al sharpton Archives - The Jose Vilson

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The Education Boogey-Men

April 14, 2010

Ghost Busters vs. Stay Puff

Over the last few years, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting educational innovators and thought leaders from throughout the country, people who I either admire for their awesomeness or have pushed my thinking in ways I hadn’t thought of. People like the Teacher Leaders Network and my folks on Facebook and Twitter offer conversations I don’t routinely have with anyone in my immediate work circle. I often get material months in advance of anyone else in my district, and I often get dynamic ideas without paying a dime.

Having said that, the general conversations in education scare me. Deeply.

Some of these conversations make even the most seasoned administrators shake in their boots and question their own thought process, the most veteran and professional teachers more apprehensive about their pedagogy than they already are, and the most brilliant and inquisitive students feel like their whole spaces have no true security. The people we often refer to – the collective “they” – serve more as boogeymen than actual leaders of a people. We can name names like Joel Klein, Michael Bloomberg, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, et. al., but the minute they move, someone will eventually fill that position with more of this anti-people rhetoric. Furthermore, while these ladies and gentlemen attach their legacies to this work, there are hundreds of others behind the scenes who supplement these ideas, even unwittingly.

The boogey men use words like “accountability” and “executive decision” to siphon monies to third-party vendors and call the “support” an in-kind trade of thousands of dollars. The boogey men make up a set of neologisms to describe archaic and corporatist ideas in the hopes of pushing ideas that make no sense for the reality of millions of students across the nation. They’ll make unfair comparisons to other countries who’ve limited their educational opportunities to a certain sect of their population and boil their decisions down to “biology.” They’ll move the cursors on their graphs and charts just to make gains look greater than they actually are. just before election time.

What’s more, these boogeymen haven’t addressed education as a whole. After reading the plans, it makes me wonder if they’ve spoken at length and candidly to teachers, and not just to professors who haven’t taught in a long time, or people who’ve barely smelled a classroom or have kids going to school. This sort of work can’t be done while sitting in a little corner cubicle with a little reading light for weeks straight.

Like the ones we see in the movies or, for some of us, under our beds as children, these boogymen never see light. Or the light. That’s why we’re here. To illuminate as much as possible.

Jose, who’s got a flashlight next to his bed just for these types of these conversations …


This week, I’m writing a few more letters to different people, whose names shall be removed from the post, but who nonetheless are amalgamations of real characters. I won’t be mincing words this week, and in these letters, I hope to address some issues I find in education as a whole through these letters. If need be, I’ll apologize later. Actually, I probably won’t.

Barack Obama at School

Barack Obama at School

Dear Barack Obama,

It’s me again, hoping you’ll soon respond to my letters. As always, I have respect for you and what you’ve done thus far in office (most of the stuff anyways). At the very least, you’ve brought many issues into the national zeitgeist in ways only few have the power to do, particularly education. My letter comes on the heels of a Meet the Press interview with your Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in tow with Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich. As the video plays, I found myself shaking my head at almost every assertion these men made. While I expect a shallowness over educational issues from afternoon specials and morning wake-up shows, I still don’t expect that from men who have positioned themselves as “educational gurus.”

Very little about their collective histories build confidence in me or many others in their ability to understand the intricacies of the classroom, from the pedagogy and praxis of the everyday K-12 classroom and the management of an actual school because and despite restrictions from underfunded districts to the egregious practices of college loaners and their universities and the ultra-selectivity of the economically and / or racially underprivileged into post-graduate programs. Even if these individuals have tried to make a conscious effort to discuss the numbers behind their message, they sound more like they’ve dined at the corporate line table rather than actually having thorough conversations with people on the ground.

Let’s say we actually took the socialized system of public schools and turned them all over to private corporations and “non-profits.” When the next recession hits, as capitalism is prone to do, will we finally see a bailout then? Will the government have to step in and tell these “CEOs” to take paycuts but turn their backs when they take private trips to islands for professional development? Will our children have to shred all their papers and use the remaining documents for ticker tape, too? Will some of us teachers walk out with only socks and remaining curriculum in our suitcases? Or will we have a situation akin to Major League Baseball where we’ll hire “scabs” like proferred by Teach for America in lieu of qualified teachers with masters and / or years of experience in their profession?

A big part of me gets it, too. The one thing that most people seem to agree upon is that student achievement trumps everything else when it comes to education. However, the ends doesn’t always justify the ends, especially if the ends depend on unsustainable means. When I heard “Teachers have to come into a classroom and believe that they’re going to be ready and disciplined,” it says to me that we have yet to understand the conditions in which our children grow up and how so few actually make it out of the same system we come out of. When I heard “If the schools are failing, we just won’t give them money,” it sounds like it’s a problem that’s already been happening and it’ll continue promulgating the difference between the haves and the have-nots (for that matter, the halved or the halved-not).

To wit, in New York, we had plenty of schools who received the highest rating possible from the NYC Department of Education’s grading system, an A. By plenty, I mean 77.6%. Conversely, we only had 2 schools who received an F. Now, looking at the metrics, one might think NYC has done rather well, and deserves the monies from the Race to the Top fund. At a second glance, we see just how these numbers have manipulated so many of us. Our overcrowded, underfunded, parted, and soulless edifices can’t compare to the gloss Bloomberg’s coated over his office.

But maybe asking those three to visit a very low-performing school, even with Secret Service in tow, would mess up their shine. At the end of the day, as in the beginning, sunshine doesn’t gleam on brick and mortar. Yet the new glass ones aren’t so transparent either

Mr. Vilson, who wants nothing more than Obama to read …

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