Embracing The Elephant (Race and Education Reform)

Jose VilsonJose, Race19 Comments

A Man and His Elephant, by Paula Bronstein

A Man and His Elephant, by Paula Bronstein

When I first saw Michael Petrilli’s list of influential education policy tweeters, I laughed. As usual, it’s as important to see who’s left off the list as to see where they rank. We see through whichever lens is given to us at whatever time we read any piece, as well as create it, so this isn’t a personal attack on Michael or EducationNext (or anyone else mentioned on the list or previous lists or whatever-have-you).

This is, however, a critique on the education zeitgeist as a whole, and if the shoe fits, so be it. That’s how race and education reform work right now.

At first glance, there seemed to be a fair representation of different viewpoints. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, New York University education professor Diane Ravitch, education paper of record Education Week, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, and StudentsFirst CEO Michelle Rhee were the first five. I saw a mix of organizations, journalists, education professors, and former teachers / current education savants.

Yet, I couldn’t help but notice two themes: there was a lack of actual teachers on the list, because there’s still a presumption that teachers generally engage in instruction more than policy in virtual spaces. Perhaps more stark was the lack of representation of people of color. Of course, as is my challenge these days, I posted up my Twitter and Klout score, along with Sabrina Stevens. Our scores put us at #15 and #8 respectively after a few revisions to the list. I applaud Mike for re-doing the list at a few people’s behest.

If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you know how I feel about the exclusion of people of color in education anything, from Edublog Awards and the Math Twitter Blogosphere to the Bammys and every ed-tech conference I’ve been, I’ve been invited to, and / or never found out about until it was too late. I spare no one, not even my good friends.

So why try to get on a list as seemingly absurd as one inelegantly measured on Klout scores and numbers of followers? My answer is the same one I might give if asked about affirmative action policies: if you set a certain criteria, and the same types of people keep coming up in the criteria, then perhaps the result is as prejudiced as the process.

If we believe in two sides of education reform (I don’t), then one side seems to do a better job of proffering their people of color more so than the other, at least from the outside. Even if we believe Michelle Rhee, Steve Perry (the principal), and the rest merely serve as puppets to a corporate agenda, to the casual observer, that side espouses diversity much more than “this” one. While Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, education professor Lisa Delpit, and education professor Linda Darling-Hammond may give “our” side more legitimacy, people within both camps have to acknowledge the ways in which they enact their racial views (and collective privilege) before engaging in defensive posturing over who treats people of color better.

Even in more neutral educational topics like “math,” “literacy,” or “administration,” it’s interesting that the same names mentioned tend to be white males. Again, some of them are my friends, but, in my position, I have to speak my peace.

At some point this year, I promised myself that I would no longer tolerate invisibility. People of color in education reform can’t wait for validation, or a savior to highlight our work. Certainly, I’ve had plenty of people along the way of all colors share my work and refer me to others, but, above all else, I needed to have that sense of self and the work I do. That keeps my work integral and in forward motion.

In order for us to have true reform, we must see all stakeholders as equal, as worthy, as human as the next. Equity is an understanding that we don’t all start at the same place, but that we should all have the chance to run the same race, and, given the conditions, able to do as well as the next. When a guy like Ray Salazar tells you to address that multi-colored pachyderm in the room, you ought to say, “Well, sorry I didn’t notice it was stepping on your wingtip shoes.”

Until more people of color are willing to engage with others, put themselves out there in a profound way, and see themselves as equally intelligent and worthy of being in these education spaces, then people like me will keep mentioning ourselves. I’m willing to serve as a wedge if it means the door stays open just a little longer.

And if you don’t know, now you know.


Comments 19

  1. Social Media EDU is one big closed circle greek council with everyone grasping at their place in glory. I applaud you for putting yourself “out there” and adding your name to the conversation. I can guarantee you that those that are being lifted up are doing or have done the same.

