8 education people who I haven’t blocked on Twitter even when they piss me off

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Dr. Julian Helig Vasquez wrote a blog post last week listing people who have blocked him on Twitter. It’s a boastful post. Seems like he claims victory when blocked by school reformers, or he’s saying it indicates something about the character (or lack of it) by those who blocked him.

While I have blocked some people in my time, I thought it might be interesting to mention those who really get under my skin, but aren’t blocked.

Here they are….


#8 – Audrey Hill

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Audrey Hill is a veteran teacher with experience in both urban and exurban schools. We’ve sparred about school choice and education reform with a predictable pattern emerging each time. She assails ill-motives of reform fat cats who she paints as obscenely greedy corporatists who eat children daily for the protein. I fire back with claims about the eternal whiteness and privilege of America’s middle-class teaching core, and the #PinkLivesMatter movement that excuses their every insufficiency. She probably finds me to be every bit as insulting as I find her, but we still engage. It’s possible I believe she will see the errors of white teachers lecturing black parents about how to experience their own oppression, and she believes I will come to see education reform as an attack on a perfectly fine system of education. Neither is likely, but I continue to talk to her as a test of Robert Frost’s quote “education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.

#7 – Ben Spielberg

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It’s been testy between Ben and me. He’s had a good life, a good education, and the opportunity to teach through TFA, but he down talks education reform and school choice for those at the margins. We agree on welfare policy and the importance of income supports that improve family economic security, but Ben too often makes a needless point: that welfare policy should be prioritized over education policy as a cure for poverty. Nothing bothers me more than union-loving people who push the idea that poverty is destiny and education is less important for poor folks when they have succeeded in life through education and they’ve never been poor.

#6 – Andre Perry

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The first appearance I saw of Dr. Perry came during a back and forth I had with a hyper-liberal white professor from Madison, Wisconsin. She threw all the usual liberal professor stuff at me, with all the usual professor arrogance and certainty, but I wouldn’t relent. Once exasperated, she tagged Dr. Perry in a comment as if he was her genie. He said something like “get ’em Sis,” which told me a lot. I ended up reading some of his stuff, liking some of it, and sharing it.

I submit the evidence.

We worked together a bit in 2015. It was fine. He’s a good guy who apparently throws a good party, but he seems to swing erratically between being a reformer and an anti-reformer – often seeking personal benefit from whichever camp will have him – which muddles his message to the point of incoherence. We have had some strong disagreements, mostly about how class within the black community plays out to the detriment of the poor. In those discussions I made the case for the poor, he made the case for the black bourgeoisie. In the end we parted ways. He blocked me. I haven’t blocked him.

It is what it is. 

#5 – Jose Vilson

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Vilson leads #Educolor, a movement of progressive educators committed to investigating the intersection of race and education. I was once bullish on his work because he accomplishes the one thing I see far too few black “educators” do: he challenges folks on race within his own ranks. It’s easy to go after perceived enemies, but much harder when it’s friends. Vilson does it, often.

This was us when we bumped into each other in Philly.

At some point we had a dust up involving a third party and never recovered our ability to be peacefully disagreeable. Since, we both seem to have been further radicalized by our respective views on education policy (and the actors behind it), which has expanded our gap.

Still, I haven’t blocked him (and happy to say he hasn’t blocked me) because we are two thinking, writing black men attempting to articulate the complex condition of our people. We disagree fiercely on some matters, and it gets snarkalicious, but we keep it human.

#4 – Edushyster

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I remember thinking “who is this Edushyster person.” She wrote nothing that I liked and I was cross about the fact she used humor to address education gaps. When I heard she was in New Orleans last year I knew it would be trouble. I talked with a school reformer who had met with her and I asked “so, how was it?” fully expecting he would say she was some form of ogre. “It’s maddening that in person she’s a perfectly lovely person” he said.

Huh? Lovely? What?

