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arne duncan

Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan

Nancy Flanagan’s recent post on teacher leadership finally gave me the push to dive into my experience in Washington, D.C., where Dr. Jill Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hosted us.

The function was part of the White House’s new initiative, White House Social, a series of events for people who engage with the White House on social media. Of course, my social media presence helped a bit in their decision, despite my obviously socialist points of view (are they obvious?) and outwardly passionate demeanor. Anyone who’s read my work knows what I’m about, so I was curious when I got the invite, and accepted immediately.

Even though I slept about three hours between my book release after-party on Tuesday and hoping on the 5:30am train the next morning, I felt I had to be there. Admittedly, I understood that I wouldn’t just be representing myself, but the 2-3% of the male teachers of color in the nation, and I took that responsibility super-seriously. Representing the hundreds of us isn’t a burden / opportunity that I needed to take on, but, as with most things, I knew better than to listen and not engage in substantive policy talk.

After a quick tour of the White House (and an even briefer appearance by the President as he jumped on a helicopter to Arkansas to observe the tornado relief efforts), we were asked to meet in VP Joe Biden’s office. The rustic feel of the office felt super-comfortable. A few of us sat in his seat. When it was my turn, I engaged the other reasons from his seat.

It was all fun and games until I noticed everyone stand up. I didn’t know what was going on. Then I heard, “It’s cool. Stay right there.” It was Arne Duncan. We shook hands, and I said, “Well, we have a person of color at the president’s seat. It looks like we could use one at the VP desk, too.” He smiled and nodded to it.

After he sat, one of our hosts read off stats about the current state of US education. Rising graduation rates, Common Core, and the elevation of early childhood education were the key points of success. In my mind, I also started to go over the list of failures on the part of his administration: the inflation in class size, the thousands of school closures and teacher layoffs, the over-emphasis on testing and the capitulation of the department’s agenda to wealthy education reformers. But I preferred to hear him out, because I’m a classy guy.

Rather than ask him about things I knew (and that he’d duck), I asked him about the RESPECT initiative and the lack of diversity amongst educators, and how we can improve that. His answers:

  1. The department still goes through its daily proceedings with the RESPECT initiative in mind. Because of politics, they can’t get around to raising teachers’ pay across the nation, but they’re also trying to find ways to raise the prestige of the profession, too. He noted that, in other countries, they don’t pay significantly higher than in the US, but in high performing countries, only 1 in 10 teaching candidates get chosen for the classroom.
  2. This was a frustrating issue for him. There are some initiatives like and others he highlighted that are trying to attract teachers of color, but it’s just a start. Also, he noted that there have been plenty of complaints about different programs and routes for recruiting teachers from different cultural backgrounds (assuming he’s talking about TFA), but there hasn’t been any one program that stands out more than any other.

He seemed a little more candid than usual, and responded to dissent by nodding and moving on. As I expected. After his Q&A and photo op with us (I quipped on Twitter how it was his honor to meet us), he made a quick comment to me about the need for more of me. I replied, “If you’re down, so am I.”

After a photo op and lunch with Dr. Jill Biden, I had a quick thought about the teachers I saw around. Despite their politics and vehement disagreements, they’re still teachers. As is always my stance, I would never judge a teacher for not using my tactics, not having my level of followers, or any of those other arbitrary measures to determine whether they’re “real.” I prefer to see them in the classroom, or at least have a conversation around pedagogy in their specific contexts.

I much prefer a great teacher who may not engage in political debates than a weak-and-not-trying-to-get-better teacher who voices a political opinion I agree with. The best politics in education is making sure our kids are learning. All this other stuff we do is secondary.

The other power in that room was knowing that there were teachers ready to lead the charge on this effort, not in the form of certificates, badges, and medals, but substantive decision-making and designing. If Duncan, etc. were truly invested in listening to our suggestions (and not simply through pre-determined venues) remains to be seen.

Even though he has about five inches on me, it felt good to meet Secretary Duncan eye-to-eye, not in deference, but as equal in importance. That’s the type of respect we ought to fight for.




A few months ago, I walked past a “successful” charter school here in Harlem, NY, speed-walking to get my school supplies for the coming school year. I noticed a huge crowd of mostly Black and Latino families all waiting to pick up their children when a taut, pony-tailed White man came out with a clipboard and yells, “Alright, parents, we need everyone to line up!” My inner voice yelled “What!?” at the entire scene. No one protested. A few snickered and rolled their eyes. They all got in one straight line, parallel to Malcolm X Boulevard to pick up their children.

This would have never gone down at a suburban school.

Think about this in contrast to what US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a recent speech:

“It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary,” Duncan said. “You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.”

Oh. The HORROR. The racial and mansplaining undertones of this statement deserve the attention (read: outrage) it’s gotten in education circles. Yet, I can’t help but feel odd about the outrage about this racialized comment, benign compared to Duncan’s Katrina comment. When the Katrina comment happened, I was happy with the idea of holding Duncan accountable to his statement. I wanted Duncan to see that it’s immoral to suggest that passing his agenda via the deaths of close to two thousand people in the Gulf Coast region was a good idea. Many politicians and pundits profess that education reform is for all students, but the general public understands that ed reform comes on the backs of our most disadvantaged students, many of them poor children of color (and poor whites as well).

