Why Edu-Blogging Is Hard As a First-Year Teacher

Last year Gary Rubinstein wrote a post about how TFA bloggers seem to disappear after the summer or after the first few months of school. At the time, I said I would be that blogger–the one who told the story of what it’s like to be a TFA corps member. But now I understand why I can’t.

Teaching is not like studying abroad. It’s not some cute little thing that I’m doing that I need to share with all of my friends and family with cute little stories. My students are not supporting characters in my story. I am one in theirs.

Teaching is not like having a summer internship where you blog about what having a job is like so that all of your college friends know. No, teaching is an actual profession–one I have an immense amount of respect for, and it seems detrimental to blog about things that I will certainly get wrong, certainly misrepresent.

I am a critical person who loves to work in nuance. But I’ve found that people often think that being supportive and being critical are opposite actions. They are not. Sometimes I support people by being critical. I know very few people who are publicly critical of the people they work for. None of us work for perfect employers. But, part of being a professional, I think, is being critical privately when you can. (There are notable exceptions to this, of course. I’m not advocating against public demonstrations like striking and rallies, but I think you must attempt solving things with meetings before strikes and rallies.) I’ve made my bed with TFA. And now I must lay in it. And help to remake it if it’s not what I think it could be.

I think there is a magnificent pressure from the ed reform critic community placed on TFA corps members, many of whom are liberal, union-loving, critical-theory-reading young people, to blog critically about TFA so as to keep their liberal, union-loving, critical-theory-reading titles. I know I’ve felt this pressure. But as far as I know, there are no pressures on investment bankers to blog about their moral considerations in their jobs; there are no pressures for lawyers to blog about how their work has a much broader impact on society; there are no pressures for doctors to blog about how, if given adequate funding, they could save more lives (or, save one specific life).

I am learning how to be a professional now. I’m no longer some kid with a blog. There’s a steep learning curve here that I’m trying to understand. All of the stuff I’ve spent the past two years reading and learning about is now real. It’s like a corn maze. From up above, it all makes sense. From down below, it’s hard to know where you are going. And that’s not even a cry for help. I’ve already found some amazing mentors both in TFA and at my school. But it’s just to say that the professional world is not a term paper. There aren’t easy heroes and villains, or easy successes and failures, in my actual life.

One day, when I know more, when I have actual things to say again, I will take up my platform again, becoming a professional with a blog (like Gary Rubinstein himself is!). But until then, I’ll stick to teacher resource sharing sites and writing about things unrelated to my time in the classroom. Because what I need now is not ed reform critics to critique all of my lesson plans but classroom teachers who I know and trust who can help me develop my style as a professional educator.

What the Education Reform Movement Can Learn from the Student Power Movement

Last week, some Twitter and real life friends of mine converged on Madison, Wisconsin for Student Power 2013. Because I’ve been really encouraged by the healthy debates and conversations I’ve had with these amazing men and women, I asked one of them, Hannah Nguyen, to write about what the reform movement stands to learn from the Student Power Movement. Hannah is a student at USC, and a building member of the Los Angeles chapter of Students United for Public Education. She writes her own blog over at inspirEDucation. I’m so thankful for her insight and her words and her ability to look past differences in order to agitate for better educations for our students. I hope you learn as much from her as I did.

What the Education Reform Movement can learn from the Student Power Movement

I’ll be honest. When I was asked by Spencer to write about what the education reform movement could learn from those at the National Student Power Convergence, I was taken aback. The education reform movement is willing to learn from students? After not even listening to teachers? I know I sound skeptical. But I am weary of reform and disappointed in the harm I have seen it done to many communities across this country. I truly feel as my friend Jacob Chaffin so aptly puts it, that the education reform movement is “a reactionary ploy of neoliberals everywhere to use the public to dismantle public goods.”

After my own experiences in education, after all I’ve learned about education reform and the other side, and my recent experiences at the National Student Power Convergence, I think I have every right to be skeptical. But instead, I will choose to be hopeful. I hope that education reformers will take a step back and listen to what I and my fellow organizers of the Student Power Movement have to say.

