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!”

On Joining

My mother and father are both incredibly entrepreneurial people. My father runs his own business. My mother, upon seeing a problem, which she can easily solve herself, just solves it. All through my middle and high school career she volunteered at the school. I remember her constantly taking on more responsibility, streamlining procedures and records to make teachers’ lives easier. I suspect this entrepreneurial spirit is what has led my parents for years to decry the ineffectiveness of meetings.

For as long as I can remember, my parents have railed against meetings. How they take too long. How nothing is accomplished. How the people who need to talk never do. And so it’s a little bit crazy to me that all my life, I have been a chronic joiner.

I join just about anything that has a meeting. In fact, the more meetings an organization has, the more likely I am to be a part of it. I love planning. I love speculating. I love dreaming up recruitment ideas. I love making lists of people to call. I love arguing about ideological points. I love the conflict.

I’ve been reading Grace Lee Boggs’s autobiography, Living for Change, and one of the things that keeps sticking out to me is her perspective on how organizations should be run. She stresses a “dialectical” approach to organization governance. She writes:

we must be wary of becoming stuck in ideas that have come out of past experiences and have lost their usefulness in the struggle to create the future. So over the years I have always kept my ears close to the ground, testing ideas in practice and listening closely to the grass roots for new questions that require new paradigms.

This is a beautiful way of talking about progress. One of my favorite English professors used to tell me that all life was conflict–one conflict after another. When you run out of conflicts, she’d say, you die. In Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century, Grace and her husband James write: “They [the people] must have come to the realization that there is no utopia, no final solution, no Promised Land, and that humankind will always be engaged in struggle, because struggle is in fact the highest expression of human creativity.” To struggle well is the ultimate aim.

I join things because I like the struggle. When I started Students for Education Reform at Ohio University, the first people to sign on with me were people with whom, at the time, I had massive disagreements. At first, this was very hard, especially as we built a language in order to engage in those disagreements in a respectful, affirming way. But over time, we did. I never saw SFER at OU as something with an agenda. My vision for it was always that it be a place where people could safely and honestly discuss issues in education.

We didn’t pull punches. One week I invited the Students for Liberty (the liberatarian) organization to a meeting. While I sometimes talked about the benefits of the charter school movement in our meetings, I spent that night defending the importance of a traditional public education system. This friction was important as I continued to think about and refine my opinions on education.

I constantly sought out conversations with critics of Students for Education Reform. This, too, was incredibly difficult. There were many times when I simply vented my own rhetoric to friends who knew well enough to just let me finish. But over time, I was affected by the friends I developed in the critic community.

The fruit of all of this was developing a handful of wonderful critical thinkers at Ohio University who are able to think critically about arguments from both sides of the education debate.

Still, I often find myself on the receiving end of negative commentary about Students for Education Reform. But I know I would not be anywhere close to where I am today without it. For that reason, I refuse to “un”join.

I now find myself in a similar space with Teach for America. There are many people who assume they know me because of my identification with TFA. There are people who giggle sardonically to themselves when I do something too earnestly, too naively, too optimistically, or too idealistically.

But my favorite parts of TFA are the spaces where we are allowed to be dialectical. These spaces are few, but I love being able to challenge things and to ask a lot of questions. Because I know that there is not some future point where I will be a pedagogically perfect teacher and where I will have all of the “correct” opinions about education. Instead, I need to learn how to communicate with people who actively disagree with me in a way that allows me to learn from them. I would love TFA to create more spaces like that.

My frustrations with both SFER and TFA are of the same nature–that the struggle is not prioritized. We talk often about the lack of the silver bullet in education (even Waiting for Superman talks about it!), which is recognition of the first half of the Boggses quote from above. Not enough attention is give to the second point.

As we struggle, as we treat each other more as humans, we will begin to create processes, educations, and spaces that humanize people. That, in turn, will begin to solve many of the problems we are trying so desperately to solve by stepping all over each other now.

