Uncensored: A Lost Article about the Save Our Schools March

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose8 Comments

Jose Vilson and Pedro Noguera at SOS March

I don’t usually do this, but you’re my people. On August 2nd, GOOD Magazine published an article ostensibly written by yours truly … with almost half the article chopped off. I won’t get into reasons why things went missing because a) I still don’t agree with Michelle Rhee, b) the person who cut the piece in half isn’t the person I usually work with on these GOOD pieces, and c) I’m about to publish this joint for you all anyways. Enjoy the uncensored version of “A Bee You Cannot Eat: Education Reform After the SOS March.”

When five thousand educators, parents, students, and other denizens concerned with the state of education come to Washington, DC ready to respond to the call for change, you respond. When these people come together in a coalition for educational social justice and activist, you listen. When you’re prompted as a teacher to speak on behalf of these thousands and the many more who couldn’t show up, you stand up and represent them. More importantly, when students of all backgrounds deserve better, you fight for it.

Such was my charge this weekend at the Save Our Schools March and Conference in Washington, DC. I decided that the best way to respond was not to have a response at all, but to have a clear message about the lay of the land. It needed to be rooted in the realities of the everyday classroom teacher with a prescient knowledge of what’s happening in our country today. I needed to give pieces of this movement to take home with them, messages of fury and messages of hope. While I had the privilege of attending and speaking at this march, there were hundreds more who wanted to be there to unite with us, fully understanding the political stake we have in ensuring that our schools improve.

It’s less about international competition and college readiness and more about developing better people that will help grow our system.

While up there, I looked at this sea of concerned citizens and transmitted their energies to mine. Thus, my voice went from soft and nasal to gritty and airborne. Editor and writer John Norton referred to it as “… short about 2500 words but I can hear the howl – the best teachers of your generation.” I crafted the remarks after a few listens of Gil Scot-Heron’s “Comment #1” sample in Kanye West’s “Who Will Survive in America,” hoping I could evoke a similar sort of urgency. At some point on the stage, it became less about how I performed the piece and more about how many people would such a piece to even an increment more of action.

After finishing my poem “This Is Not a Test”  (video) in the Ellipse near the White House, I felt this charge shake my foundation. In 100-degree weather, anyone might have felt similarly. After the screams and handshakes backstage, and thousands of onlookers, I remember thinking that the movement can’t end here. I sat down, envisioning the lack of equity still profoundly shaking our schools. I didn’t just think of my 8th graders from my classroom that just graduated. I see barren classrooms in East St. Louis, overcrowded spaces in Detroit, windows boarded up in Atlanta, streams of Scantron sheets floating over Miami / Dade County, and students in line in front of metal detectors in New York City. When I got a chance to sit down for a second and gather my thoughts, I had a hard time believing that this many people showed up for the event. The meme is that teachers consider themselves neutral, and all they ever do is complain.
Apparently, we also have a say in the national zeitgeist, and we’re no longer settling for a passive role in our jobs.
University of South Florida professor Sherman Dorn shut down critics of the SOS March succinctly by pointing out that the march and conference weren’t intended to be policy meetings, much the way we can’t assume anything actually gets done with politicians have their local and national conventions. Unlike those conventions, where the pageantry only makes statements to re-affirm which candidate will represent their party, this march and conference let the world know, in no uncertain terms, that there’s a huge contingent of us who object to the policies these elected officials have set for our youth. Whereas before, shaking hands and meeting with a special representative might have quelled these voices, the new generation of activists seeks actionable items via protest and the vote.

Some critics of the march proclaim that education is the new civil rights issue and then wonder why the people this affects the most would take to the streets.

This battle for the state of public education won’t and doesn’t end with a congregation of some of the biggest luminaries, educators, parents, and activists we could find in the middle of summer. Names like Ceresta Smith, Pedro Noguera, Diane Ravitch, John Kuhn, Linda Darling-Hammond, Sabrina Stevens Shupe, and Deborah Meier don’t convene for such an event without knowing that there are very necessary next steps to the things we say and do. While Matt Damon and John Stewart made important contributions to the march, they’re amongst the people who regularly honor and revere the work that educators did to make their lives better. While we see concrete examples of creative assessment and equity for all students regardless of background, we continue to avoid them at the behest of those who prefer the status quo of hyper-capitalism.

There isn’t just hope. There is demand. It’s not just teachers saying this anymore. People all across the country have seen that the direction of this country lies in how well our education system works, and it’s become apparent that the messages they’re hearing from their local media don’t make sense for this country now. They see how corporate interest not only taints the political process, but the educational process for their students. At some point, through very concrete actions, we must see that change. Now that the first march is over, it’ll be less about marching for those that harm our students; it’ll be about marching toward the students we need to help.

Richard Whitmore wrote a book recently about former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, whose dishonesty about her transformational qualities powers over districts is only trumped by the power of the media to pull their wind beneath her sharp wings, entitled The Bee Eater. As I saw the crowd that descended upon the nation’s capital this past weekend, I couldn’t help but laugh at this juxtaposition.

For a weekend, there was a swarm of thousands rallying together against ideas like hers. And I was a bee she simply couldn’t digest.

Jose, who, in any and all things, will let you know when he knows …

Comments 8

  1. Jose- Thank you so much for bringing forth this article. Your timing is perfect, as the challenges being faced in the new year are overwhelming.

    I was present at the SOS march and was part of its planning team for over 16 months. During that period, I confess that we were never certain how the event would be received. However, when Jose spoke, the reaction from the crowd was unbelievable. To those who were not present, his final words blew across the crowd like the blast of explosion. People forgot about the heat, the time, and the long march ahead. They screamed. They chanted. They demanded change. They demanded action.