    For example, I lost count of the number of bammy award messages that I received begging for my vote. There’s some other “top 20 in 20” award that is 100% self-nominated. Those awards become platforms and those platforms strengthen their voices in every edu conversation, including reform….whether they are true reformist or not. Social media often presents a far different reality than we think.

    I would consider myself a reformist, however I am not going to spend every waking hour of the day promoting myself as if I am searching for validation from a list or acknowledgement of my existence. I don’t need that. Instead I choose to put my thoughts out through twitter and my blog while I work on being an agent of change in my community. That’s what matters most to me.

    Now, with that said, I’ve been highly annoyed at the “experts” as presented on top ranked edu podcast and hangouts. The same ones that over sell themselves, extending their voices are the ones who have slowly yet surely become the poster children of edu. They are the “chat founders”, button pushers, bloggers and edtech company “go to” faces. Those same individuals push themselves like they’re corporations and not educators serving children.

    I’ve learned a few major lessons in my years in social media.
    1. I can’t control the path that some choose to take.
    2. I write my own story by what I share.
    3. I can’t make others pay attention to my work.
    4. I could care less what others think.

    I care that I speak up for the voiceless children and teachers that I represent and as long as I continue to fight my battles, that’s what matters most.

    It does bother me when I go to events, like edcamps and people of color are absent. I’ve never been to one with more than 2. It’s disheartening because I know that school leadership statewide and nationwide is fairly diverse. Yet, we choose to ignore the fact that conversations are happening and education is changing absent of major forces in the conversation.

    That, my friend, is what the real problem is. It’s not about the awards or the list. It’s about what you stated in your final paragraph…getting more people of color involved in the conversations that are occurring daily and sharing their positions with the world. We do exist but not unless we make ourselves heard.

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  4. Thank you for this, Jose. One thing I want to bring up is that, especially in large, urban districts, people of color make up the largest population of public school children. This means that this white-washed group of “influencers” makes a lot of decisions and pontificates as the voice “public education” do not reflect a large population of those who are most affected by edreform policies, educational movements and conversations. This is what really scares me.

    1. YES. The “voices” now controlling public education ever more frighteningly do NOT reflect the population of those most affected by reform policies. Especially those school reformers more and more likely to find a seat on a large, diverse, but very financially lucrative district’s school board. ciedieaech.wordpress.com/2015/10/10/getting-on-board

  5. Klout is such a deeply flawed measurement. Let’s start with that. Much like the algorithms we’re supposed to increasingly rely upon to judge “good” schools and “good” teachers and “good” students, it’s a black box. We don’t know what the inputs are; that makes it tricky to interrogate the outputs. My Klout score, for example, has decreased since I stopped writing for major technology publications, even though the number of folks who follow me on Twitter has increased four-fold.

    But more importantly than the usage of Klout to rank the “education policy Twitterati” is the way in which this list was clearly composed from the outset of folks that Michael Petrelli knows and *sees.* He knows those who are already highlighted by the media (whether as investors, pundits, politicians, foral org leaders). He doesn’t see Others.

    Much like the Klout score itself, there’s very little transparency in how this list was created. I don’t think it reflects much other than an obsession with ranking and the cronyism of the ed-reform movement.

    But HEY I’m on it now, so wheeee.

  6. Audrey, just took a closer look at the list. To your point, the author had the audacity to put himself at #15!

    PS–My Klout score = 63. How much that means to me deep down inside = zero.

  7. Post

    Everyone, thank you for the awesome responses.

    Let me say this as a blanket statement. The point isn’t so much about basing things on Klout scores and number of followers. I’m sure there are others more influential in the real world than me who register at a much lower Klout score, and that’s OK. I’m more concerned with the idea of exclusion, and, as Mary Beth mentioned, the fact that the big policies coming out of Washington primarily try to address children of color.

    Hypothetically speaking, let’s say we found a better way to measure influence, put influence on a list, and display it for the world to know. Or, in the other examples I provided, we created a “neutral” space for educators to come together and innovate. If the people who set the criterion didn’t see anything wrong with not having people of color (and / or women), then that’s a critical discussion to have.

