The Blackboard Bungles

In 1965, after Jonathan Kozol was fired from his job in a Boston public school for teaching his African-American fourth graders a Langston Hughes poem that was not part of the curriculum, he went on to write a book that laid bare the inequities of a segregated education system. The injustices there, he wrote in the now classic “Death at an Early Age,” “have compelled its Negro pupils to regard themselves with something less than the dignity and respect of human beings.” His words—made more powerful by the fact that they came from his own experience—set off a wave of reform at the height of the civil-rights movement. Forty years later, as a broader debate on school reform gains momentum, three authors have entered the classroom again—two veteran journalists and a first-year teacher—to provide us with fresh dispatches from inside the blackboard jungle. All three books, which are being published this month, are a product not of VIP visits but of several months spent inside the classroom. (Last week Kozol himself also published a new book of advice, “Letters to a Young Teacher.”) The conclusions the authors reach are fascinating—all the newly required testing may not be telling us what we need to know about a student’s progress. And a school’s scores don’t mean a thing if the grown-up at the chalkboard isn’t a seasoned pro.

These books aren’t for just for education wonks. “The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle,” a memoir written by first-year teacher Dan Brown, has more in common with Bel Kaufman’s comedic year-in-the-life-of-a-new-teacher novel “Up the Down Staircase” than Kozol’s book. But Brown makes one thing painfully clear: teacher quality matters. How does he know? Brown, an idealistic young NYU graduate, signed up to teach fourth grade in a crumbling South Bronx school. He quickly learns an ugly lesson: poor schools serve kids from chaotic homes and deprived backgrounds. His kids needed topnotch instruction just to get and stay at grade level. Instead, they’re stuck with him—an inexperienced, poorly trained and inadequately supervised teacher. It’s not good for kids. (“I would not want my kid in my class,” Brown writes.) It’s not good for teachers or the school. Brown does try, but struggles to control his class and resigns after a year. In his book, we see that good teachers are the linchpin to solid reform. Too often, poor schools become dumping grounds for green teachers. And children are the ones who pay the price.

Although No Child Left Behind rules are changing education, the changes we’re getting may not be the ones we want. So writes veteran journalist Linda Perlstein, who got total access for a year at Tyler Heights Elementary, a back-from-the-brink school in Annapolis, Md. She charts in chilling detail how the grinding test-prep culture has infiltrated elementary schools. Day after day, administrators, teachers and students engage in what seems like a Sisyphean struggle to meet and maintain No Child Left Behind standards. The title of her book—“Tested”—says it all: students at Tyler are subjected to an almost constant battery of federal, state, regional and schoolwide assessment. Teachers spend most of the year drilling kids in order to help them perform well on exams. The administration encourages it: “What gets taught is what gets tested,” admits the principal. Depth of understanding, context, creativity and intellectual curiosity are forgotten in the effort to raise scores. Social studies and science are put on the back burner, too. Perlstein asks the right question: is this fill-in-the-blank culture making our kids smarter or are we merely teaching to the bottom?

Perhaps the key to lasting reform will come from the other end of the educational spectrum—not the bottom but the top. Washington Post reporter and writer Alec Klein spent a year writing about one of America’s highest-performing public schools: his alma mater, Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, where all the kids really are above average. His book “A Class Apart: Prodigies, Pressure, and Passion Inside One of America’s Best High Schools” distills what makes Stuyvesant tick. In fairness, there are a few things about the school that are unique: for instance, it’s harder to get into than Harvard. But the school culls its nerd corps from every neighborhood and every social stratum in New York City. How does the administration create a cohesive community of learners? The teachers are experienced, and tests are only one component of the school day. Autonomy is fiercely defended: the school is exempt from many citywide edicts. Most important, the administration, teachers, students and their parents share a mission: making sure these promising kids become the best they can be. That’s a lesson Jonathan Kozol would approve of.