On August 1, 2013, over 400 students and youth organizers fighting for all kinds of causes came together for the National Student Power Convergence in the Madison, Wisconsin. I was personally invited by my good friend and mentor, Stephanie Rivera, to attend and represent Students United for Public Education (SUPE)’s Los Angeles chapter, which I will begin to build this year. SUPE is a national coalition of high school and college students dedicated to fighting for educational justice and defending the ideal of a democratic, accessible, and high quality public education. As a former member of SFER (Students For Education Reform), I joined SUPE because their core values align with mine, and I can no longer support education reform, or even stand by as I witness the destruction I feel it is not only causing to schools but also communities.

On the first day of the convergence, at the end of Stephanie’s keynote speech, I felt the Student Power Movement for the first time as the entire room stood up and chanted, “WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE! ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE!” After the convergence, I realized that the most important word of that chant is “we.” Here’s why:

Intersectionality.

Before, it was simply a vocab word from my Sociology book, but at the convergence, I learned that this is the glue that holds the Student Power Movement together. This is what creates the “we” in Stephanie’s chant. I came to the NSPC bringing my own stories and passion for social justice, as did everyone else. At the convergence, we all took the time to listen and learn from other people’s stories. I saw people slam poems about oppression that ended in tears or screams for help. I heard the stories of high school students in Wisconsin, who came together to draft a Student Bill of Rights to resist corporate education reform, privatization, and high stakes testing. I heard about how their voices were swept to the side or silenced, and I saw a fire in their eyes as they vowed not to give up. I heard the same anger in the voices and the same fire in the eyes of everyone else, as they shared their story of how they have been fighting to overcome systems of oppression.

After listening and learning from one another, we realized that all our individual movements and passions intersected. Whether we are college students dealing with debt, undocumented students hiding in the shadows, queer students being attacked for who we love, students going to bed at night hungry, or students of color being unjustly profiled, we are all oppressed by the same forces: corporate powers who make money off the backs of others, politicians and officials who make decisions without consulting those affected, and neoliberals who manipulate the public to dismantle unions and stay in power. No matter what fight we are fighting, no matter what part of the country we come from, no matter if we completely agree with each other or not, we are all united in solidarity by the oppression we feel and justice we seek. We are all united by the collective power we have in taking down our oppressors. Together, we are the Student Power Movement.

What I think the education reform movement can learn from Student Power is simple, although I have yet to see it done. I ask that education reformers realize the intersections between their movement and ours. And I ask that you do this by doing what the Student Power Movement has done.

Listen and learn.

These two things were at the core of the National Student Power Convergence, and I believe they are two things that are absolutely essential for any movement to truly fight for justice and an end to oppression and dehumanization. You can honor the humanity of those you aim to serve by listening and learning from them.

Listen to students and celebrate their student power by giving students a voice. Learn from those who experience the education system each and every day. Learn to open your eyes to the complexity of education, maybe even step into schools and experience them for yourself.

Listen to the first-hand experiences of those who are affected by your reforms. Look closely at the consequences of market-based reform, especially at the failures that are often hard to accept. Look closely at the systems of oppression and inequality that exist beyond the walls of a school. Look at the severe effects of those systems on students and look at who is working to keep those systems in place.

Listen, with open ears and open hearts, to the beliefs of those that disagree with you. Try your best to understand where their beliefs stem from. There is a reason they fight for what they believe in. Respect that and listen. Understand that silencing their voices is oppression because that’s how intersectionality works. When you oppress those who fight for educational justice, you are also oppressing their brothers and sisters in the Student Power Movement and in any other movement for social justice.

I have heard one too many stories of oppressed people being ignored by those who make decisions for their community. If you ever want your reforms to work, you need to listen to the people whose communities and schools you are reforming. You need to try to understand their needs and experiences. Be willing to collaborate. Try to look at these issues as less of a “corporations vs. teachers’ unions” battle and more of an educational justice issue. We are not here to take sides. We are here, we are angry, and we just want justice for all students. Hear us now!

Once you do so, I hope you will begin to abandon top-down tactics and neoliberal agendas that reinforce the systems of oppression that have historically and systematically marginalized those you want to help. I hope you will realize that this is the first of many steps education reform must take to truly bring educational justice and equity to communities across America. Once you refuse to fuel the oppression, I hope you will begin to work with us as we fight together for educational justice and equity.

“WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE! ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE!”

“The soft bigotry of low expectations” Race, Class, and Education in Daily Roundup Monday 8/5/2013

Today’s roundup features some material featuring really great intersections of race, class, and education.

First up, Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame pens an amazing article about generational differences that have affected class and our approach to education:

The crumbling of the American dream is a purple problem, obscured by solely red or solely blue lenses. Its economic and cultural roots are entangled, a mixture of government, private sector, community and personal failings. But the deepest root is our radically shriveled sense of “we.” Everyone in my parents’ generation thought of J as one of “our kids,” but surprisingly few adults in Port Clinton today are even aware of R’s existence, and even fewer would likely think of her as “our kid.” Until we treat the millions of R’s across America as our own kids, we will pay a major economic price, and talk of the American dream will increasingly seem cynical historical fiction.

Janelle Scott, writing over at The Answer Sheet, takes on a more specific topic and considers how the education reform movement has misunderstood the Civil Rights Movement:

Other adherents—philanthropists, policy advocates, and leading pundits— have echoed Duncan’s association of Rosa Parks and the broader Civil Rights Movement with market-based school choice. In so doing, they have reduced the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to a single act by one brave woman.  In fact, that pivotal event was the work of thousands of African Americans and their supporters who struggled for nearly thirteen months to desegregate public transportation in Alabama’s capital after Parks’s refusal to give up her seat to a white customer.  In addition, Parks and many of her fellow activists engaged in intensive preparation at the Highlander Center to be ready to risk their lives in acts of civil disobedience. Moreover, the concerns of these civil rights activists extended far beyond transportation; they were fighting to end America’s version of apartheid and achieve the full rights of citizenship.  As the movement grew, it also advocated the end of poverty and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.

For a more poignant and on-the-ground look at how race and class affect education, the New York Times ran two stories by college freshmen at Yale and Harvard who are both from Jackson, Mississippi. Justin Porter, at Harvard, writes:

Earlier this year, I read an article about the failure of elite colleges to attract poor students: a Stanford study had found that only 34 percent of top students in the lowest income level had attended one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges.

I do not believe that increasing financial aid packages and creating glossy brochures alone will reverse this trend. The true forces that are keeping us away from elite colleges are cultural: the fear of entering an alien environment, the guilt of leaving loved ones alone to deal with increasing economic pressure, the impulse to work to support oneself and one’s family. I found myself distracted even while doing problem sets, questioning my role at this weird place. I began to think, “Who am I, anyway, to think I belong at Harvard, the alma mater of the Bushes, the Kennedys and the Romneys? Maybe I should have stayed in Mississippi where I belonged.”

His friend, Travis Reginal, at Yale adds:

For low-income African-American youth, the issue is rooted in low expectations. There appear to be two extremes: just getting by or being the rare gifted student. Most don’t know what success looks like. Being at Yale has raised my awareness of the soft bigotry of elementary and high school teachers and administrators who expect no progress in their students. At Yale, the quality of your work must increase over the course of the term or your grade will decrease. It propelled me to work harder.

And to top the day off, I encourage you to watch this amazing video from Ta-Nehisi Coates. In it, he discusses the historical realities that have made things like the George Zimmerman verdict possible. It’s worth 40 minutes.

Daily Roundup Sunday 8/4/2013

In a recent speech about the economy, Obama talked quite a bit about higher education, citing the controversial Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as a legitimate way to bring down the costs of college and reduce the number of years it takes to get a meaningful degree. This has prompted some to start talking about the political viability of federal policies supporting MOOCs.

Jonathan Rees, a professor at Colorado State University, is already rallying the troops against MOOCs. Jonathan Chait, over at New York Magazine, though, says opposition to MOOCs upholds and strengthens class divisions:

College professors are good people, and nobody wants to hurt them. At the same time, designing a higher education system around maintaining living standards for college professors is an insane idea. The goal of the system ought to be making higher education effective and affordable for students. Rees waxes poetic about the joys of in-person liberal education, and I greatly enjoyed my classic college experience, with the gorgeous campus green and intramural basketball and watching campus protestors say interestingly crazy stuff at rallies. But insisting that’s the only way a student ought to be able to get a degree, in an economy where a college degree is necessary for a middle-class life, is to doom the children of non-affluent families to crushing college debt, or to lock them out of upward mobility altogether.

