Likely as a consequence of being a critical educator and my own proclivities as a non-joiner skeptic, I remain mostly an outsider in the education reform debates—although I am a 30+-year educator and an established blogger/public voice on education.
Not addressing only specific, recent debates but prompted by my own witnessing of the evolving (and muddled) Pearson monitoring controversy and how that seems as problematic as the much longer (and equally muddled) Common Core debate, I posted the following Tweets earlier today:
Education activism for equity does not have to be perfect but we should seek to rise above those we critique in word and deed
— Paul Thomas (@plthomasEdD) March 25, 2015
Education activism for equity must be dedicated to achieving EQUITY, not dedicated to organizations or people (conduits for equity) — Paul Thomas (@plthomasEdD) March 25, 2015
And throughout my blogging and public work on education reform, I forefront race and racism as well as poverty—noting that addressing race in the U.S. immediately prompts both harsh reactions and stunning silence.
As more context, I am regularly confronted as a union shill and union basher, depending on the detractor; although I am not now and have never been a member of a union, living and working my entire life in a right-to-work state, but simultaneously support unionism while acknowledging that organized unions (NEA and AFT) have mostly failed education.
That same pattern occurs within politics since many assume I am a Democrat (I am not) and both partisan sides bristle at my equal-opportunity criticism of mainstream politicians’ failures related to education.
None of this is intended as a pity party or a pat on my own back, but to note I am living, and thus witnessing from a privileged white/male vantage point, what I am concerned about in this post: Even—or notably among—good people with whom I consider myself in allegiance on educational goals, education activism for equity too often fails by slipping into the wrong allegiances (people and organizations) and not the ultimate goal, equity.
To understand this, I think we must return to race and other aspects of marginalized people and voices. Three powerful situations must be acknowledged:
- Civil rights organizations with black leadership speaking out in favor of high-stakes testing and accountability.
- Blacks identified as supporting Common Core.
- Blacks associated with strong support for charter schools.
As well, Andre Perry has offered two important examinations of the white/black dynamic in education reform:
- The education-reform movement is too white to do any good
- How Common Core serves white folks a sliver of the black experience
To understand the racial divide in the education reform debate (why do blacks support many of the policies strongly rejected by a mostly white education reform counter-movement?) requires the same considerations necessary to unpack the often misguided Common Core and Pearson monitoring debates: Simplistic analysis of white and black support fails to confront the inherent problems with white privilege and fully expand the important contributions of minority voices.
As I have examined about black support of charter schools in the context of mass incarceration, I want to flesh out the three bullet points above by arguing that all three must include “as mechanisms for educational equity.”
In other words, it is misleading to say that civil rights or minority populations embrace policy A or practice B as if those policies and practices have no goals attached to them. The support must be read as “We support X in order to accomplish Y”—and it is that Y which is vital to emphasize, educational and social equity for minorities and the impoverished.
As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself.
And that brings me back to my morning Twitter flurry.
Education activism for equity must not succumb to mere missionary zeal, and certainly fails when people and organizations trump the goal of equity or when winning the debate destroys the actual reason for the debate.
As I noted above, education activism for equity has failed in those ways—just as have the NEA, AFT, and Democrat Party (all of which I highlight since they are associated with being “liberal” and supposedly for both public education and economic/educational equity).
And all of this is very disappointing and disheartening—just as being alienated and ignored among those with whom I have strong allegiances is very disappointing and disheartening.
But again, this isn’t about me, although I do feel an obligation to bear witness to the failures among those I personally respect and publicly share ideologies—even when I disagree with them.
And I have failed along the way to this post, often—and will likely fail again.
But I stand by the Twitter flurry above, I stand by the unpopular positions I hold about Common Core and Pearson monitoring—despite the tensions those stands cause specific people and organizations, many of whom also pursue educational equity.
Teaching and activism are compelling pursuits for me because they both demand that we rise above personal and organizational commitments, that we rise to our individual commitment to humanity: They are all our children.
Teaching and activism require our humility, and a capacity for listening and learning, for admitting when we are wrong and moving forward.
And in both roles, we risk ourselves in order to find ourselves and the world we imagine can and should be.