Grabbing the Mic at #EWA14

My esteemed university hosted the Education Writers Association conference this year.

(You can check the hashtag #ewa14 on twitter — it turns out journalists are mad live tweeters!)


The guy talking is José Vilson. He was keeping it real.

Unfortunately, since I wasn’t asked to actually speak, all I could do is tweet and then blog about it later. So this is my socially acceptable version of grabbing the mic.

Here are some points about education and research that I would like to share with the members of EWA.

Learning is a complex phenomenon, and the best teaching will need to address learning at every grain size.

Is learning about changes in our neural networks? Is learning about reorganizing our schematic understandings of the world? Is learning about becoming a certain kind of person in the world?

The answer to all of these questions is: YES.

These descriptions of learning are rooted in different disciplinary perspectives –– neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and social psychology, respectively. This is the state of the field of learning sciences: we do not yet have unified narratives of learning (although people are trying) because  each framework powerfully leverages certain kinds of issues.

Discussions about schooling usually tacitly focus on the cognitive psychology framework. However, any discussion of learning can be enriched by at least considering what other versions of learning might offer in the way of explanation. Imagine if discussions of the so-called achievement gap didn’t simply focus on students’ deficits but talked about the neurological consequences of PTSD or the identity conflicts students might experience buying into school as an institution.

Unequal schooling may be a fact of our American life, but it could be mitigated with greater political will.

According a 2011 report from the Organization for Economic Development, student socioeconomic status accounts for 17 percent of the variation in student performance in U.S. reading, mathematics, and science instruction. In higher-performing countries, such as Canada and Japan, socioeconomic status accounts for only 9 percent of the variation in student performance. That is almost twice the variance due to SES.

With our culture of individualism, we are in love with the idea of the hero-teacher saving students. This narrative has been critiqued by sociologists as reinforcing white, middle-class fantasies of urban communities.

However, racism and inequality are structural problems. One individual cannot change –– or even mitigate –– structure. Research repeatedly shows the the potential for teams of educators to work in ways that minimize such stratification by supporting all students’ academic advancement (Burris, Heubert & Levin, 2006; Gutiérrez, 1996; Lee, Smith & Croninger, 1997).

Not all parents are middle class parents.

During the panel I attended on the Common Core, a number of speakers talked about parents’ role in children’s schooling. Yet I kept thinking (and tweeting) that not all parents are middle class parents. Sociologists studying inequality have found that different parenting styles have consequences for children’s “fit” in institutions. Sociologist Annette Lareau named a prevalent middle class parenting style concerted cultivation, referring to an orientation toward children’s individual needs, arranging out-of-school time with formally organized activities, and running interference with children’s institutional relationships.

This seemed to be the taken-for-granted parent in the panel’s discussion. Having taught in highly diverse, working class schools in Northern California, I can attest to the fact that concerted cultivation does not describe the parenting style I encountered as a teacher. But that did not mean that parents did not care. They themselves had different resources, different social positions, and different access to schooling, whether they were constrained by language, multiple jobs, or simply deference to institutional authority.

Objectivity is not always achieved by seeking both sides of an issue, since the empirical grounds for each side may not be equally weighted. Objectivity almost always involves interrogating your own social position.

Talking to folks at EWA, there is a lot of professional pride in the journalistic commitment to objectivity. People praised stories that showed both sides of an issue. But if “both sides” are ignoring critical, structural aspects of schooling and education, then an important component of the story has been missed. I think that this has been missed on “both sides” of the Common Core “debate”, as I explained here.

Thanks for listening. Feel free to comment if you have questions.


Reconciling Dual Consciousness in Teaching

In one of the first chapters of José Luis Vilson’s new memoir, This is Not a Test, we see him proctor a district-mandated math test for his middle school students in Morningside Heights. We are offered a peek inside Vilson’s head, as he struggles between his teacher self, Mr. Vilson, and his authentic self, José.

“I don’t want to take this test!”
José thinks, Good me neither.
Mr. Vilson says, “I understand, but don’t you want to do well?”

Vilson’s narration of the scene is comitragic, as he grapples to keep his footing as a school authority in the face of his students’ barrage of reasonable objections.

One way to read Vilson’s memoir is as a journey toward authenticity in the classroom, as he finds ways to reconcile the inevitable tensions that arise from this dual consciousness represented by José and Mr. Vilson. The current NCLB testing regime, with its requirements to rank and sort his students, places the greatest split between these two selves. Vilson is clear what his cause is: it’s not anti-testing as much as it is pro-children. He sees firsthand the injustices and pressures that the current accountability system places on them. But his objections are full of nuance and detail, making them worth listening to.

As a teacher, his connection with his students cuts deep. As a Dominican American, Vilson speaks fluent Spanish and has dark brown skin. His vignettes from the classroom portray the salience of both his Latino and Black identities in his teaching.

Unlike many memoirs, the scenes in the book extend beyond the classroom. We learn, for instance, that Vilson was raised in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, attending both public and Catholic schools. His own experiences in school do more than fill in biographical detail. They provide a deeper understanding of his own conflicted relationship with the institution of schooling. We hear of the many ways his educational experiences lifted him, especially the wonderful Father Jack at Nativity School, who served as a mentor even after Vilson graduated. We also learn of his encounters with racism, particularly in the predominantly white Xavier High School, where he faced a teacher who refused to see his competence, not just on written assignments but in verbal exchanges in the classroom.