    I have the fortune of putting myself out there, but, as Audrey pointed out, it’s about what you know and see. And if you don’t see a problem with it, then we have to call it as we see it.

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  9. Your blog post was recently brought to my attention Thought it was interesting on several levels and was particularly struck by your inclusion of the Bammy Awards on your list of the groups that are “non-inclusive… of people of color.” Thought you might want to know that the Bammy Awards were founded by an African American, the first Bammy Awards we’re co-hosted by an African American and “people of color” we both presenters and recipients of Bammy Awards last year.

    Since one of the main thrusts of your post was about accuracy, I thought might want to follow Petrelli’s lead and update your post accordingly.

    I thought was worth addressing

    Thought I’d add a couple of data points for you to factor into your thinking.

    1. Post


      I say this with all due respect to you and your role at the Bammy Awards conference. I not only looked at the website last year, but I also saw the deluge of pictures, tweets, and blogs about the Bammy Awards, and even some of the attendees I spoke to, all white, attested to the lack of diversity in both the audience and recipients. As a matter of fact, when I open up the web page today and looking at that first pop-up, one might come to the same conclusions about visible diversity that I did. Perhaps that’s something to consider around the visibility of people of color in that respect. While I wasn’t as knowledgeable about the history of the Bammy Awards, people who’ve read me long enough know that the reason for bringing up the Bammys wasn’t to bash the awards, much less Michael Petrilli. It was to speak to the idea that, when I look at diversity, I don’t just look at one circle and point to things there. I look at all of them.

      After bringing it up on Twitter last year, I got a boat load of nodding, and only one dissenter. Perhaps you can work towards fixing that percentage. Sadly, as I also explained during the online conversation, I wasn’t able to go even when I was invited because I had a prior engagement with my school.

      I’m also aware that Linda Darling-Hammond was given an award, too, and for that I am proud. One might expect that, instead of assuming ill-will when bringing up issues of race, we ask, as the one dissenter did, how can we make it better.

      Hope that helps.

  10. All due respect returned.

    I think Arthur Schopenhauer said it best, “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” In matters of race we are often distracted from the substance of the issue by a focus on appearances. Catering to this tendency we often see organizations trotting out people of color, posting their pictures prominently in their ads, brochures, web sites and in their commercials, while in fact, their is very little real representation in the organization where it counts.- at the decision making table.

    Assessing the Bammy Awards posture on inclusion based on a few random snapshots, or hearsay from people who attended, while downplaying the substantive facts I offered above simply perperuates this emphasis on appearances over meaningful representation.

    If racial been counting is the name of the game then forget about the images and look at the complexion of the board. http://www.bammyawards.com/index.php/about-us/board-of-govenors That’s where “Klout” is and that’s where it matters most.. Everything else is just window dressing…

    Sent with respect my brotha’

    1. Post

      Fair arguments, except for a few things. Anytime we don’t proffer POCs, people have that perception. Who took the pictures? Why, out of 100 pictures, would we not include as many diverse faces as possible to assure inclusion? Secondly, it wasn’t just one or two attendees who said something, but a sizeable sample. At the time, dozens of people responded in kind on social media, almost all of whom were in attendance. Imagine if you walked into a restaurant where only one set of staff got to wait the tables while everyone else got thrown in the kitchen. On paper, you’d have plenty of representation, but, when people walk in, the picture looks different until they peer over the curtain. That’s an extreme example, sure, but perception matters as much as the “facts,” sir.

      Was Arthur Schopenhauer speaking to you, too?

      Once more, you’re confusing my quandary with something else altogether. I’m not saying the Bammy Awards are racist, but simply wondering about racial diversity, representation, and yes, lenses. I’m saying that every organization deserves its set of scrutiny, not just the ones who disagree with my point of view. Notice, for instance, my inclusion of EduCon and Chris Lehmann, who I consider a real friend. After we spoke both publicly and privately, we worked towards having harder dialogue with folk.

