It takes a nation of empty robes to hold us back

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Dr. Pedro Noguera once told me “you clearly don’t know much about education.” I probably deserved it for challenging him on Twitter after he wrote a piece with Judith Browne Dianis, Esq. from the Advancement Project, and Dr. John Jackson from the Schott Foundation. They had argued in The Hill that civil rights groups were wrong during reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to support annual testing of students in public schools. I thought that was a scandalous betrayal of the black community’s best interest.

Maybe I shouldn’t have tangled with people who have advanced education. These folks with acronyms before and after their names are sensitive about their scholarship and they want recognition for their expertise.

Since then I’ve met a stream of Doctors of education who see themselves as the producers of the tablets we should carry down from the mountain, into the hood. They want me to see that charters, choice, testing, and focus on teacher quality aren’t reforms aimed at improving education. Those reforms, they say, are merely vices of a malevolent upper class who design and fund neo-slavery.

Can’t I see the proposals I support are really disguised weapons against my own people?

Maybe I’m a cynical simpleton, but the most learned people are the most tiring for me. Especially those in higher education. Is there some secret room in the academy where their brains are rewired so they wander intellectually, permanently in nuance, without a return ticket to practicality?

Many of these experts seem to think if you merely put commas between “privatization,” “neoliberalism,” “market-based,” “corporate,” “billionaires,” “TFA,” “charter schools,” “whole child,” and “critical pedagogy,” the dissertation basically writes itself. Well, that and adding 108 citations of Dr. Diane Ravitch, Dr. Linda Darling Hammond, Dr. Gloria Landson Billings, and of course, Dr. Noguera.

Exchanges with Dr. Julian Vasquez Helig and Dr. Shaun Johnson come to mind.

The former writes an uncomely blog dedicated to disproving the utility of Teach For America and charter schools. He once told me Howard Fuller’s lifetime of advocacy for black educational liberation doesn’t compare to his own record of providing a streaming shit creek of peer-reviewed anti-reform “research studies.”

The latter teaches kindergarten in D.C. after writing an anti-reform blog for years. He told me being a black parent gives me no more insight into my children’s learning needs than his Ph.d. He’s white and apparently history didn’t happen.

These experts, and a nation of teachers that see them as cardinal reference points, express frustration about people like me who have lots to say about public education but have “never been in the classroom.”

I understand their frustration. Nobody likes a back seat driver or the opinionated guy who has never done anything.

Let me out myself. Though I write about education, have been on a school board, have a motley crew of kids, and struggled as a student in several kinds of schools, I am an autodidact, not an expert.

I don’t teach in a classroom, I don’t run a school, and I’ve never written a book about education. Just a civilian here.

But I have logical questions about the gulf between what black kids – including my own – are capable of achieving, and what they are currently achieving.

America has a history of enslaving, restricting, redlining, and marginalizing black people, and the major system of education has always been a part of that injustice.

My fear is that “educated” people from our own community are not using their positions to advance learning and liberation as much as they’re acting as agents of the state, attempting to keep us on an academic plantation that pays them, profits from us, and keeps us roughly in the same vulnerable state of exploitation that we have been in for years.

These public schools were never really our schools. They weren’t built for us, or by us, so why would anyone tell us our best bet is to limit our options to the faltering state-governed, district-run system?

By the time a black person reaches adulthood they have come into contact with many professionals. Black youth are an industry unto themselves, a new commodity, and everyone wants a piece of the grift. There is a national army of careerists who are paid to study us, teach us, counsel us, medicate us, control us, write about us, and become experts on what ails us.

We are a profitable burden, a vainglorious spectacle of wretched black gold for eager professionals.

But if improving our lives is the goal, tell me again, who are the experts on us?

Is it the classroom teacher? Is it the university professor who trains the teacher? Is it the author who conducts research, writes books, and travels the country consulting, advising, and speaking about education?

Given the ruinous results, and the sum total of efforts from all these educated people who dine on our tears and dance to our cries for change, we have no experts.

The proof and the pudding

There is but one question for folks in academia and their numberless network of teachers who write research studies, articles, and books that call school reform into question. Why aren’t they establishing their own schools to demonstrate all they have learned about learning.

Where is the Pedro Noguera Academy of Teaching Black Boys To Read and Write?

