Check Missionary Zeal among All Education Advocates

Ask several self-proclaimed education advocates their opinions about charter schools, Common Core, and Teach For America, and the responses, to the general public who do not think daily about education reform, are likely baffling since some claim all three of those are necessary commitments for better schools and others claim all three are misguided commitments that are harming not only education and democracy but also our students and teachers.

For several months now, I have been in contact with Sarah Matsui during the publication process of her in-press book on Teach For America, focusing on how TFA impacts corp candidates. As the publication date of Matsui’s book approaches, our conversation has turned to the education reform debate—notably how divisive and thus distracting that debate tends to be in terms of the larger goals of universal public education, social justice, and race, class, and gender equity.

Throughout my career as an educator—over thirty years—and then the more recent decade-plus seeking a public voice for education and equity advocacy, I have struggled with being an outsider in the “both sides” nature of policy debates concerning education.

As one example, I took an immediate stance against Common Core that, obviously, situates me in opposition to Common Core advocates—but my reasons for rejecting Common Core as just another failed commitment to accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing also alienate me from those determined to reject Common Core as uniquely flawed standards (and thus some good standards exist) or as over-reach by the federal government (specifically President Obama).

In other words, I have—with little success—tried to move the critical gaze away from Common Core specifically and toward the larger problem with accountability policy.

Yes, having states back out of Common Core and the connected high-stakes testing contracts is a credible goal, but if those acts simply mean states then embrace yet a different set of standards and high-stakes test, that is not victory at all; in fact, it is proof that we are missing the larger picture showing us the root causes of inequity in both our society and our schools.

Matsui is anticipating the same dilemma for her since her TFA work—nuanced and detailed—will come in the wake of rising criticism of TFA as well as the appearance that political, public, and individual support for the program is waning.

What Matsui and I have been discussing has helped me once again reconsider my own work, my own advocacy in much the same way Andre Perry’s recent commentary has tempered my discourse and goals related to charter schools.

I think advocates for public education as a foundational institution for seeking and insuring our democracy and building equity for all people have an obligation to criticize charter schools, Common Core, and Teach For America, for example, as misguided and often harmful education policy—despite claims that these are all designed to address the same goals of equity.

I think we also have the right to unmask the missionary zeal behind what has come to be called corporate education reform.

However, we cannot remain fixated there, and we must check our own missionary zeal.

Here is where I think reconsidering TFA can be a significant turning point in how we begin to build a movement toward something positive—equitable society, equitable schools—instead of simply calling for this or that reform to be dismantled.

As I noted above about Common Core: Yes, I believe, defunding TFA and eliminating TFA in its original form are important and credible goals, but even if those happen, we cannot be fooled into thinking we have addressed a root cause of the larger problems that face us in society and formal education: race-, class-, and gender-based inequity of opportunity.

Here is the key. How often have we asked: What are the conditions that created the possibility for TFA (or charter schools, or Common Core) to exist in the first place?

If black, brown, and poor children were being served by well-funded schools and taught by experienced and qualified teachers, would TFA have had a problem for which they could offer a solution (regardless of how flawed we believe that solution to be)?

As I worked through the school choice debate, I found myself asking people trapped in the “both sides” frenzy to consider an education system in which choice wasn’t necessary—a school system that genuinely offered all children the sort of education that the affluent already insure for their children.

I concede that it may require a certain amount of missionary zeal to attract the attention of the wider public not often concerned with education and education reform. But as those of us advocating for equity and social justice may now be witnessing a turning point—greater skepticism about accountability, charter schools, and TFA—we must check that missionary zeal so that we do not misrepresent our ultimate goals.

Those goals must be framed in the positives—the lives and schools we are seeking for all children and people—and not mired in the negatives—defeat Common Core, close charter schools, defund TFA—that will likely, if achieved, not produce the outcomes we claim to seek.

Currently, it is a lonely place to say that I have real problems with charter schools, Common Core, and TFA, but that I really think they are not the problem; they are examples of how too many in power have misread the problem, or even ignored the problem.

Can we set aside the “both sides” debate and begin to build a conversation, a conversation open to all voices and to listening so that we can work together toward the difficult and complex goals of equity?

I sit in my home state of South Carolina the day after yet more protests were held in the state capitol of Columbia by the KKK and the New Black Panther Party.

