My New Year’s Resolve

Jose VilsonJose5 Comments

Jose Vilson, US Department of Education

I’m supposed to tell you that I want to lose weight. I’m rounder than ever, so that’s a lofty goal.

But that’s no fun, and I’d rather not spend your time talking about dietary supplements and instead tell you about my visit to the US Department of Education, my second trip to Washington D.C. in as many months. This time, I got the chance to speak to Acting Secretary of Education John King, known primarily as former New York Commissioner of Education, his legacy tarnished by the mass opt-out movement across New York State. I had never met him until he got to D.C., so my only impression of him (mainly from articles, blogs, and memes) was that of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s puppet, placating to the hedge fund managers and charter school CEO’s wills and whims.

Since moving to D.C., he’s gotten a chance to hear me speak to him three times, and in two of those times, I got to ask questions that I hope would make him change course. Or at least I got to say that I told him what I felt to his face. I already felt like I won.

This conversation was about recruiting and retaining teachers as part of a nationwide policy. Adults like to sit in tables discussing possibilities, messaging items that might happen for chance if all the right elements are there. Sometimes, you hope the right people are there to deliver the message and make it actionable for the betterment of public education. Other times, you’re just hoping that the person with the most power in the room can differentiate between heartfelt, thoughtful statements and candy-coated trash. Having a seat at that table (along with folks I consider friends) assured that we’d take the conversation deeper, and that we did.

I can’t speak for everyone else in the room, but I can tell you what I said.

I can tell you that I put cultural competence on the table. I can tell you I spoke about the characteristics of a “bad teacher.” I can tell you that our highest need schools need our best, and it has to include strong professional development. I’m pretty sure I also mentioned that we need our teachers in these highest need schools to be looked at as actual professionals with their own set of skills. I specifically said I couldn’t stand the idea that certain teachers got seen as pedagogues and others as disciplinarians and deans, which ultimately determines their career track.

I can tell you Mr. King listened and wrote plenty of notes. I can’t tell you if, in the next 12 months, he’ll have the capacity or the political will to act upon what I mentioned.

There was a time, right before Race To The Top was enacted, that I might have said my feedback on this would create a significant shift in schools. I could have advocated for diversifying the teaching force and integration right when former Secretary Arne Duncan brought the hammer on the country with Common Core State Standards and teacher evaluations tied to test scores. But now, with the ESSA act, I have less confidence that there’s the political will to make that happen. Kicking the accountability game back to the states is the worst form of political ping-pong we’ll see in education.

In any case, I came out of there feeling like I spoke to what teachers go through on a daily basis. Whenever I’m in a position to be invited, as an unbought, unfiltered educator, I continue to push hard on the levers of equity and justice in ways I hope folks at the federal level can comprehend. I take this responsibility of having a voice seriously, which is why, when invited, I don’t half-step. As for Mr. King, who follows me on Twitter, I hope he’s willing to push past the education reforms that haven’t worked and actually ride this third wave, progressive and truly civil-rights focused.

My heart is exactly where it needs to be on these issues. I carry this weight with as much humility as I can. Hopefully, I did you all proud.

photo c/o

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 5

  1. reedmwordy

    Jose, thanks for speaking your mind. It’s great that you’ve been given invitations to do so. As an 18 year veteran teacher in a “highest poverty”, urban, non-performing district I have a reaction to your comment that the neediest schools need the best teachers and we need PD. We have had more PD (the latest and greatest) than I think anyone else has received as a result of NCLB and Rttt providing our district $$ and requiring that they spend it on teacher PD. And yes, we have probably the same amount of incompetent teachers as any other district. However, the vast majority of our teachers are competent, highly qualified, and incredibly committed to the children we serve. A major problem that causes teachers to look as though we don’t know what we are doing is every year we have a new “magic bullet” best practice that we are required to take as a PD and then implement immediately, with fidelity and then drop like a hot rock after you invest your time and your own $$ for supplies to do it. (Schlechty, ASCEND, 4 Block Literacy, Balanced Literacy, John Collins writing, PSC, 3 block math, 5 Easy Steps Math, FIP, Marzano, Scholastic’s 4 R’s, CORE Literacy, Mastery Learning, Foutas & Pinnell LLI – We have been required to go to all of these, and those are the ones I can remember off the top of my head!) Not only are we in the neediest schools required to continually change our methods, we are under extreme stress of constantly being visited, required to have evidence that you are using the latest thing on boards in your classroom and now thanks to Rttt and our state’s crazy Department of Ed. we have VAM, 3rd Grade Guarantee that ups the ante for preK-2 kids, teacher evals that are monsterous, growth plans, and mandatory (but not funded) teacher based team meetings weekly during our planning time. Anyway, please be careful when you say that the neediest students need the best teachers and that they need PD. It pretty much comes off as saying – the present teachers at these schools are junk and don’t know what they’re doing. And that is not only so wrong, it is hurtful to people who are spending their heart and soul teaching in the hardest conditions with the most requirements and the least support. Thanks. Mary

  2. David B. Cohen

    José – thanks for sharing your part of this meeting. I was definitely curious. I like the third wave idea – though I’m not sure if it’s third, fourth, or more. Still, we’re long overdue for a reform that’s actually more about children’s lives and wellbeing and not solely about limited measures of supposed academic proficiencies. It’s actually a reform that’s about more than education, of course. One question though…

    Re: ESSA, you wrote: “Kicking the accountability game back to the states is the worst form of political ping-pong we’ll see in education.” Given how poorly the Bush and Obama administrations have handled accountability, what were you hoping for in terms of ESSA accountability? I certainly understand that the various states can inflict some damage here, but coming from a state that fought back against Duncan, et. al., I’m finding myself relieved that, at least in the short term, there will be less federal control.

    1. Post
      Author
  3. pdexiii

    “Culturally competent teachers…”
    Hmmm.
    At no time in my life did I have what we would call today ‘culturally competent’ teachers. Well, maybe the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament count because their mission was always with children of color, but none of them looked like me.
    What I did have was culturally competent parents, which seems to mean that today what I think you’re saying is we need teachers in the classroom to compensate for what these students aren’t getting at home.
    I have no problems with that, but society has to be honest about what it implies about whom you must hire in these high-needs schools and how they must be trained.

Leave a Reply