Where is the Julian Vasquez Helig School of Succeeding With Marginalized Children?

What about the Diane Ravitch Center for Graduating Literate and Numerate Children of Color?

Those schools don’t exist.

It is one thing to speak from a vaulted perch where you are not responsible for a single kid, and preach the paleoliberal gospel of the one-best-system; to write missives against school reform as you cash under-the-table paychecks from reform funders; to sit on panels sponsored by education labor cartels and interrogate the motives of school reformers while never interrogating the motives of labor cartels; to put your own kids in private schools and then assail school choice as a misguided gift to the ignorant poor who won’t make decisions as well as you have; and to basically fill the world with useless pablum about thinking broader, bolder, more holistically, without focusing intensely on developing, administrating, delivering, and measuring the effectiveness of instruction and learning in the most important place, the classroom.

It’s something much different to do what the leaders of new schools do, which is to design, establish, and operate schools that fight the nihilistic, racist, and classist mantra that demography affixes melanated people without money to academic failure.

Maybe there is a resignation in the expert class. Maybe there is great license when you are not accountable for producing anything other than critique. Maybe you have tried, failed, and they resigned to tearing down reform rather than proposing anything that might work.

Dr. Darling Hammond and Stanford University gave it the college try. They started a school. It was intended to showcase all of their research in an applied setting with real children. In 2005 Stanford’s dean for the School of Education, Deborah Stipek, said the university “wanted to be a partner [to the local school district] rather than just preach from the Ivy tower.”

The school did terribly.

Even with extensive resources, including $3,000 more in per student funding, and a direct connection to all of the conceivable knowledge produced by one of the world’s most renowned institutions of higher learning, the school struggled to break out of the bottom 5% of schools in the state of California.

When the school failed Diane Ravitch said, “Maybe this demonstrates that schools alone cannot solve the very deep problems kids bring to school…You cannot assume that schools alone can raise achievement scores without addressing the issues of poverty, of homelessness and shattered families.”

That’s absolutely the wrong message, and the fact that so many “educated” people from our community never confront her system-preserving, elitist nonsense makes them as suspect with me as my support of reform has made me with them.

We have proof that great schools matter. Our kids can learn, even when poor. The people getting it done don’t seem to be stuck on all the wrong questions (how can we stop kids from being poor before they get to school?), and dedicated to solving the puzzle of how can we be successful with the kids we have wherever they come from?

No, I’m not an expert. I am not educated. Nogeura might be right in that I might know very little about education in comparison to him.

But, given the results of the experts in his class, I’m good.

It’s the education settlers I worry about, not the tourists

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It was a terrible battle between Mr. Boland and Chantay Martin.

He was a freshly minted idealistic white teacher, a gay man who left non-profit leadership to pursue his dream of teaching in one of New York’s tough high schools.

She was a “belligerent” gum-smacking “teenage black girl from the projects of Bed-Stuy” who wore a bedazzled t-shirt so short that it exposed her “baby blue thong.”

When Mr. Boland attempted to get her attention she yelled “suck my f***kin d**k Mister!”

And, scene!

That vignette opens “The Battle for Room 314,” written by Ed Boland it is a “memoir” of one white man’s failed attempt to teach Negroes in the new millennium. His experience was so jarring it warranted documenting. Maybe you’re thinking about how few of us ever fail at a job so spectacularly that it warrants writing a book. I doubt many of us ever see our choice of occupation as some benevolent giving of our majestic gifts to lower life forms.

Our jobs are not marks of our amazing grace or professional humanitarianism. We are mortals.

I haven’t read Boland’s book, and I don’t intend to read it. Yes, that may be unfair because I certainly intend to drag him in the following sentences, but with some mercy.

What else shall we do when a failed teacher re-ups his privilege by turning a personal failure into personal dirt? What are we supposed to do when Boland amplifies his view of our students, calling them “monsters” so many times NPR’s reviewer, Nicole Dixon, says she lost count?

And, what is there to say about lines like this: “I began to loathe my students, resenting everything about them that was their lot — their poverty, their ignorance, their arrogance.”

Reading that I begin to loathe privileged people with platinum self-confidence and their glass egos. In this case, though, I stop myself because Boland isn’t really the problem. He got into the classroom, got out of it, told his story, and is no longer in position to damage the young beautiful black diamonds we give to public schools so they can return them to us dulled and diminished as prison material.