Then I met her. I talked her ear off, and she was kind enough to pretend it was entertaining. Unlike many people in education commentary who see piss and vinegar as their main flame accelerants (like me), Jennifer Berkshire (or, Edusyster) is…well, lovely. She’s bright-eyed, pleasant, and, fun. These are painful words to type. It’s unnerving.

That said, Ms. Berkshire’s captivating in-person presentation is a lot like the animals in the wild that spray you with some substance, put you to sleep, then eat you. It’s easy to forget that her advocacy has one goal: protect traditional public education from competition and block the exits so families can’t leave failing schools.

But, she’s funny.

#3 – Melinda Anderson

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My situation with Ms. Anderson is a lot like the experience with Vilson. I read her work, loved it, and shared it. Though we came from obviously different education camps (her = union, me = reform), the mainstay of our analysis seemed similarly focused on race, power, education, etc. I reached out to her a few times. Never fully connected. We disagreed on an issue she blocked me. Thus is life. I haven’t blocked her because personality differences aside, their is intelligent life in her work and there are few on her side willing to go where she goes. We don’t have to be homies.


#2 – Carol Burris

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Oh, Ms. Burris, where did we go wrong. I first became aware of Burris while helping friends organize when a local principal came under fire because she resisted demanding white families who were suddenly zoned into her high school. They wanted to get rid of “honors for all.” They said it put too many unqualified kids in the same class with their advanced kids. It was an integration nightmare that exposed a lot of hidden racial dynamics.

During that fight I found Burris’ work and sent her writing to several trusted white allies. Burris had magnificently described the politics that take place when a brave principal tries to do right by kids normally excluded from higher level classes. I couldn’t believe my luck in finding her work because it rang so true to our situation.

Fast forward a few years. Burris and I had a brief Twitter interaction where I think she misunderstood a point I was making about privileged white families. It was actually in line with what she had wrote, but I think she thought I was accusing her of supporting those parents. She blocked me. I haven’t blocked her.

#1 – Diane Ravitch

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Ravitch’s prolific output of system-defending polemics is a far greater threat to reason and public order than meth, cocaine, and reality television combined. We need not critique her work because she has renounced 90% of her life’s scholarship, effectively making her the biggest Ravitch critic in existence. Yet, I recognize her power. A nation of mostly white educators who stand before black children every day see her as Gaea, and she has mastered dipping their pacifiers in moonshine and self-pity to soothe them into an immoral sleep where they dream away all the failures of America’s bureaucratized system of education. She does it from behind a shroud of scholarly work.

That’s dangerous. Scientific racism is no better than Kentucky truck stop racism.

Still, I haven’t blocked her. She has blocked me. Both are fine.

If only they attacked racial gaps in student achievement like they attack Campbell Brown

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In a post yesterday I got under the hood of a Twitter argument between Carol Burris and Campbell Brown about NAEP, proficiency, and grade-level outcomes. That wasn’t the real story though. Aside from the technical details of their semantics exercise, the real story is how smart people miss the point.

Watching professional people like Carol Burris, Diane Ravitch, and Tom Loveless go after Campbell Brown feels like being a referee in an outbreak of white on white crime. My allies have already jumped into the fray with a piece here and here, but I’m compelled to speak up too because these exchanges frustrate me with how they miss the point.

I shouldn’t assume you know all these people or about their drama, so a little background first:

Burris is a highly regarded (and very well paid) former Long Island high school principal who now runs a labor funded organization that argues parents should have no education options outside of traditional district public schools, even when those schools fail.

Ravitch is a former historian who transitioned into the role of education polemicist over a decade ago, a switch that caused her to renounce 90% of her life’s work.

Loveless is an Ivy League researcher, former teacher unionist, and sometime pal of education reformers.

Their target, Brown, is a former television news journalist who now is a full time school reformer advocate.

Now that you know the players, I can tell you more about their humbug.

Missing the point

Forgive me if I sound dismissive of these really smart people who like to wade in academic minutia. From where I sit, it looks like a self-pleasing dreck tossing competition that can turn into a costly distraction. The point of all education debate in my mind should center on student achievement. How are the children?