When my daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law left my house yesterday, my daughter texted that they passed several cars on the highway with Confederate battle flags waving.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “but it bends towards justice”—his nod toward faith.

Life is short, I fear, and that arc is incredibly slow when you are among the living, the very real faces and eyes of the ones you love.

I sit in my home state of South Carolina, and I worry about allowing the removal of a flag from state grounds to become the victory instead of simply a moment on the journey to the victory we all deserve.

And that has forever shaded my eyes as I witness this march toward social justice and educational equity.

“Remember,” cautions Langston Hughes:

The days of bondage—
And remembering—
Do not stand still.

Let us be guided not by the blindness of missionary zeal, but grounded by the long-range focus that leads to action.

Introducing: Debunked!

Please visit Debunked!—a central location to confront how formal education often reflects and perpetuates racism, classism, and sexism.

Practices and policies specifically addressed include Ruby Payne’s framework of poverty, deficit perspectives, Teach for America, “grit,” “no excuses” practices, and the “word gap.”

Debunking “Heritage Not Hate”: A Reader

Documentarian Ken Burns—noted for his work on the Civil War—explains that the shift in attitudes concerning the Confederate battle flag across the South and the U.S. parallels another watershed moment in the nation, support for gay marriage (I would add the legalization of marijuana is another similar shift).

Many are rightfully concerned that the massacre of the #Charleston9 is being reduced if not trivialized by the political rush to remove the battle flag from state grounds, license plates, and flags, just as some believe the flag debate allows political leaders and the public once again to avoid a real discussion and then action on gun control.

Let us, then, embrace the flag debate as not a symbolic moment, but a symbolic movement—lowering and removing are actions—that both works with and builds on the momentum of those political and public shifts.

Removing the Confederate battle flag from government display, however, is not banning that flag; individuals continue to have the right in the U.S. to flaunt symbolically their beliefs, however misguided or even hateful, regardless of the mechanism—as long as that free speech does not cross a line into denying others their free speech or threaten harm.

Thus, part of that movement must be personal and public education.

And that education must address the “Heritage Not Hate” mantra that has for too long allowed both the Confederate battle flag and the concurrent racism to survive behind slogans without basis in the facts of history.

The Confederate battle flag has not suffered a change in meaning; its meaning has always been corrupt from its original creation within the larger acts of secession and war.

The “heritage” and “state’s rights” claims are cultural lies by omission: The heritage was one of racism and slavery, and the state’s right was to maintain slavery as the primary mechanism of economic power in the South (an economic dynamic that made a very few incredibly wealthy, but also a system of human bondage that benefitted those who didn’t own slaves, rendering nearly all free people complicit during the institution of slavery).

Many have offered the evidence for that personal and public education, and I offer them below as an opportunity for folding “Heritage Not Hate” into the movement that will embrace those willing to say they have also changed their minds and hearts because they are now willing to face the uncomfortable facts that contradict long-held beliefs.

Debunking “Heritage Not Hate”: A Reader

Take Down the Confederate Flag—Now, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates 1“Corner Stone” Speech, Alexander H. Stephens,Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Savannah, Georgia, March 21, 1861

What This Cruel War Was Over, Ta-Nehisi Coates

“They Can’t Turn Back,” James Baldwin

signs and symbols Baldwin

The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States (Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia)

MississippiKen Burns: Flag issue is not about heritage

The “meaning” of the Confederate flag, Bryan Bibb

How people convince themselves that the Confederate flag represents freedom, not slavery, Carlos Lazada

[Quoted from John M. Coski, the historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond]

raison detreHey white southerners, let’s talk about our Confederate heritage, Matt Comer

How The South Lost The War But Won The Narrative, Tony Horwitz

benign“The face of racism today is not a slaveowner”: Eric Foner on the past and present of white supremacy, Elias Isquith


Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy? Because our textbooks and monuments are wrong, James W. Loewen

states rightsWhite support for the Confederate flag really is about racism, not Southern heritage, Spencer Piston and Logan Strother

less knowledgableEditorial: Remove Confederate flag this week [Greenville News]