Context matters.

The outrage to his latest comment about white suburban moms only underscores the threshold for who we speak out for and who we don’t. My recent post about white privilege brought out supporters of all colors, many of whom were people who identify as White. For that, I’m appreciative. Yet, a few dissenters (all of whom profess to want better for children) either argue that it’s not about race, but about the kids OR won’t respond period, as if having a discussion about Trayvon Martin is equivalent to having a discussion about the way we approach race in life as a whole, or within people we ought to consider colleagues. I would have loved to hear a similar outrage about the way parents in poor urban schools get thrown into a web of bureaucracy and behaviorist politics.

I get the offense, and understand the need for flexing a bit of political muscle to hold Duncan accountable again. The package deal of the Common Core State Standards has me, at best, leery of the nonsense. Just don’t expect me to get riled up, either. I’ve been mad. Perhaps you should have been angry with us, back when the levees broke …


*** photo c/o ***

p.s. – What Melinda said.

p.p.s. – What Mike Doyle said.


How I Might Have Intro’d The Bammy Awards

by Jose Vilson on September 24, 2013

in Jose

Secretary Arne Duncan and comedian Stephen Colbert, both of whose job I would do so much better at, but I'll stick to teaching anyways

Secretary Arne Duncan and comedian Stephen Colbert, both of whose job I would do so much better at, but I’ll stick to teaching anyways

There’s been lots of talk about this past Saturday’s Bammy Awards. I’ve written a bunch on diversity at the Bammys and even the executive producer left a comment here after our feisty discussion. However, I’ve kept mute during and after the Bammy Awards, letting others report out. As with any awards show, there were lots of bright spots and dim spots, almost all of them from people who actually attended. A discussion has erupted around the idea of humor and appropriateness in the education circle. Rather than speak on something I didn’t witness myself, I’d like a turn at introducing the Bammys. We’ll call it a do-over.

[Starts with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan welcoming everyone from his office. Insert platitudes about respect for teachers here. Zooms out where you see a black pair of pants on the left side of him. Duncan keeps talking, but as camera zooms out, audience notices Jose Vilson with "not impressed" face. Duncan keeps talking. Camera keeps zooming in to Vilson's face. Camera stops at his mouth. Vilson yells, "Welcome to the Bammyyyyyyyyssss!" with Chuck D impersonation.]

[Female voice says, "Welcome To The Bammys, with:". Reads list of every person there with a Klout score higher than 50 and other special guests, which is like everybody. She says, "Here's your host, Joseeeee Vilson!!!]

*cues up instrumental to “N-Words In Paris” by Jay-Z and Kanye West*

[Vilson runs on stage with a suit and Yankee brimmed hat]

Everybody scream!

So I teach so hard, Mayor Bloomberg wanna fire me, but first he gotta find me
What’s 50 grand to a teacher like me? That’s a lot, don’t you remind me!
(Teach so hard) I teach crazy, my teacher rating don’t even faze me
My kids could go 0 for 82 on their tests and I look at you like this job’s gravy
(Teach so hard) Teach so hard, this thing rare
We ain’t even supposed to be here!
(Teach so hard) Since we here, we might as well treat kids fair …


[Stop music]

OK, OK, OK, that was fun. Welcome everyone to the Second Annual Bammy Awards! We have a live audience today of some of the coolest kids in the sandbox gathered here today, and who better to MC this event than the guy whose faculty always pegs for the guy who’s gonna rap for karaoke? I mean, just because I know Fresh Prince’s “Summertime” by heart doesn’t mean …

Seriously, I’m OK with being one of [Vilson counts audience members] five Cocoa Puffs in a big bowl of milk. Really. I just made Errol Smith really uncomfortable. My bad, dawg.

By the way, Melinda Anderson didn’t write this one for me. I does it all by himself!

Also, I had to cut down my speech by 40% due to austerity measures. I’m doing most of this on comp time, so I’ll take a nap shortly after this.

So welcome to this set of awards. I flew in from New York City, and my arms are in fact tired. It’s been a lot of indecision over the last month. Indecision about who New York City wants for Democratic mayor, indecision over whether Obama’s gonna bomb Syria, indecision over whether I was wearing the long blue tie or the black bowtie. This is why smart men need smarter partners in their lives. And so do I. Thanks, Luz.

One thing I have decided is that, yes, Senator Ted Cruz is crazy! He’s at least worth five Buzzfeed articles and 20 GIFs. Is that like a currency now? If so, does Kenzo Shibata and the rest of the Chicago Teachers Union get to judge which ones make it from this audience? Aren’t you happy they won? Here’s a group of teachers who said, “We’re mad at hell! We want normal stuff like toilet paper for kids and open schools! Yes! We’re not gonna take it anymore!” This is where I’d make a GIF of Jonah Edelman followed by a tuba, preferably playing the “Price Is Wrong” theme song.

[Plays theme song for audience. Vilson makes fake sad face.]

You also probably noticed the inconspicuously dressed bodyguard at the door checking bags. Yes, that was Alfie Kohn scanning your bags and tossing out homework. Yes, it was. Doubt me if you must.