Speaking of politics, there’s been a lot of talk this week about the political future of the ed reform movement, speculating fallout from Tony Bennett’s resignation and possible investigations. Anthony Cody thinks it means the end of the reform movement. Although, that’s probably making mountains out of molehills. To his credit, though, even conservative voices are starting to criticize the reform movement.

And if the political is too ideological for you, here are some practical resources:

This Google Doc with all of the #edchat times listed for Twitter.

And this interactive online map that shows demolition sites in Detroit.

Daily Roundup Saturday 8/3/2013

1. Maybe the best piece of education journalism I’ve read this weekend is this piece by Owen Davis. He attempts to synthesize all of the recent TFA-critic movements and to find common threads throughout them. A couple of the former corps members’ stories really resonated with me. For instance, Marie Levy-Pabst’s story was especially salient:

Another side of his argument finds expression in Marie Levey-Pabst, a 2004 TFA alumna who pursued women’s studies and anti-racist theory in college. Now a public-school teacher in Boston, she argued on Anthony Cody’s blog that TFA isn’t only unable to prepare its corps for the complex dynamics present when poor children of color receive a teacher who is, on average, whiter and more privileged than they. Worse, the program serves as a vehicle and expression of that privilege.

At Institute, she groaned at being assigned Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Bacpack,” a standby of its genre that she had read multiple times. She asked if one introductory essay—indeed, any reading— could fully inoculate recruits from pernicious bigotries like colorblind racism and the white savior complex. Moreover, the cursory discussions left many of her fellow recruits “stuck on the idea that they aren’t racist,” precisely the danger of colorblind racism.

If you think this piece is too critical, Owen Davis also offers up some concrete solutions on his Tumblr. One solution that I hadn’t heard before involves recruiting high school seniors from low-income communities to become teachers:

As Matt Barnum, another critical TFA alum, has pointed out, TFA spends gobs of money on recruitment and training: about $38,000 per corps member. That’s enough to provide scholarships to low-income people who’d like to become teachers, and who’d be more likely to teach in their own neighborhoods. And that doesn’t include recruitment costs. 

2. Dr. Andre Perry writes at The Grio about the importance of hearing more black voices of innovation in education. He says black communities are often seen as the antagonist to narratives about education reform that have white, idealistic protagonists. Perhaps the best part is when he goes into the history of education of African Americans post-slavery. African Americans, once freed, had actually started to educate themselves:

However, upon the Freedmen’s survey of the educational terrain, officials found “native schools,” schools taught by ex-slaves, already in existence. The ex-slave’s thirst for education illustrates an essential principle in black education. Private and religious schools should always have a place in our quest for universal education because they exemplify some of the highest forms of self-reliance and determination. Evidence of self-reliance manifested in the establishment of schools reminds us that charter schools or vouchers are nothing new and they have a deep connection to black history.

3. Ashley Woods over at Huffington Post Detroit covers the White Entrepreneurial Guy Meme. For the life of me, I don’t understand why people like Jason Lorimer don’t take these kinds of criticisms more seriously. 

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Daily Roundup Thursday 8/1/2013

Some things that happened today in education and in Detroit:

On Thursday, Congress decided to go back on doubling of interest rates on student loans.

Governor Rick Snyder announced a new detention center in Detroit.

Sandra Stotsky, who was in charge of the development of the highly-praised MA standards, writes about her opposition to the Common Core. She writes:

Common Core was/is not about high-quality national education standards. It was/is not about getting low-income, high-achieving students into advanced math and science courses in high school and then into college. CCSSI was and is about how to lower the academic level of what states require for high school diplomas and for admission to public colleges.

Tony Bennett, edreform wonder boy, resigned from his position as Education Commissioner of Florida after speculation surfaced that he fixed test scores of a charter school. Bennett, however, denies the charges.

