No, YOU Shut Up! (What Matters In Education Discussions)

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose14 Comments


One of my favorite moments last year was meeting Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis. At the time, her name was floated around as the author of my book’s foreword. I was super-excited to get the chance to meet her, especially in light of the backlash against her and CTU after the epic teachers’ strike of 2012. What’s most appalling about people’s perceptions about her was that, despite her obvious passion and intellect, they confused the role she had to play as the leader of CTU and the loving person she actually is. I understood this long before I met her, but few people do. In order to fight for what’s right, we sometimes have to step out of ourselves to make something happen.

In light of that, my work on elevating teacher voice always brings me back to the question of who gets heard and why. I’ve said multiple times that women’s rights and teachers’ rights are inextricable. Most teachers are women, and most higher-level administrators are men. Thus, we can attribute the disconnect, at least partially, to the fact that, when men make laws, they do so often to exclude. Anytime we don’t make language easy to access for everyone, we can very deliberately find ways to exclude people who don’t have access to said language.

As such, even male teachers who want to speak up are often disregarded because teaching is seen as women’s work, a multilayered, intersectional understanding of the way power works in education.

Now, what does that mean about education discussion? I asked my friends on Facebook what they thought about this question, and we did lots of unpacking. Generally, we agree that teachers ought to have a larger voice in education policy. Analogies to medicine and the military are appropriate here in that, no one would want the highest position in those fields to be someone without experience on the ground level. We tolerate this in education for too many reasons, the major one being that K-12 teachers are predominantly teachers.

We see teachers constantly pushed out the way, if included at all, when it comes to even talking about their own profession. How many education panels will we have that exclude a current teacher? How many initiatives will we have that didn’t take teachers into a primary advisory role? How many? How many? At least until some of us force our way in?

Then we started to see counterexamples and realized that, it’s not as black and white as teaching experience. For instance, I respect Gen. Colin Powell, but he took us into war with the Middle East under false pretenses. Muhammad Ali, with very little education, knew not to go into the Vietnam War at a time when the rest of the country thought we should. There are scientists who, under pressure from funders, advocate against climate change despite the mounting evidence. Then there’s this from Mike Klonsky:

How about opinions of parents, researchers, students, civil rights activists, ordinary citizens…? Here in Chicago, we have a career K-12 educator, Byrd-Bennett closing our schools and privatizing the system.

And Jessica Klonsky (related):

But I don’t think someone should run an educational system without having any classroom experience. Also respecting someone’s opinion and agreeing with them are two different things. I don’t have to agree with someone on educational policy for me to have respect for their opinions. I’m happy to disagree with someone as long as they have shown that they are on the side of working-class and poor families, immigrants, people of color, and struggling learners. There is plenty of room for disagreement with respect among people who are on the same side. When it comes to people who are essentially just puppets or members of the corporate elite interested in sucking profit out a school system and only interested in what’s good for business then I don’t really care if they’ve spent their whole lives in the classroom. I oppose them.

So. At this point, I’ve seen panels and books from all sorts of folk that aren’t K-12 educators, including folks who I genuinely appreciate. People with business degrees, marketing, politics, advertising, billionaires, and a whole slew of other professions not directly related to K-12 education. I even include my higher education folk who, even if they have similar issues, know that K-12 teaching needs to be respected.

As far as I can tell, the main point about who belongs in the education discussion isn’t about how much educational experience we have isn’t necessarily about how much educational experience they have, but on whether we agree with their direction, and that’s an OK argument to make. Kudos if they do have more than five years in the classroom. Kudos if they spend time in schools, listening to teachers, students, and parents. Kudos if they helped create schools that work democratically with key people in schools.

But I often see the “educational experience” debate come up when there’s a disagreement of some sort. Consistency is key. Otherwise, we can be OK with having productive, nuanced dialogue about the future of education, and not obfuscate our ideological purities with understanding that there’s a bigger umbrella of folk who want to have a stake in truly improving schools. Democracy demands this.


Comments 14

  1. To be clear, most teachers are “white” women who want a larger share in the discussions about educating children of color. Maybe we should have a thread on “should people with no experience raising children of color be taken seriously in discussions about the development of children of color?”

  2. Pingback: Where are the White Men? | Education Is...

  3. This sort of re-thinking a standard cliche’ argument so that we can be more honest and consistent might not be as “exciting” as polemic and denunciation but feels like a warm flow of air on a cold day. It feels like you’re building your sanity shields to defend against the various hype-bots (the new Decepticons – Polarize, Crush, and Ignore).

    Am I misreading or did two of the three of the comments so far ignore your main point – that we should NOT exclude voices based on the criteria of experience? Maybe that’s partly cognitive screening (we hear what we want and expect to hear) but maybe it’s also this tangled thesis statement, “As far as I can tell, the main point about who belongs in the education discussion isn’t about how much educational experience we have isn’t necessarily about how much educational experience they have, but on whether we agree with their direction, and that’s an OK argument to make. ” As the elves in the workshop complained, too many Clauses contradicting each other!

    Keep up the important work. You’re helping us think better.