    Yes, we spoke and we marched, but we knew that the real test would be what happened in the months ahead. Things are changing- we can feel it now- thanks to the tireless efforts of people like Jose!

    Those who were at the SOS March, the speakers, presenters, and attendees, are still hard at work, working to “educate” local, state, and national officials on the truth of so-called reform efforts. The greatest victories, however, are when our conversations are heard in all areas of the community- those far removed from the classroom- for education affects us all.

    Thank you, again, for dedicating so much of yourself to this important cause. Your unique and powerful voice has reached so many and made such a difference.

  2. Sorry, Jose, but Pedro Noguera hypocritically wants it both ways, and should never have been allowed on that stage in DC. While apparently wanting to be seen as an independent critic of corporate ed deform, he simultaneously (as chair of the SUNY Charter Institute) enables privatization and charter school invasions of public school facilities. This has far more consequence than any jive, fig leaf rhetoric.

    Even on the level of argument, his critiques lack real insight, are banal and unoriginal, and come off to this observer and participant as those of a political log roller and academic entrepreneur. When you compare what he says to what he does, the hypocrisy and opportunism jump out at you.

    Next time you share the stage with him, ask him about Eva Moskowitz, HSA and her hostile takeovers of public schools; ask him about the cherry-picking and counseling out of students who make her numbers look bad; ask him about student and teacher attrition; ask him how he resolves the contrast of his occasional rhetoric with the reality of his actions. You’ll find his answers totally unsatisfactory.

    That, and not his throwaway critiques, no doubt indulged as a political necessity by the 1% intent on monetizing the public schools, is his real legacy.

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    Laurie, I appreciate your comments on both of my posts. Means all the world, honestly.

    Mike, I’m familiar with the answers since I read them on EdNotesOnline, et. al. Thus, I have a hard time replying to this comment because I’m not one to ask again, knowing I’ll get the same answers that you all got.

  4. Jose,

    I don’t understand your response.

    Are you saying that criticism of Noguera is unfounded and unfair? If so, please refute it. In my eyes, having personally asked him in a public forum to resolve these contradictions, he is unable to satisfactorily do so.

    If you agree with the criticism, then why include him among the list of SOS speakers who rightfully deserved to address the many people who took the trouble to go to DC in July, and who seek real reform of public education, rather than corporate privateering? And if you do agree with the criticism, why have yourself associated with him in a photograph on your blog?

    Just wondering.

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    Mike, you propose that I ask him the questions that you’ve posed, but you and others who attended the panel with him already asked those questions and I’ve already read the questions and answers, so why should I when I know his responses?

    Secondly, I’d actually like to do a bit more of my own research before coming to some sort of conclusion about Pedro. Until now, I know much of what you’ve said, but I’ve also become familiar with the work he’s done with Black children in schools and pedagogy, as well as high school drop-out rates. In the last one, he’s highlighted some things that shook the current DOE administration in its own way. Some of their talking points about high school changed drastically thanks to that research.

    Third, even our colleagues like Diane Ravitch have lauded specific charter schools for the work they’ve done, as have a few others who we laud as ideal in our communities. The trouble isn’t whether they ought to exist as institutions for learning, but to what end. I do see a huge problem with privatization and the way certain folk believe it’s the solution for public ed’s ills. (It’s not.) I’ve also voiced concern (vociferously) about charter occupation in public school spaces. We do agree there, I think.

    However, if you saw the list of speakers, you’d see a fairly diverse set of beliefs about education now. Some of us are fairly radical in places where others are moderate. For instance, I think public schools have also been used to brainwash some of our kids into believing in an ideal that doesn’t work for them, and perpetuating the current school-to-prison pipeline. I know others who won’t go that far in the SOS March. But do I disassociate myself from others for having a different point of view than me when the tenets of the SOS March implicitly asked for inclusiveness as long as we abide by the same rules?

    Mostly, I was wondering about the relevance of such a comment to the main idea of my post. Besides that there was a picture and a mention of Pedro Noguera.

    Thanks for your comment, Mike.

  6. I think we agree on many, many things, far more than we might disagree on. I appreciate and respect your work, and did not intend to put you on the spot. Your point about the public schools and the school-to-prison pipeline is certainly well-taken, although I would say that the current regime – even ignoring for a moment its policy of aggressively violating the constitutional rights of minority youth on the streets – is entrenching it further, and that increased charterization, by further concentrating the neediest and at-risk students in under-resourced and ultimately targeted-for-closing/reorganized neighborhood public schools, will soon be seen as worsening the problem.

    I would have never mentioned the photograph at all but for Mr. Noguera’s presence on a list of people who (mostly) are in opposition to the policies that cluster around charter expansion. This issue exists independent of whether or not there are any good charter schools. Of course there are, but that’s not the point, and is a distraction from the issues of pedagogy, governance and democracy, budgets, real estate and labor relations that charter schools are currently at the nexus of.

    I, too, am all for inclusiveness, but not at the expense of ignoring fundamentally irreconcilable conflicts that have far-reaching social and material effects, which I feel this represents. If my bringing it up in response to your post was irrelevant and off-topic, then so be it, and I apologize. I suppose my fundamental point is that, things having reached the desperate stage they have (and they have), Professor Noguera, as both a public official and prominent public intellectual, is going to have to choose sides, and your blog became a vehicle for furthering that effort.

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      I respect that. The only real response I have to this because we agree more often than not is the following: if my blog had the following that some of the other major NYC Ed blogs had, then I might see your argument re: furthering his position as a prominent voice in education. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t have a following, but if I had the voice to make my blog a tastemaker’s tablet, then some of the othe voices in this conversation (see Smith, Lazar, Shupe) would have top billing. Hopefully in a few more years, we’ll revisit this. Thanks for this.

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