You already know the answer. You’re not dumb. So why are really smart people splitting hairs about definitions instead of talking about the damning results coming out of too many of our schools?

It  takes an unacceptable level of naivete to ignore Burris’ intent. Her broadside is political, ideological, and mainly about defending traditional school districts against claims that they should not have a monopoly on educating children. You might say it’s fair for her to correct what she sees as inaccurate comments about education. She is an expert of sorts with both experience and strong credentials. But she wanders from the technical issue headlong into questionable territory. when she assigns reductive motives to education reformers (“Brown and her allies embrace privatization and the commercial mindset, while I believe that equity reforms embedded in democratically governed public schools are the most effective and ethical means to improvement”).

She also goes in on Brown’s media platform (The Seventy Four), and makes hay of her financial backers.

I couldn’t care less about who funds Brown or what Burris thinks about it if focusing there shifts attention from student outcomes.

American students – especially the black and brown ones – are doing poorly. Regardless of who you blame for that you can’t improve it unless you admit the problem.

Look at this graphic showing NAEP 2015 12th results, and let it speak to you. For me, it looks like trouble.

NAEP 2015 12th gr race gender larger

Further, can we stop the ruse that demand for better (and more) educational options and the call for radical school improvement comes solely from devious people intoxicated by abstract concepts like “privatization” and a “commercial mindset”?

While artfully painting school reform as solely the product of corporate boogeymen, Burris and Co. strategically sidestep a more important point: people of color widely support school reform (see: here, here, here, here, here, and here). Erasing us from the discussion as if we are to be seen and not heard is a form of erasure we can’t allow.

Further, it’s equally silly for Burris to say “democratically governed public schools are the most effective and ethical means to improvement,” rather than the new options provided by school reformers. Some of the worst schools for us have been “democratically governed.” That phrase may hold some nostalgic significance for her, but it tells me Burris prioritizes sentimentality and a unionized workforce over all else.

Her definition of public education traps students into buildings where careerists have jobs without accountability or results. More than anything, that is the center of gravity for all her arguments against Brown and other school reformers.

Finally, there is a danger in indulging highly credentialed people in their eagerness to demonstrate their smarts by over-exercising nuances in language. They become pampered house cats chasing the red blip of a laser pointer, and we join them in losing sight of what matters most. Our kids are in big trouble and damn you if you let these arguments among privileged people take any focus from that.

While the racial, social, political, and economic consequences of poorly performing schools are innumerable and harsh, they won’t be felt by Burris who earned $268,000 as a principal; or Ravitch who became a fierce public school advocate only after her children completed private school; or Valerie Strauss – another private school parent – who uses her Washington Post real estate to bolster all the drivel teachers’ unions send her (without mentioning her connection to communication contracts with labor). Marginalized children are losing, daily.

Brown is right to use her position to remind us that everyday we are turning out more and more “graduates” who are not ready for the world. If only her opponents put as much energy into attacking the achievement gap as they put into dissing her, we might make some progress.

Why does the Twitter beef between Carol Burris and Campbell Brown seem wildly off course?

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It started with a video of Brown published by Slate. In it she said “[t]wo out of three eighth graders in this country cannot read or do math at grade level. We are not preparing our kids for what the future holds.”

Tom Loveless from the Brookings Institute (followed by Carol Burris and Diane Ravitch) took to Twitter to challenge the accuracy of Brown’s statement, and they feverishly demanded she correct it. Brown declined. Things got hyper-technical from there. The point of conflict centered on the precise meaning of “grade level,” and the way “proficiency” is measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Brown clarified her position in an email to the Washington Post, saying “If I were trying to be completely and utterly precise then I would have specified “grade-level proficiency,” instead of “grade level” in the context of NAEP scores. But any reasonable person or parent can rightly assume that if their child is not reading at grade level, then their child is not proficient.”

That answer was not sound in Burris’ ears. She felt Brown’s equating student “grade level” performance with NAEP’s “proficiency” was “not merely a matter of semantics.”