He did the best thing: he left.

John Warner, an experienced teacher, is less generous about Boland in his piece called “Education Tourists Can’t Save Anything or Anyone” for Inside Higher Ed. If the word “tourist” is familiar to you, then congrats, you’re paying attention to the language “veteran” teachers use to bolster their professional claim on our schools. Warner’s problem with Boland isn’t his unendurable cultural chauvinism as much as how his mindset seems to mirror one contestable brand of school reform.

He says:

Those of us who teach know that control of the authoritarian variety is actually antithetical to genuine learning. This is why the recent video of a Success Academy teacher ripping up a 1st grader’s work and sending her to the “calm-down” chair filled so many of us with horror. This is a 1st grader being cowed to the authority of a teacher for the sin of making a mistake.[1]

Of course, control is the ethos of Success Academy and other “no excuses” charter schools. They need to start in 1st grade so the students are properly conditioned when they are older and more inclined to test the boundaries of their power and influence.

Ed Boland is just another of those who come to “make a difference” in education, but don’t appear to bother to learn anything about education before jumping in.

In one pass this takes aim at charter schools, school-wide discipline systems, and, indirectly, Teach For America. All of these things are products of people, assumed to be rich and white, who at best have misguided designs for education, and at worst, racist and greed-driven intentions. They are the ugly Americans haggling with poor villagers over price, the “tourists.”

I could join with Warner in his criticisms of Boland, especially when he says “[p]erhaps if he’d put himself in his students’ shoes, he might’ve lasted more than a year.” But Warner misses the point when he says “[p]eople like Ed Boland and these other reformers are not saviors. They are education tourists.” That displacement of blame turns into critiques of Eva Moskowitz, Bill Gates, and the “charter school movement” with all the predictable talking points (their outsiders who are addicted to “control”).

He leaves the traditional education establishment untouched, as if it were a good thing.

Forget for a minute the “tourists” and consider another group, the one that Warner represents. I’ll call them the settlers.

By any possible measure the American educator workforce is wrongly suited for what is emerging as the new dominant student body – kids of color, increasingly poor. If you were to reset public education so it would be right for modern times, you would never pick this – mostly white, middle-class, culturally isolated – occupational class drawn from a below average collegiate pool and embalmed with a scandalous lifetime job entitlement to lift our kids from debilitating ignorance into prosperous intelligence.

Need I remind you, again, that a never-ending stream of research tells us that everyday 8 million black students enter a public education system where their teachers – whether veterans like Warner, or “tourists” like Boland – hold all the wrong ideas about their humanity. Our kids get the worst performing teachers, the least rich curriculum, hideous learning conditions, the harshest discipline, and the lowest expectations for their academic success.

If our public education problems were limited to “education tourists” the solutions might be more manageable. But the real problem is several orders larger than a transient educational class.

It’s not those people who seek to reform education or bring new ideas to the table, and sometimes fail doing so. I’m more worried about those who won’t leave, those who have come to see their job as plantation management for an oppressive system of education that produces more strife than success.

Maybe we need neither tourists, nor settlers, but, instead, pioneers.

Don’t come for this TFA alum, he’s not here for you

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Critics of Teach For America work hard to magnify the program’s shortcomings and prove TFA teachers are harming struggling school systems.

The superheated anti-TFA campaign looks for – and finds – former core members who will share bad experiences in the hopes of depressing TFA’s annual recruiting of new teachers.

To some extent it works. Probably because another story is rarely told.

There are tens of thousands of TFA alumni. Many that go through the program and end up staying in the classroom. Others move on to education related careers. And some complete their assignment and then pursue other interests.

You won’t hear much from many of them, but you should.

The critics that are noisy and productive. You have to wonder where the positive alums hide themselves. You know, those that have contributed to student learning for our country’s most marginalized kids.

Dallas Rico is one of those teachers. He isn’t allowing his service to be erased by the haters.

In a recent article he addressed a few of the most annoying TFA-bashing claims.

On TFA’s two-year commitment being too short, he says:

First, can we please stop bringing up the 2-year commitment? That’s usually the first issue anti-TFA folks have. Naturally, a number of alums do move on to other fields such as Law and Medicine. In those two years, they realize teaching isn’t for them and go to a career that they were more passionate about. Good for them. Better than having comfortable, detached teachers stay in the classroom because they don’t know what else to do with their lives.