The Trouble with Gaps

There was a moment this summer, while I was teaching a room full of high-achieving, and in my mind, at-risk students, where I faltered. I don’t remember the lesson or what made me privately freak out in my mind, but I remember the feeling… the American dream is a lie, “at-risk” is a stupid term, students are students are students, and teaching students so they can live up to a white, wealthy ideal is pointless.

But I didn’t let the feeling take hold of me. I pushed it away. It got lost in the stress of lesson plans and grading papers.

Several weeks later I returned to Ohio University, where my main extracurricular commitment revolved around education reform, a nebulous term that means many things to many different people. And because I am someone who enjoys a good discussion, I made sure I was immersed in the literature of people who are critical of the reform movement.

It is within this literature, that I first read Dr. Camika Royal’s argument against the use of the term “achievement gap.” A term I had used countless times myself, achievement gap had become, for me and many of my peers, a shorthand way of articulating the problem we saw in education. Upon my first reading of Dr. Royal’s piece, I thought this was the problem with the term–that achievement gap did not accurately portray the complexity of the problem.

And organizations I am a part of changed; instead of using achievement gap, both Students for Education Reform and Teach for America have adopted “opportunity gap” as part of their lexicons. Dr. Royal suggested the term in her first piece about the achievement gap on Good.

Several days ago, however, Dr. Royal began suggesting that this simple substitution of the terms is insufficient.

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At first, I was taken aback by this. It seemed like organizations were listening to Dr. Royal. Why was she still frustrated?

And then I thought about her piece, again. This time, though, I thought about my summer experience, specifically the feeling I had had one day in class and ignored, and then some things clicked.

Dr. Royal is not frustrated about the term with a linguistic concern. She is frustrated with the power struggle that gets buried in language.

I asked my friend the other day how I can avoid a white savior complex. And he told me I had already fallen prey to it just by believing there was a group of people, categorically different than me, who needed my help. By dividing the world into white and black, I had already named difference, and by naming difference, I had already committed oppression.

This, I think, is what we do when we talk about gaps. Because when we acknowledge a gap, we set up a situation where things are better. And it’s not necessarily racial. Like we assume that wealth is better than poverty, that a Princeton degree is better than a GED, or that scoring in the 99th percentile is better than scoring in the 61st.

But here’s the rub. Oppressors have always chosen the grading stick. Oppressors have always been the ones who get to decide what we test, how we test it, and what background knowledge we test. Oppressors have always been the ones who decide what is better. And that is the issue.

If we ignore this problem, we risk, at the very least, pretension–the kind that claims you are not allowed to talk about a problem because you aren’t well-informed enough.

I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to talk abut the issues we need to talk about. But I know that lumping entire of populations of students into one “at-risk” category is trouble. And that’s exactly what gaps do.

Asking Better Questions Can Lead to Better Conversations

What kinds of questions are education reformers asking?

Part of my job as a Students for Education Reform chapter leader is to ask questions. I am constantly thinking about how to best invite people into the education reform conversation. The questions we ask have a huge impact on the answers we get.

I’ve recently been mildly obsessed with a website called Quora. I joined a couple weeks ago and have quickly added it to the list of websites I check daily. Quora was founded by Adam D’Angelo, a former engineer at Facebook. Quora allows its users to ask any question and then answer other users’ questions. The website protects against spam and the idiocy of sites like Yahoo! Answers in two ways. First, each user must have an account with a real name, typically tied to a social networking site. Second, Quora has created a currency. It costs “credits” to ask questions.

People ask questions on a variety of topics. And there are probably tens of thousands of questions already on the site.

I bring all this up because Quora is a great model for how we might begin asking the types of questions that will lead to real solutions in education reform.

The Education topic on Quora is one of the most thought-provoking on the site. Questions consider everything from curriculum to college loans to different learning styles. But there are two specific questions that stick out.

The first is this question: How can we solve the problems with public education in America? This is a great question and has generated 17 responses to date.

It’s follow-up question is interesting, though: What are some of the biggest problems with public education in America?

To this question there have been 31 responses, including one from Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor of DC public schools and founder and current CEO of Students First.