My friend and SLA principal Chris Lehmann’s here. You ever wonder why he smiles so much? I got the secret: he chews on his sons. I mean, Jakob and Theo never quit being adorable on Instagram. Actually, I get to judge your smiles based on how many chewable kids you have. Brand new parents tend to have the whitest teeth. It’s true.

Michael Doyle’s here. I heard him call me the greatest education blogger of all time. I know he didn’t say that, but I’ll take my award and leave anyways. Deuces! Errol’s looking at me right now like, “If this guy doesn’t stay right there …”

Mary Beth Hertz couldn’t be here, sadly. She’s a great Edutopia blogger out of Philly and she sends her regard. You’ll notice a slight change in her avatar if you’re following her on Twitter. Instead of hugging her tech tools and smiling at the camera, she’s flinging them at Mayor Nutter and every Philly school official in sight. She’s kinda angry. Right, Randi Weingarten?

John Spencer said he couldn’t be here. He says he doesn’t really wear suit and ties. Justin Timberlake does not approve.

That wasn’t funny? Scott McLeod thinks I deserve a better audience.

Audrey Watters isn’t in the audience yet. She’s at the bar drinking the Edmodo folks under the table. She deserves a badge for that.

A couple of big education books have come out recently. Invent to Learn by Sylvia Martinez and Gary Stager came out, which explains the increase of pterodactyls all up in your timelines. No, I’m not calling Gary Stager old. Nor a flying reptile. Just when you search for “pterodactyl” on Ye Old Encyclopedia Brittanica … goodness, don’t you dare blog about this!

Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch came out this year. It was wild. Her marketing strategy was genius! Have a ton of popular bloggers and news outlets write about her and her upcoming book on their blogs and she’d link back to them to increase the dialogue. Shortly thereafter, she introduced the book to the people who actually like her!

The hate came in droves! It’s like those people who leave flyers on your door from all the restaurants you already tried and didn’t like. Except, because she’s an education historian, she goes to her computer and writes a book about it. The rest of us aren’t always as prodigious, I assure you.

Michelle Rhee came out with a book, too, entitled Radical. Now, now, DC, no need to boo. She says she’s a radical, but really, I think she’s a square. Chuckle, chuckle, math jokes, hardy. It’s about TIME!

Is Finland in the house? Oh. Cool. Finland is the one word everyone in education agrees on. Not sure what we’re agreeing upon, but Finland seems to be synonymous with the word “good.” In my next teacher conference, I’ll just tell my students’ parents, “Oh, your child’s doing Finland, yeeaah!” “Him? He’s not doing as Finland as he could, but he’s like the US. Yes, it means he ain’t that bad, either.”

Of course, The United States has to worry about our highest needs students. Our students in poverty need wrap-around services, support, and caring environments, instead of throwing bubble sheets at them while they’re ready to pop. Sometimes, it’s like we’re Dora and Boots telling politicians “Swiper no swiping,” and every time our country races somewhere or leaves a bunch of kids behind, Swiper turns around and says, “It’s tooooo late!” [Vilson inserts Swiper voice]

But there’s hope, and I know there’s hope because we got all you beautiful people in the audience here. Applaud for yourself. Parents, thank you for chasing kids down when they’re not doing their work. Teachers, thank you for waking parents up with your morning phone calls and progress reports. Students, thank you for annoying all of us with your “Can I go to the bathroom why are we learning math aw man I don’t wanna do homework?” questions because you make us better. Thank you, all! Thank you as well to the librarians, social workers, counselors, art teachers, phys. ed. teachers, and all the other staff that people wanna keep cutting out.

Dora says, “Swiper no swiping! Swiper no swiping! Swiper no swiping!” It’s their turn to say, “Aww man!”

Lastly, we have Nancy Carlsson-Paige, education speaker, activist, teacher … and Matt Damon’s mom. You know me, I love Matt Damon. Me and him go way back to the Save Our Schools March. He offered to write a blurb for my book and it would have read, “Oh, that guy. Yes, I remember now. Cool.” We roll deep, even after we once met once.

But I have some news for him. As much as he’s lauded by some of us for his education points of view, as an actor, he missed a few subjects, so now, I have a secret for everyone:

[Cues up "I'm F*ckin Matt Damon" by Sarah Silverman]

I’m teaching Matt Damon!
[Matt Damon appears on screen to sing along] He’s teaching Matt Damon!
I’m sorry, but it’s true! I’m teaching Matt Damon!
He’s teaching Matt Damon!
I’m not imagining it’s Bill Gates, I’m teaching Matt Damon!

Teaching English, teaching math, in my classroom’s where it’s at
Got Ben Affleck on the phone and he’s playing a bat

So I’m teaching Matt Damon! He’s teaching Matt Damon!

[Ends music]

Value-add THAT! Yes, I got away with the wildest joke in edu-history!

Thank you and welcome to the Bammy Awards!

Wild applause. Standing ovations. Likes, retweets, +1s, and hollers heard round the world. A few people wonder what a Buzzfeed is. They don’t have a Klout score, as far as Vilson can tell.


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