of Middle Eastern and Armenian descent. In L.A. Unified, white may actually refer to a brown-skinned Syrian Muslim English-learner.

... The anxious solution typically involves private-school diversity committees that produce “diversity retreats” (retreats from diversity?), as in one case I heard about where a school’s seniors went on a weekend trip to Santa Barbara to watch and discuss the movie Crash.

... After a fair amount of heartache, I have to admit I have given up on trying to charm white people, at least a certain NPR-listening, Bobo, chattering class of white people, back into public school. ... Asians, on the other hand, tend to overlook the occasional snarl of graffiti (in our city, a way of life). What they see at Van Nuys High, for instance, with penetrating laser vision, are the math and medical magnets embedded within. Indeed, I’ve gradually become aware—via frequent newsletters—that behind those high brown walls flourishes a buzzing hive of Korean Magnet Parents. They are busily committee-meeting, Teacher Appreciation–lunching, and catapulting their children from Van Nuys High School directly into Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Caltech, Berkeley! Why should they spend $25,000 for each year of high school to make the Ivy League? These immigrants know how to find value!

... Parents never seem to play a dynamic role in Kozol’s solutions—although, to be fair, parents are missing from almost every public-school policy analysis. This was a group also worth addressing, wasn’t it? Particularly affluent educated parents, of a liberal social bent. Kozol himself has said that private schools “starve the public school system of the presence of well-educated, politically effective parents to fight for equity for all kids.” If anyone had a bully pulpit from which to address these folks, it was Jonathan Kozol. In such desperate times, why not go from third person to second? Why not be more aggressive, putting blame where it belonged? So I asked him: “Speaking of moral leaders, since your work is so admired by such magazines as Harper’s and The Nation, why don’t you simply exhort those readers to SEND THEIR KIDS TO PUBLIC SCHOOL? How many of those staffers’ kids are in elite privates? Talk about Shame of The Nation!”

He observed again, doggedly, that if the government RAISED EDUCATIONAL FUNDING, schools would improve and the middle class would naturally return. Ha! I’ve lost enough cocktail-party arguments to know that social change doesn’t happen until economic self-interest is at play. He then admitted—softly and tellingly—that as he himself was not a parent, parents’ personal decisions, he would not judge—What? Kozol? Not judge?

Of course Kozol underestimates the potential of parents as a tool for improving public schools. Or perhaps, after decades of his own lost cocktail-party arguments, he has simply given up on them. Instead of exploring the chaotic and the new, Kozol seems more comfortable retilling the familiar territory of his ’60s civil-rights jeremiads inhabited by only two cartoonish, archetypical kinds of parents: 1) poor, black, eternally noble, Langston Hughes–quoting parents too beaten down by the system to escape horrible schools; and 2) “savvy,” white, affluent parents who successfully connive to get their children into fabulous suburban schools, with nary a look behind them. If he were a parent and had to navigate our hardscrabble world, both the problems and the solutions might appear different to him.

What happens to poor public schools when, God forbid, pushy middle-class, Type A, do-it-yourself PTA mothers become involved and agitate to lift up the boats, not just of their own children but, perforce, of their children’s disadvantaged classmates as well?

Upon dropping off my daughter one morning, I heard a virtuosic tuba player warming up in the amphitheater; a brass quintet sent by the L.A. Music Center was giving a 90-minute morning assembly. I snuck in, and it was extraordinary—they played Copland and Mozart and Rossini. Excitedly smelling if not blood in the water, then chardonnay, I soon accumulated more information about all the free stuff the Los Angeles Unified School District has—the music teacher who comes with 65 free instruments, the arts money, and so on. In time I would learn to see the LAUSD as a giant Costco—overcrowded parking, gray lighting, mini-skyscrapers of cat litter—but replete with buried treasure. Free upright pianos in every school, for instance, serviced by LAUSD tuners. No one in my circle knew anything about this, because no one had actually had a child in a public school in years.

(read the rest of the article to find out how Sandra Tsing Loh becomes one the pushy middle-class Type A parents)

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