Vilson’s story takes a unique place in the genre of teacher memoirs. In part, this is a unique moment in our educational history, with NCLB bringing unprecedented testing and monitoring to our schools. As Vilson himself recognizes, urban schools like his have felt the press of the accountability system more keenly than the “high performing” suburban schools. Since test scores strongly correlate to parents’ income and level of education, there is no surprise in this state of affairs. Yet it has led to a situation where communities with the least power on the federal landscape have felt the greatest impact of the policy. Vilson’s first-person account of the NCLB era, from the vantage point of an urban school teacher, provides important documentation of this policy’s footprint.

In addition, Vilson’s memoir stands apart from other urban teacher stories. With his commitment to his students’ humanity, his writing brought to mind classic memoirs like Herbert Kohl’s 36 Children and Vivian Paley’s White Teacher. Like Vilson’s work, these books delve into the teacher narrators’ personal growth as they develop their practice in face of a system that can be dehumanizing to children. However, the depth to which Vilson interleaves his own autobiography of schooling sets it apart from the memoirs of these white teachers. Unlike Kohl and Paley, Vilson’s identity work as a teacher was not about recognizing the salience of race in education but rather managing his own alignment with institutions that too often ignore it.

In the final section of the book, Vilson finds his teacher voice, one that seems to mitigate the tensions between José and Mr. Vilson. Nowhere is that more beautifully represented than in the poem that gives the book its name, This is Not a Test. He reads it at the Save Our Schools March, an anti-testing rally in Washington, D.C. With its hiphop rhythms and intelligent word play, Vilson advocates for his students and speaks out against the barrage of testing, in a sense bringing the reasonable objections of his students to a national stage. The reconciliation of consciousness, then, comes from activism and advocacy on behalf of students and teachers.

I don’t want to spoil the moment beyond that, but I was moved to find the YouTube video of the rally so I could truly hear these words in Vilson’s voice. Here it is, if you are interested:

In the end, Vilson’s book makes an important contribution in several ways. At a time where only 7 percent of the US’s 3.3 million teachers identify as Black and 8 percent as Latino, we need a better understanding of teachers of colors’ experiences in our educational system. Vilson’s generous recounting of his own experiences provided me insights as a teacher educator about the different kind of identity work teachers of color might engage in.

As a contribution to the teacher memoir genre, it is a wholly original work. Vilson is as likely to cite educational research as he is hip hop lyrics. He is both deadly serious and incredibly funny. Overall it is an engaging and worthwhile read for anyone interested in race, educational equality, and the impact of NCLB policy.

The Tweet Heard ‘Round the Edu World

Recently, my twitter world has been on fire in response to comedian Louis C.K.’s anti-Common Core rant.

It started with this tweet:

A lot has been said already — check out Audrey Watters’ storify on the subject for one example.

I agree that, as a parent, C.K. is a stakeholder in public education and therefore should have a voice. But I would like to attempt to push back a bit to put the Common Core Standards in a little bit of context in the hopes that C.K. and other middle class parents can sharpen their advocacy.

As I have said previously, we need to distinguish among the standards, their implementation, and the accountability system they have been stuck into. Otherwise, we will repeat our American tendency to simply throw out babies with the bathwater.

In the spirit of nuance, I have two responses to Louis C.K.’s tweet and those who endorse it:

(1) The Common Core is not the same as No Child Left Behind. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been implemented hastily and without any modification of the NCLB accountability system in many places. This has resulted in middle-class public schools feeling the heat that has been around for some time in schools in lower-income communities, as teachers worry about evaluations that are based on assessments and standards that are unfamiliar, and perhaps in their hurried, underfinanced implementation, unreasonable.

The kind of overkill test prep has been going on for a long time in schools who don’t rate well under the NCLB regime. These schools are put on probationary status, as they have to demonstrate making “adequate yearly progress” (AYP). Researchers (including myself) have reported that test prep has taken over other more humanistic educational goals like so much kudzu. I predicted that if rapid implementation led to this form of schooling for the middle class, there would be a larger outcry.

(2) The goal of standards is to provide more equal learning opportunities.

Do you remember Williams vs. California? Students from high poverty communities sued the state because state agencies failed to provide public school students with equal access to instructional materials, safe and decent school facilities, and qualified teachers.

This is a serious problem. I had the opportunity to visit schools across the country in the mid-1990s. To deform Gertrude Stein, algebra wasn’t algebra wasn’t algebra. The content of courses could too easily be predicted by the community’s SES. Even the best students in high poverty schools were not given the same level of content as mediocre students in wealthy schools.
Standards are not a perfect solution, but they are a tool to set a bar that is public and transparent for teachers, students, and communities. They say, “This is what algebra needs to include. Students, you have a right to learn this. Educators, you need to work out how to get students there.”

Of course, this last part of the mandate is where we find the rub. Educators are expected to know how to successfully work with the standards NOW — often with minimal support and training, and certainly with very little time.

As I have listened to some of the push back on the actual content of the CCSS, the most troubling to me is along the lines of “our kids can’t do that.”

Let me just say right out: I am quite certain that almost all of them can. How many Bob Moseses and Megan Bangs do we need showing us the unrecognized competence in kids of color or kids in poverty? Something needs to be done to bring high quality content to all students. Standards should not be the only tool, but they could be one of several that would include full funding of education and improving teachers’ working conditions to attract and retain our best people.
I  know firsthand that figuring out new ways of teaching to engage that different kinds of mathematical competence are hard and take huge investments on the part of schools.

The question remains: what are we going to let prevail? The status quo in which the kids whose parents have the ears of the world can have a quality education while others remain on the margins? Education is a key to a democratic society. The standards may not be perfect but they can be one tool of rectifying our history of unequal education.