Nonetheless, though critics love to focus on those who leave the classroom, that’s not the whole story. The fact of the matter is over 60% of alums stay beyond the agreed upon two years. Let’s keep in mind that the vast majority of TFAers weren’t originally planning on becoming educators after college. I sure wasn’t. Now, I’m eight years in and still going strong. The 2-year agreement is an enticing trial of the profession, but many of us end of staying in the field long after that.

On TFA providing “temps” to teach in troubled schools:

TFA is not a teacher employment agency. It was never meant to be. It’s a movement. Better yet, it’s a revolution. In warfare, you need individuals at various levels. Soldiers, generals, commanders are all important to the movement. Likewise, effective teachers, principals, district leaders and chancellors are essential to creating real change in Education. Several alums go on to become school leaders or assume other roles in K-12 education or education non-profits. The 25th Anniversary Summit was a testament to that fact. It was wonderful to be surrounded by thousands of alums in the conference that were still serving our students.

On TFA’s training institute being too short to truly prepare teachers:

Let’s get something else straight: TFA’s also not in the business of training teachers. The fives weeks of training Corps Members receive the summer before they begin teaching is admittedly inadequate. I did not feel prepared the first day I walked into my Spanish classroom.

TFA could hold Corps Members’ hands for years before letting them leave the nest but they will never truly get good at teaching until they’re in front of their own students. Many first-year teachers coming out of traditional training programs have also proven ill-prepared for the job. Considering how effective many TFA Corps Members and alums turn out, it appears teaching is just one of those gigs you learn by doing.

And, on keeping our focus on the things that matter most, he says:

Ultimately. it’s about the kids. TFA is a non-profit committed to improving the quality of education in America. Like any entity run by human beings, they make mistakes and gets some things wrong. But it also gets a lot right. If you’re going to criticize TFA for what it gets wrong, be fair and also recognize what they do well. TFA hears you. People often criticize them as if they’re uniquely responsible for solving the problems in Education. The truth is the organization is only part of the solution. We actually do a disservice to our students when educators clash over how to best serve them. Instead, we should put aside our differences and focus on how we can combine our efforts and help bridge the achievement gap. Let’s continue to challenge TFA, but do it for the sake of making her better. This 25-year old hasn’t yet reached her full potential. She’s just getting started.

Rather than fight reform, teachers should “heal thy self”

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Radically simple thinking and a return to basic values may do more to improve education than a million years war against charter schools, Teach For America, or Common Core academic standards. That’s Raymond A. Schroth’s suggestion in his article “Teacher Heal Thy Self” for The National Catholic Review.

Schroth pierces the mainstream education conflict too often characterized by volley from side-to-side by teacher sympathizers fighting system technocrats, but he does it with a new set of eyes coming from the Jesuit tradition. That refreshes our browser which, perhaps, has been stuck on an error page for too long.

Up front he defines the purpose of teaching, drawing from “Jesuit Schools and the Humanities Yesterday and Today” by historian John W. O’Malley. These are the “five hooks” that unify Jesuit teaching that may be helpful for all of us:

1. It releases the “fly in the bottle,” that is, it helps students escape the bondage of unexamined assumptions.

2. It helps students understand our pasts, where we came from.

3. It communicates a commitment to “faith that does justice.” That comes from Cicero’s “We are not born for ourselves alone.” Our talents are given us to serve.

4. It offers a study of the great literature so we can fit words to thought—that’s called eloquentia perfecta.

5. Its humane letters sharpen students’ aesthetic sensibilities—teaching prudence to make wise decisions. These principles remain relevant today.

If those five hooks are real, then teachers must be very important to the process of education. That might sound trite, but we often talk about teachers as if they have no agency, no efficacy, and no direct connection to outcomes that aren’t pre-determined by the demographic composition of the students in their classroom.

Schroth has this to say about teaching’s connection to our problems in education:

Perhaps the real crisis in education centers on a decline of teaching as a profession. We all know great teachers who have transformed our lives; but too many teachers today are guilty both in their laxity in the classroom and in their failure to raise and enforce the standards of their profession. Both documentary and experiential evidence paints a picture today of mediocrity. College professors encounter high school graduates who have never read a book, who can barely write a sentence, who know no grammar, cannot stand up and speak and have no intention of doing the next assignment.

