Mixing the fiery passion of a preacher with the wide-eyed optimism of a child, Jonathon Kozol delivered a stirring speech to Richmond County teachers Friday morning that was part pep talk and part prep talk on America's push for education reform.
"A lot of politicians, experts who serve on commissions on excellence in education, a lot of these experts never get into the classroom," Mr. Kozol said. "They spend their whole life in Marriott hotels. They're away from the teachers so much that they fall into a whole different style of thinking.
"I think that every so-called expert in America, especially the politicians who spend a lot of their time beating up on teachers, ought to be required to spend two weeks every year actually teaching second-grade children or twelfth-grade children in inner-city schools," he said.
An educator and author, Mr. Kozol is highly regarded among school officials for being both an advocate for and an expert on the nation's public school systems.
Geneva Stallings, director of Title I for Richmond County schools, said reading Mr. Kozol's books changed her life.
"It taught me things about people that I needed to know," she said. "It taught me things on how to deal with children, and most of all, it taught me how to work with my fellow man."
Mr. Kozol's 45-minute speech, the keynote address of Friday's instructional conference for Richmond County educators, continually drew applause from the 1,500 teachers, administrators, school board members and others in attendance at Augusta State University's athletic center.
He blasted school vouchers and elitist private schools for skimming away the best pupils from public schools. He called on governors and the president to put more money into Headstart programs for toddlers. He opined on the problems of social and economic segregation of the nation's schools.
"One of the great ironies in history for me, a northerner, where all us smart liberals used to be making fun of the South, if I want to see a real integrated public school today, black and white kids as Dr. King prayed, sitting together at the table of brotherhood, I can't find that in New York, Detroit, Philadelphia or Chicago. I have to get on a plane and come to Charlotte or Augusta. Quite an irony."
Mr. Kozol, a man as proud of his arrest record from the civil rights movement of the 1960s as he is of his summa cum laude English literature degree from Harvard University, spoke on the inequities found in today's inner-city schools, especially when compared to middle-class suburban schools and even more so when compared to public schools found in wealthy communities.
Having taught elementary school in some of the poorer neighborhoods of inner-city Boston in the 1960s and studied education practices and social justice for more than 30 years, Mr. Kozol has never strayed too far from the classroom.
"In all, I've made more than 200 visits to the South Bronx to talk to mothers, teachers and preachers who face challenges I couldn't even dream of 30 years ago," he said. "It's so much harder now."
Mr. Kozol said he thinks most teachers are not afraid of being held accountable for the children in their classrooms, but what is causing dismay is what he calls "one-way accountability" because no one holds the leaders who implement these government programs accountable.
"There is something venomous and cruel and retroactive in the way this new agenda of tough standards, nonpromotion and denial of diplomas is increasingly enforced in many cities," he said. "Tests, if they are prepared by educators and employed judiciously, can be instruments of guidance and a warning signal for society when children of one group or economic class are not prepared to pass them.
"But tests and standards without equity, without equivalent resources for all children, are not instruments of change, but merely clubs with which to bludgeon children we have cheated from the hour of their birth and to humiliate their teachers."
Reach Justin Martin at (706) 823-3552.
Residence: Newburyport, Mass.
Education: Graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English literature from Harvard University and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford.
Book awards: Death at an Early Age, published in 1967, received the 1968 National Book Award in Science, Philosophy and Religion; Rachel and Her Children received the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, an honor previously granted to Langston Hughes and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Other works: Amazing Grace, Savage Inequalities, The Night is Dark and I am Far From Home, Illiterate America, On Being A Teacher