      Like I said, I saw your board of governors, was excited to see good colleague Sharon Robinson there, along with LDH, and a few others whose work I appreciate. I’m not exactly sure where the “Klout” comment came from, but perhaps you should use yours to have those discussions with someone besides me, a humble questioner looking for progress.

      Perhaps we need to look at the window dressing and how much or little it lightens the house.

  11. We each have a purpose and a role to play in education and in life. I respect that addressing issues of inequity, real and apparent, is yours. Your work matters, your voice matters and I applaud the commitment, passion and courage you bring as to speak clearly to what you see is wrong in the education world around you.

    Our role and purpose is to celebrate what’s right in education, to push back against the relentless criticism of American education and educators. To acknowledge that it takes a village to educate children and that all contributors to the education village are vital — that by definition includes “people of color.”

    In that context our focus is on being “open.” The Bammy Awards are open to anyone. Indeed, the sole purpose of the Educator’s Voice Awards is to find nominees beyond the constellation of the educators we hear about and read about every day, and to surface people who would typically not be included.

    That said, I suspect the complexion of the Bammy Awards roughly matches the complexion of most activities that involve connected educators. If you follow along on most of the weekly chats, the majority of participants are not people of color. If you look at the attendance at Edcamps most of the organizers and participants are not people of color. On its face it would appear that Twitter and Edcamp are exclusionary. Are they?

    Your comments seem to speak to a model where “the man” is in control of who gets what. Therefore we must fight the man, agitate for change etc… In fact, the Internet is perhaps the most truly democratized space in our society. There are no gatekeepers, virtually anyone can participate and be seen and heard. I recall when the Berlin wall came down ( yes I’m that old), how East Germans struggled to grasp the implications of freedom. They we were not accustomed to being able to shape their own destiny. The game had changed, but they were still looking at life through the old lens.

    The Bammy Awards are open and inclusive. There was no one at the virtual or literal door of the Bammy Awards keeping people of color out. The complexion of the Bammy Awards is a reflection of who embraced the program, participated and showed up.

    As you can tell by my earlier posts I’m not much for racial bean counting or gerrymandering appearances to give the “impression” of diversity —— myopic perhaps and proof that Schopenhaur applies to me as well. But neither are we oblivious to issues of inclusion, we simply are inclined toward a more substantive approach.

    The board is the reflection of our commitment to inclusion and the “open” process extends that commitment across the entire program. This is where our role ends and yours begins.

    I now pass the baton to you and submit that the most productive thing that you can do is to engage in a campaign to get more people of color “connected.” Engage in a campaign to let more people of color know that the walls have come done and that, online, anyone can be seen, heard, participate and have an influence on education issues.

    Candidly, I’m not much of a blogger or tweeter. My observation is that after all is tweeted and done much more is tweeted than done. I’m a doer and my focus is on getting things done. I depart from my “to-do” list to address your post because I respect you and your work and think this issue is important. But I am acutely aware that while we are exchanging blog posts, there is important work to be done that is being deferred. So with this post I head for the exit. I thank you for taking the time to engage me and thank you for your thoughtful replies. I trust that If we work to ensure that the doors of the Bammy Awards are wide open and you work to get many more people of color connected and engaged, the pictures on the Bammy Awards Website will automatically change to reflect that reality. There’s much work to be done Jose. Let’s get busy!

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  14. Never knew Klout Score existed. It’s bad enough there are sites called “Rate A Teacher”. However just visited their site and looked at their employee benefits. Not bad!! They even get free food. Teachers are lucky if they get to eat their lunch.
    I would say for me Karen Lewis is my hero. (Was she at the Bammys??) She has transformed unionism in my eyes by empowering teachers to not be afraid to stand up and speak the truth. That’s something you don’t see much of here in NYC.

    I can’t believe Winerip didn’t win for reporting. His stuff was so good, the NYTimes relieved him of his position because his reporting went against their agenda. I know I voted for Michael. I also voted for Rita Solnet who helped defeat Parent Trigger (Jeb Bush’s pet project) in Florida 2 years in a row. That’s like David and Goliath.

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