She argued:

NAEP tests produce a continuum of scores, much like the SAT.  In order to make scores more understandable to the public, the four categories (Below Basic, Basic, Proficient and Advanced), each aligned with performance descriptors, were created and assigned to four ranges of scores by the NAEP governing board (NAGB).  In doing so, the NAGB made it clear that “Proficient is not synonymous with grade-level performance.”

Loveless, who has written extensively about NAEP, said the following in his email correspondence with me:

 “The cut point on NAEP is much too high [to be considered grade level].

On the first claim, that proficiency isn’t the same as grade-level performance, it’s true that NAEP governors admit that.

On the second claim, that NAEP’s proficiency criteria is too high, NAEP’s governing board say their standard for “proficiency” is high, but with a purpose [for an easy to read explainer on NAEP, click here]:

​NAEP’s standards indicate what students should know and be able to do according to the National Assessment Governing Board and are generally considered aspirational. Standards may differ for different tests because they have different purposes. States may construct their standards for the same purpose as NAEP, or they may use them for defining minimum competency, determining promotion to the next grade, or addressing other purposes. Under NAEP’s legislation, NAEP’s achievement levels remain in a ‘trial’ status, to be used and interpreted with caution, until the Commissioner of Education Statistics (on the basis of a congressionally mandated, independent evaluation of NAEP) determines that NAEP’s achievement levels are reasonable, valid, and informative to the public.

That said, we don’t have a common standard for grade-level performance. States set their standards all over the map. Ravitch once described that problem as “50 states, 50 standards, 50 tests,” then concluded “the evidence is growing that this approach has not improved student achievement. Americans must recognize that we need national standards, national tests and a national curriculum.”

She’s changed her tune on that recommendation, but the conditions and research supporting her previous support for national standards have not changed.

We still don’t have national tests that illuminate through comparison the performance of students across state lines. That’s probably why people – like Brown and others – look to NAEP, the so-called Nation’s report card, for a common marker of achievement.

Given to students in every state, the NAEP’s “proficiency” reflects a common measurement of students’ “competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.”

Brown isn’t the first (and won’t be the last) to use NAEP proficiency as a proxy for grade-level performance because it’s the closest thing we have.

This past January presidential candidate Marco Rubio wrote “Two-thirds of our kids can’t read at grade level” in an article posted to Medium.

His statement was fact checked by Politifact, and on the basis of input from several experts they concluded “Rubio said that “two-thirds of our kids can’t read at grade-level.” The numbers from the NAEP reading test for fourth and eighth graders provide some support for his statement. However, experts said that there is no accepted definition of what being at grade-level” means under the NAEP tests. While Rubio’s use of NAEP‘s higher “proficient” standard is a reasonable choice, experts said, it’s not the only one…”

Basically, the fight between Burris and Brown over the “two-thirds” statement is a draw.

A 2014 NPR story about NAEP results also conflated “proficiency” and “grade-level,” saying “[i]n the NAEP test, achievement is broken down into three levels: basic, proficient and advanced. “Basic” indicates partial mastery of the subject, “proficient” is grade-level performance, and “advanced” indicates superior work.”

Just this past April an Education Week article said “Results for NAEP, known as the Nation’s Report Card, are also reported at three achievement levels: basic, proficient, and advanced. “Proficient” indicates students are successful with challenging, grade-level content.”

Consider something Ravitch said in 2010. An NPR articles reported “[s]ome states contend that 80 to 90 percent of their children are proficient readers and have math proficiency as well, Ravitch notes. But in the same states, only 25 to 30 of the children test at a proficient level on national tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

That sounds a hair away from saying, as Brown and Rubio did, that two thirds of our students can’t read or do math at grade level.

If true, that is the real problem, and it’s one that Brown seems eager to address, if only she can get through the logical sludge that flows so prolifically from Burris, Ravitch, and their key amplifier at the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss.

I have more to say about this, look for second post soon.

Will you please let these parents speak for themselves?

