Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Guest blogger Susan Klonsky's response to Wendy Kopp

Guest blogger Susan Klonsky responds to Wendy Kopp's critical review of Jonathan Kozol's latest book, Fire in the Ashes. Kopp is founder and chief executive of Teach for America. 

Wendy Kopp derides Kozol's  Fire In the Ashes for not being the book she wanted  him to write, and for not "being more current" nor embracing the world view that she champions. She implies that Kozol's exposures of "savage inequalities" embedded throughout Fire in the Ashes are outdated due mainly to the great progress being made by contemporary school reformers like herself and New York Mayor Bloomberg.  Kopp characterizes Kozol's  book as "misleading" and "pessimistic" because it does not hail the Bloomberg education agenda in New York Public Schools, an agenda of  school closings, privatization, and union-busting.

Little of Kozol's book is actually about schools at all. Rather, it is a study in the long-term effects of profound, prolonged trauma and poverty experienced in childhood. It poses a number of hard questions for our society.  Why do some kids "make it," while others succumb to depression,academic failure, drugs, violence?

In this book, Kozol revisits some of the now-adult children who peopled his earlier books. He completes the loop not simply to learn how their stories turn out, but in order to ask:  How did we allow this to happen to these children? Which systems failed? Which individuals and systems helped?

The protagonists of these tales pre-date the advent of charter schools, Teach for America, the Harlem Children's Zone. They were untouched as kids by the largesse of huge and powerful foundations. Yet Kopp faults Kozol for not recognizing that -- in her opinion -- great improvements have been made--the giant homeless shelter hotels have been shut down, a huge network of privately operated charter schools has replaced many of the neglected schools described in Kozol's early works.

For America's poorest children, there is still a separateness which Kopp can't seem to see.  Kopp talks as if  the bantustan of subsistence living in substandard schools and substandard housing  are vestiges of a bygone era. She charges Kozol with dwelling in the past.

Far from projecting hopelessness, Kozol describes transcendence, at least for some of his children. The ones who survive and persist and, indeed, luck out, express their determination to become rescuers, teachers, writers, organizers. In Kozol's view, these are the hope. Not the hedge-fund manager who figures out a way to make a charter school his tax shelter, but the kid who grew up poor and disadvantaged and who has figured out a way to help change society.

Yes, Kozol paints a grim picture, but grim isn't wrong. There is still this shadow world, invisible to many of Kozol's  readers, on the other side of a gaping economic chasm. This new book shines a bright light on some of  those individuals who choose to stand in the gap, rather than stepping on those who are still on the bottom of the food chain.

Wendy Kopp would do well to acknowledge that it takes more than 5 weeks of Teach For America training to prepare educators to make a difference for disadvantaged children. Perhaps her negative reaction is moored in defensiveness. Until we get serious about ending poverty, even our most highly trained teachers will be working with a hand tied behind their backs. Time to quit blaming the messenger.

Susan Klonsky is a Chicago writer and public school advocate and activist. 

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