[…]

During a formal visit, one group of college students told me with a straight face that their teachers were so good that they learned everything in class and so never had any homework. On my professional visits to all the Jesuit universities, I found very few students could name books that had influenced their lives. Lawyers tell me that newly hired colleagues lack sufficient writing skills.

The responsibility for these lapses falls upon those teachers who—out of laziness, timidity, ignorance of their field or a misguided desire to be loved—fail to challenge every student to do his or her very best. This includes chairpersons and deans who do not demand high standards, visit classrooms, study syllabi or publish the grade distributions by departments. Little do teachers realize that in the long run students will admire the professors who cared enough to challenge them and despise those who gave them the easy A’s.

Too many schools of education and education majors are considered academically soft. In 2014 the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research group committed to restructuring the teaching profession, released a report on 836 academic institutions housing teacher preparation programs, evaluating them on the core components of teacher preparation, including course content and practice teaching. Only 26 elementary programs and 81 secondary programs got top rankings.

And, there are real impacts to lax attention to teacher efficacy in basic material:

The weak schools disregard the basic methods of reading instruction. As a result, only 30 percent of American children learn to read beyond the basic level. Only 15 percent improved teaching on how to control classroom disruption. Worse, many classroom teachers have not been tested in the subjects they are assigned. In 509 institutions, 44 percent of the education graduates received honors, compared to 30 percent of other students. As a result the word spreads that getting an education degree is an easy college path—when, considering the responsibility of forming young minds, it should be the most rigorous.

Lowering standards, avoiding rigor, and discounting high expectations – as many do when they mock “no excuses” as a reform mantra – has disastrous consequences. We degrade the system if we forget education is supposed to free students of intellectual limits and ignorance by arming them with skills and a world fund of usable information.

Here are several books on teaching that Schroth recommends:

Don’t Demiansplain TFA to DeRay & Other Rules To Live By

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First, there was mansplaining.

Then, there was Damonsplaining.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I feel it necessary to add another entry to the painfully awkward list of ‘splaining terms: Demiansplaining.

The term refers to Demian Godon, a software engineer from Seattle, who likes to attack Teach For America during his free time on social media and on his blog, Reconsidering TFA.

Godon also happens to be a white guy, which is why I found it ironic that he thought it was a good idea to write a blog post on Sunday -“Does Teach for America Leave Black Lives Behind?” – chiding DeRay Mckesson and other Black Lives Matter activists for their affiliation with Teach For America. In the post, Godon asks:

“[G]iven the role of the financial backers of corporate reform and TFA in the growing inequity facing communities of color, should black lives matter activists be partnering with TFA and corporate reformers?”

He then goes on to cite two statements from teachers union-aligned activists who argue (unsuprisingly) that “TFA actually threatens the black lives matter movement.” In short, he’s Demiansplaining to Black Lives Matter activists why Teach For America is antithetical to the Black Lives Matter movement [insert headsmack here].

As a white guy, this is the type of statement that makes you cringe at how clueless and self-righteous other white guys can be. So I’ve come up with two simple rules that other melanin-deficient fellows like myself can follow to avoid falling into the same trap:

1. Don’t use the Black Lives Matter movement to push your personal political agenda

I would have thought this rule was self-evident, but apparently not, so let’s spell it out: If you’re trying to use the Black Lives Matter movement to push your personal political agenda, you’ve totally missed the point. BLM is not about you and your beef with TFA or other perceived boogeymen.

2. Don’t tell Black Lives Matter leaders what’s up when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement

Imagine some random person walks into your house, looks around, and then proceeds to tell you that you’ve furnished the place all wrong. This person isn’t an interior decorator or Feng Shui consultant you’re paying to tell you that your “corporate, neoliberal sofa” doesn’t belong in the living room where you put it. You would probably stand there thinking, “Who in the hell does this person think he is telling me where my neoliberal sofa should go in my house?” Then, you’d promptly boot him out the front door. Get it? Same logic applies when it comes to telling folks like DeRay Mckesson that their affiliation with TFA puts them “on the wrong side” of the BLM struggle.

In conclusion, if you follow these two simple rules, I promise even obsessed Teach For America critics can look (slightly) less foolish.