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by Chris Butler

The Walton Foundation won’t be funding charter work in Chicago any time soon. That news came to charter school and school quality advocates as an undeniable setback for a movement that has engaged thousands of parents and provided access to college and careers for multiplied thousands of students in Chicago. But it also seemed to set anti-charter advocates like Diane Ravitch off on a woefully premature victory lap. “It shows that resistance works” Ravitch declared when asked about her thoughts on Walton’s decision to stop funding charter work in the city. “There’s very active resistance (in Chicago), not just from the union, but from parents on the ground”.

Hold the phone.

As a parent, a church leader and an advocate for equal access to high quality education, I certainly wish that Walton would stick with the parents in Chicago even in difficult times. But, I am aware that while sticking it out would be the morally right thing to do, it might not be the most pragmatic course of action. I do, however, have to call out this ridiculous assertion of massive parent “resistance”.

I know that the Chicago Teachers’ Union has become a public relations juggernaut that dominates media headlines with mass rallies, strikes threats, and even a strike run-through. I know that the union has supported and coordinated with community organizations to drum up support for their anti-charter and anti-reform rhetoric putting a “community face” on things. I’m even aware that the CTU has successfully made a beleaguered mayor and an irresponsible governor the public face of charters in Chicago, overshadowing the tens of thousands of parents who choose charter schools everyday. But, neither Diane Ravitch nor the Walton Foundation should misconstrue any of this as parent resistance.

Let me tell you about the parent resistance that is taking place with parents on the ground.

I first realized the resistance on those cold January mornings when I used to help run the annual New Schools EXPO, an information and enrollment fair for charter schools in Chicago. I wish that Ravitch could have seen the hundreds of parents who stood out in the frigid winter air an hour before the doors opened, hoping to gain access to a meaningful opportunity for their child. I wish that she could have spent the day with me walking the floor and chatting with a few of the more than 5,000 parents who came through over the course of the day. You’d never catch these folks at a rally (for or against charter schools). But, each of them was part of the resistance. They were taking matters into their own hands and scrapping to find something that the public school system in Chicago had not provided, a quality education for their children.

It became clear to me that this resistance was not just a charter school phenomenon when I worked with Parent Power Chicago to organize the first ever Chicago School Fair, a school options fair featuring all of Chicago’s school choices- traditional public schools, public charter schools, selective enrollment, Catholic, independent and even home school resources. More than 20,000 parents and students flooded McCormick Place. The resistance overwhelmed the space and the materials we had prepared for the day. Parents were pushing back against the notion that they should sit and wait for their assigned school to be great. They wanted a quality school right now.

Read the rest at Chicago Unheard.

There is nothing good about blackwashing the opt-out agenda

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Kids in public schools are taking tests this week. Don’t worry, don’t panic, they’ll be fine. Once they’re done taking these tests the states they live in will have information about how well schools are doing to make progress toward educational goals. We can probably predict what the results will look like. Richer kids will do better. So will white kids. The picture won’t be so great for others. But, there will likely be something you won’t predict, too. There will be some schools with poorer kids, or mostly black and brown populations, that will exceed expectations (not all our schools, kids, or teachers are failing) .

The point is, those are good things to know year over year, and the way we know them – through annual assessments – is constantly under fire from two groups: white parents who are ideologically opposed to testing, and teachers’ unions that have recently learned the utility of such parents.

I know. I’ve written about this before. It’s like an obsession.

By now you know I’m concerned about the opt-out “movement,” even though I understand it’s motivations and even sympathize with some of them. As a black man, a parent, an education activist, and someone singularly focused on the question of how do we change the game for our community, I can’t say enough about how damaging it would be to lose the information we get from testing.

And, of course, I can’t get past the opt-out campaign’s indelible whiteness and reckless self-interest.

You must have a pretty charmed life if the thing most pressing in your portfolio of injustices and outrages is the fact that little Ashley and Dylan are being asked to take a test at school, and it cuts into their time on violin and in ballet. Considering Jerome can’t read and Kenya can’t count, and prison fill with people who are illiterate and innumerate, I think we need to get our priorities straight.