The folks at Education Next take a look at the second Race to the Top competition recently announced by the US Department of Education.

Edit: Previously I said Rick Scott instead of Rick Snyder. Too many Republican Ricks making the news.

Reflections on Yelling Past Each Other

I.

In The Signal and The Noise, Nate Silver writes about the current state of political punditry:

The McLaughlin Group, of course, is more or less explicitly intended as slapstick entertainment for political junkies. It is a holdover from the shouting match era of programs, such as CNN’s Crossfire, that featured liberals and conservatives endlessly bickering with one another. Our current echo chamber era isn’t much different from the shouting match era, except that the liberals and conservatives are confined to their own channels, separated in your cable lineup by a demilitarized zone demarcated by the Food Network or the Golf Channel. This arrangement seems to produce higher ratings if not necessarily more reliable analysis.

Later, he cites a review of a bunch of political scientists by Philip Tetlock concerning how accurate these political scientists were in their predictions:

The experts in his survey–regardless of their occupation, experience, or subfield–had done barely any better than random chance, and they had done worse than even rudimentary statistical methods at predicting future political events.

II.

Yesterday, there were people with the Larouche PAC standing on the corner of the main street of my hometown collecting signatures that they said would help impeach Obama. The first time I drove past them, I was in a rush to get somewhere. When my family asked my opinion on the impeachers, I rolled my eyes and said, “Only in Springboro.” The second time I drove past them, I stopped to talk to them. I figured if they were going to be a butt to my jokes, the least I could do was listen to a five-minute pitch.

Turns out, the Larouche people and I have way more similarities in political philosophy than I would have thought. They, too, were angered with the American involvement in the Middle East. They, too, were worried about the NSA and the government treating American citizens as terrorists even before a terrorist act has been committed. In the end, we still disagreed. I don’t really think impeachment is the answer. But it’s now a little harder for me to pigeon-hole the Larouche people as wackos.

III.

In Chapter Two of Whatever It Takes, Paul Tough describes how the American public conception of poverty has fluctuated between two poles for the past century. In times of boom, the general consensus is that the there is something wrong with the poor–that they have been tested and come up lacking. In times of bust, the general consensus is that there is something wrong with the government and the system. The poor are only victims. Poverty could happen to anyone.

In short, these rotating ideas about poverty have a lot to do with historical moment and (perhaps) very little to do with the objective truth of the matter. And these ideas have affected the way we think about education–what its role should be. If the poor are somehow poor because of something they’ve done, our education system (this line of thinking goes) is working; it’s just that some people aren’t using that opportunity appropriately. If the poor are poor because of systems, the education system is probably one of the systems contributing to their poverty.

IV.

If you’ve had your ear to the ground in the field of education for a while, you know that it often seems like people are talking past one another. Nate Silver’s description of the echo chamber era extends to education. Very few people are listening to all of the thought leaders in education. (Say what you want, but both Michelle Rhee and Diane Ravitch are both thought leaders.) When the two sides of the debate do talk to one another, they usually do so to call into question the other’s authenticity or reputation (or call each other names). Then the opposing side gets to act like a righteous saint for a hot second; the offending side apologizes; and then the opposite happens within a couple of days.

Both sides exhibit the characteristics Nate Silver accuses pundits of having: a commitment to upholding their viewpoints. New information is simply used as fodder to attack the other side. Even when these arguments are packaged to seem nice and sweet, they often reveal a certain closed-mindedness.

V.

A couple weeks ago, a friend who is very critical of TFA asked to speak with me about TFA. He had some questions, he said. Because I’m a horrible person, I didn’t make good on my promise to talk to him until a couple days ago. But the conversation was very productive. He was asking some important questions:

  1. How can we elevate the entire teaching profession so that any teaching job is seen like the accomplishment of being accepted into TFA?
  2. How can we raise the consciousness of all new teachers so that all teachers feel like their job is a way to promote equality?
  3. How can we provide better support for all teachers so that they have the kinds of resources that will make them successful?
  4. How can we recruit the best of the best into the field of education even without using a problematic organization like TFA?

Perhaps, then, this is the promise of getting outside of our echo chamber. We can start asking and answering questions that matter.