SC slaveryThe South’s Heritage Is So Much More Than a Flag, Patterson Hood

myths and legends


Randall Hill / Reuters
AME church
The King Center posted this image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Photographer Steven Hyatt posted this photo of a stained-glass window at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston on his Facebook page. His wish was that it would give the grieving some comfort. STEVEN HYATT PHOTO


English Journal — Call for Manuscripts: Submission Deadline: March 15, 2016

English Journal — Call for Manuscripts

Visible Teaching: Open Doors as Resistance
Editors: Julie Gorlewski, David Gorlewski, P. L. Thomas, and Sean P. Connors
Submission Deadline: March 15, 2016
Publication Date: November 2016

Under pressure to adhere to a scripted curriculum or to conform to standardized instructional practices, educators might choose to adhere to a popular adage that recommends that they “close the door and teach,” presumably as an act of resistance. This advice is problematic, however, because it denies the agency of teachers, as professionals, to effect change in their schools. It willfully conceals alternative instructional practices that might otherwise benefit students, and it ignores the role that shared knowledge can play in sustaining a community.

Alternatively, teaching with our doors open establishes agency where the system has denied it; offers direct alternatives to the practices we reject, especially those that are not supported by the evidence of our field; and models for students how professionals behave.

This issue of English Journal explores how a decision to “teach with our doors open” can be interpreted as a form of empowerment and an act of resistance. It acknowledges teachers as agentive, and aims to understand how making one’s practices visible to others can disrupt standardizing forces and disciplinary mechanisms that are intended to promote conformity and compliance.

Contributors might consider questions such as: What conditions prompt teachers to teach behind closed doors, and how can they productively be addressed? How do you negotiate space to teach with your door open, and what advice would you offer others interested in doing so? How have you engaged with colleagues who respond differently to mandated and prescribed practices that you feel are not valid or effective? If you have experienced a transformative moment—moving from teaching with your door closed to teaching with your door open—how did that look and what advice can you offer those interested in making the same transition? How can teachers work with school leaders to create a school culture that values the open exchange of ideas and embraces evidence-based practices that push against mandates? We welcome educators to share experiences that investigate this important topic in the context of scholarly literature.

We invite manuscripts of 2,500-3,750 words, written to an audience of educators in grades 7-12 English classrooms.

More on Solidarity: “Speak to Shared Goals,” Not “Speak with One Voice”

Responding to my musing about the lack of solidarity among new media resistance to education reform, Sherri Spelic cautioned:

Solidarity, yes. However, in movements in which the aim is to “speak with one voice” whose voices are most likely to be quieted or softened or pushed to the edges? I fear it is often women’s voices which are sacrificed more often than not.

Certainly the number of voices in the ed reform push back camp is growing and we have to realize that new readers, writers, lurkers are finding their way into social media daily. The edu blogosphere is expanding as educators attempt to keep up with what appears to be a runaway train. They are told they must blog and pin and tweet in order to call themselves “connected.” And that’s when folks who were here earliest and built those initial cults of edu personalities began to talk about how shallow and repetitive twitter was becoming and asking whether they shouldn’t move on….

We can add to the solidarity not by limiting our use of voice but by lending it where it may be needed: to uplift one or more of our colleagues in need, in support of the policies and movements which align with our common cause.

My initial response was appreciation for the ideal and thoughtful framing, and then, because of Spelic’s challenge, I was pushed to think better about what I was asking, to state better what I envision.

Solidarity, for me, does not require speaking with one voice, but speaking to shared goals.

Here, then, possibly to continue the conversation, I want to explore what those shared goals may be, keeping in mind we need them to be clear, attainable, and few:

  • Seeking an end to one (preferred) educational experience for privileged children and another (worse) educational experience for “other people’s children.”
  • Seeking a greater appreciation and realization of teaching as an autonomous profession.
  • Confronting and ending inequitable punitive policies (academic and disciplinary) for marginalized populations of students along race, class, gender, and other status categories (English language learners, special needs students).
  • Ending high-stakes accountability focusing on outcomes and implementing a structure that addresses equity of opportunity metrics.
  • Calling for social reform that guarantees for all children that the coincidence of birth is not the dominant factor in their opportunities in life and education.

Among educators, researchers, political leaders, and the public, we will likely disagree about how to achieve these goals—that disagreement is likely important, in fact—but I believe we can and should be in solidarity for achieving these goals.