The fact is urban communities of color are knee-deep in illiteracy. The social and economic consequences are staggering. According to the America’s Promise Alliance seventy-four percent of children who aren’t proficient in reading by third grade “falter in the later grades and often drop out before earning a high school diploma, leaving them poorly prepared to obtain higher education, succeed in the economy, or enter military and civilian service.”

How do you think that story ends?

In my state of Minnesota 16% of black fourth graders are proficient in reading. You should look up your own state and find out how well you all are doing with black fourth graders. Then ask yourself if it makes sense to let the $600 billion educational establishment, and all of its middle class college educated “workers,” off the hook for effective teaching, learning, and better outcomes? I think not.

The only good news I see is that our traditional black leadership hasn’t taken the opt-out bait. No one has convinced them that black communities will actually do better with less information about how our kids are doing academically.

We still have brave leaders like the National Urban League, the NAACP, and a diverse group of civil rights groups who have kept their eyes on the prize. We have leaders as diverse as Dr. Michael Lomax from the UNCF, Kaya Henderson of the D.C. Public Schools, and Rev. Al Sharpton who have just said no to the opt-out campaign.

We are better for it, but don’t think that’s the end of the story.

In an attempt to bypass our seemingly wayward leadership the opt-out camp has turned to a new group of lab-created black voices mostly drawn from the self-preserving ranks of state monopolized education. I only know their names because my white ideological opponents direct me to them as if to vanquish my lived experience and strongest arguments. It’s like Negro Pokemon, where one card beats another. We are to be Mandingo fighters. Of course, white folks draw the cards and we’re supposed to entertain.

I’m not interested in all that. I want literate children and a better black nation. Still, to say what I say causes white folks to draw their black cards, and suddenly I’m tussling with their new blacks.

They send me links to things written by Jamal Bowman. He seems like a good man, but I point out to them that he is a principal of a school in the Bronx where the majority of kids aren’t proficient in reading. He has likened standardized testing to slavery, which concerns me because it indicates he too has trouble reading.

They point me to Troy LaRaviere, another celebrated principal. I respond by telling them LaRaviere has less than 5% black students in his low-poverty fine arts magnet. I found his personal story as told in a viral commercial for Bernie Sanders very touching, but I also note that the school he leads has a program for assisting lagging students that includes three annual reading and math “screenings,” a schedule of “progress monitoring assessments,” and a regular review of interventions. Yet, amazingly, his school’s website discourages parents from taking state accountability tests.

Of course there are the semi-black teachers who have written babbling books against testing. I dare you to look up the schools in which they “teach.” Black children are not learning in their classroom, which explains their push to kill testing.

Finally, people are really fond of linking me to their favorite black peer-reviewed professors like Yohuru Williams and Julian Helig Vasquez. These well-educated doctors specialize in erecting bewildering, reaching, and wanting arguments that lead to one bogus conclusion: testing kids to identify racial gaps is itself racist.

Don’t ask me to make sense of it. I don’t speak Ph.d.

All I can tell you is that dog don’t hunt. Our kids can learn. Our schools can do better. Testing is not the problem, broken systems and unaccountable adults are our problems.

Let’s agree to this: none of these professional black people who are gaining popularity with the white educational Left as an antidote to our traditional black leadership have succeeded in life without taking a test or two? They have beat the odds and now they rest on college degrees as the basis for earning a living?

So why do all of their arguments exist as explicit defenses for the current system of public education and the employees of that system, but not the 85% of black fourth graders who are not reading on grade level in my state (or theirs)?

We are in crisis. Our kids are drowning in a caustic cocktail of low expectations, gross ineffectiveness, and disregard for black potential that is killing us softly. We need two things to solve that problem: information and action. We can’t let the system, or its new blacks, destroy the former as a way to prevent the latter.

Opt-out is not for us, no matter how many new blacks they send to blackwash it.