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  4. Yes, we do not like it when people shove policies that we disagree with. But that’s the difference–they are shoving policies they have no right making. Where is the dialogue?? Where is the “conversation”? When the NYTimes cites some organization with a name like “Teacher Quality Review” or whatever they are called, we know this is not a real education organization. Yet we are prisoners to their thoughts and ideas. It’s one thing if you or I have a difference of opinion, and on FB we seem to, but when someone like Byrd-Bennett makes decisions, we know they are not coming from her but from politicians who are getting their walking orders from either DFER or ALEC. She is in it for the paycheck just like the former union leader of Washington, DC was because the minute he was voted out, he took a job with Michelle Rhee. And don’t even get me started on Weingarten!!

    I wish Karen Lewis was the AFT leader because she is truly from the trenches. And I am praying that deBlasio wasn’t corrupted by his meeting with Rahm Emanuel. It’s possible, but I hope deBlasio will be his own man. I do know that Julie Cavanagh has worked with Farina, so I hope she uses Julie as a sounding board.

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      Schoolgal, I think you’re misinterpreting the tenor of the post. I’m merely suggesting that we tend to want to hear people we generally agree with, and that’s OK. That’s why the preface of my first couple of paragraphs notes that educators do need a bigger voice in the conversation because, as of now, it seems like we’re shut out of it.

      Also, I don’t think deBlasio would just roll with what Rahm Emanuel would do, knowing that the backlash right now in Chicago is immense. Schoolgal, we haven’t disagreed that much as far as I remember. I’m trying to get to the underlying statement we already know, hence my inclusion of the Klonsky comments here.

      1. Yes I would rather hear Ravitch speak than Gates, Duncan or King but that’s because they DON’T listen. Why do talk shows only book the people they agree with like Rhee? Why do papers and magazines print the negative things about public ed while praising charters? And why did the NYTimes demote one of the best education reporters, Michael Winerip??
        Yeah, we listen to those who agree with us, but frankly that ship has sailed too. It’s all the way to Fiji. I can read you, Ravitch and all the other bloggers and it’s just going nowhere in my head. Where is the action? Why aren’t we collectively taking action? Why didn’t teachers around the country stand with Chicago and Seattle? And I don’t mean with words, I mean with bodily action like protests.
        (I was disappointed that many teachers from NYC didn’t attend the SOS March in DC because it would have had a bigger impact. It didn’t even get a blurb in the media even with star power like Matt Damon.) There is very little solidarity even within schools. We expect too much from a union who is not only listening to the other side, but giving in. I thought “BATS” would become a movement–but that IMHO turned into a disappointment. Again, all words, no action. I was ready to strike in ’05 and so were many other teachers I spoke with. I was ready to attend a rally against Bloomberg until Randi cancelled it. I am ready to leave the Democratic party–especially after Obama signed a law giving “highly-qualified status” to TFA. Imagine they get a federal law supporting their 6-week training making them better than any other teacher in the country who has to prove their worth through a test score?? The only reason I remained a Democrat was to throw my support to deBlasio instead of Thompson in the primary. (My way of giving the middle finger to Randi I suppose.) I pray you are right about dB otherwise I will change my voting status to “Green”, Blue or whatever until every other teacher joins me and scares the $h*t out of the Democrats!!

        And may I call you “Baby”???

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          I usually only let my fiancee call me loving names like “Baby”.

          As for the rest of your comment, I agree. In 2005, I was barely in the profession. I wish I knew then what I know now. That’s why I was at SOS, because I knew a national movement wasn’t just important, but necessary. The tide is turning, not just on the ground level, but institutionally. This, I believe.

          Thank you.

          1. Lucky finance!! Wish all activist looked like you!!

            I hope for your sake the tide is turning. It’s people like you with years to go that tuck at my heartstrings. When I started teaching, I was in charge of my classroom and had the respect of my administrators because they saw how well my students were responding. I loved making learning fun, but most of all I loved that I had the time to develop a concept until it was understood.

            Today I watched Channel 7 Eyewitness News Close Up. Mulgrew was asked tough questions, and many times seemed unprepared to answer–especially when it came to raises. (There is talk he might agree to a merit system). Then Eva came on, and not one tough question. When asked if Eva would collaborate with public school teachers at co-locations, she said she already did by offering them to sit in on their staff development. Is that the definition of “collaboration”? She cried she didn’t have enough money and would not be able to afford rent, but not one question about the combined salary of her and her husband or where the money comes from to renovate their side of the school. She praised her schools, but not one question about why so many teachers leave or how much was spent on “customized” test prep. Schools that invested in those books by Pearson were “lucky” to have passages from the test prep be part of last year’s ELA exam. This is what passes for journalism. And this is why I say the media is working hard to influence the public against public education.

  5. This concept must be in the air; from the other day: Classroom Teaching Experience and Whose Voice Matters

    To me, interesting and difficult issues are (1) how many simply disregard how voiceless and invisible teachers have been historically and remain now, and (2) the sort of “common sense” arguments that all voices are equal, discounting any value in articulating more weigh to experience/expertise.

    I doubt people call for democracy and equal weight of all voices when confronting medical issues.

    Thank you for this post, as always.

  6. Pingback: Jose Vilson. What matters in education discussions. And not just because he quotes my brother and my daughter. | Fred Klonsky

  7. People just keep on claiming that they will take the initiative and bring positive change in the system, but nothing like that happens in reality. But those who have the urge in doing something don’t wait for others to start, they take the responsibility on their shoulders.

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