 

This answer is obviously overly simplistic, but it illuminates two major points. One, there is inequality in the education system in terms of class. And two, there is inequality in the education in terms of availability and stake-holding. If there were a diplomat’s child in every single school, you better believe that every single school would be great.

While I love this answer, I think that we should be critical of it. First, I think it’s telling that the “what’s wrong” question came after the “how can we fix it” question. Sometimes we ask the “how can we fix it” question, realize that not everyone knows what we should be fixing, and then have to ask the “what’s wrong” question. Sometimes, this is beneficial, but we need to stop taking these steps backward. What’s wrong with education? It’s not equal. Not everyone gets the same education in this country. That’s the issue.

The “what’s wrong” questions encourage buzz words. They encourage these overly simplistic answers. If we start asking the “how can we fix it” questions, we can support, fund, and develop the solutions.

An Addendum to a Short Math Lesson

I have written before about time management. After failing hardcore for a couple of weeks at keeping my own simple time constraints, I have found something that I very much missed the first time around. Sometimes, we don’t have enough time in a day to be the kind of person we want to be because we don’t use our free time to help ourselves out. As exams come to a close and free time begins to pour in on us like the good manna of heaven, here are some fun, educational, soul-serving things I plan on doing in the near future. Join if you like!

Leave some educational entertainment in the comments and have a great weekend!

Lessons from Eighth Graders

I’m in this really awesome national organization called Students for Education Reform. I started a chapter at my university. Our mission is to educate the next generation of leaders about the achievement gap so that we can close it. Because it needs to be closed.

This is our first quarter at OU, and it’s not been terribly easy. A lot of our plans have fallen through, but throughout the quarter, there have been some really great things that have kept me excited. Today, I had an experience that will keep me excited about ed reform for the rest of the year. I got the chance, with a couple of other students, to visit KIPP Journey in Columbus. The school was, simply put, kick ass.

KIPP Journey is a charter school for fifth through eighth graders. Most students enter KIPP well below grade level in both reading and math. By the time they leave, though, they are not only testing better than most of their peers in Columbus but also than most KIPP schools around the nation. That’s incredible!

One of the most notable things about the school was that in most of the classrooms we observed, the teachers had visible and public graphs, tracking each student’s test scores. I have heard stories about teachers doing this, and I’ve always been skeptical. I know in my own public schools, public information like that would have been toxic. Those at the top would have been ridiculed for being nerds and those at the bottom would have been ridiculed for being stupid. At least I thought so until today.

We got a chance to talk to a couple of outstanding eighth graders. I asked them about the charts. They smiled at me, knowingly. The following is a paraphrase of their answer:

Of course we like knowing where we are. It’s important to know where we have come and where we are going. And plus, we can see where other kids are. So we can help the ones who are beneath us. And we can ask for help from the ones who are above us. It’s not really about being smart or dumb. Sometimes certain subjects are just easier for some people. I may be better at math. But she might be better at science. It doesn’t really matter. In fact, it’s better that way. It makes it easier to help each other. We have a goal here of everyone scoring Proficient on the OAA. That’s a tough goal, but we are helping each other get there.

I still don’t know if the chart thing would be successful in my junior high, but I do know that the culture at my school was completely different than that. At my school, being an A student was important in and of itself. I didn’t really care about learning as long as I was getting A’s. A lot of this was my fault, but a lot of it was also that I didn’t know what else to base my academic goals on. If someone had told me, “Hey, you are reading at a tenth grade reading level. That’s great, but here’s what you could do to be reading at a college level,” I would have loved it.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in KIPP Journey. The culture isn’t about valuing the grade. It’s about valuing knowledge and learning. If a student masters a skill, s/he doesn’t say, “This is good enough.” Instead, s/he asks, “What else can I master?” And they realize there is always someone who is above them. That’s so so healthy. KIPP Journey isn’t about being the best. It’s about being the best you can be. And somehow, as the test results show, when kids/people concentrate on that, they become the best.