I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Review: This Is Not a Test, by José Luis Vilson

Let me start with the easiest part of this review:

Buy and read José Luis Vilson's This Is Not a Test.

@TheJLV is one of the better known teacher-bloggers around, and a prodigious tweeter. He asks hard questions and gives little quarter when it comes to issues of race and education (although I've noticed he also has greater patience with those who are willing to engage in a sincere, respectful dialog).

But even though he doesn't necessarily shy away from blogging about the personal, This Is Not a Test takes a different approach than is found in Vilson's blog. Here, embedded within his autobiography, is a large-scale critique of the education system and society at large. That it comes from a teacher and a man of color makes it all the more powerful:
That's why so many of us feel like we're getting less than what we give. Deteriorating working conditions make it harder for teachers to stay in the classroom; those of us who do work harder just to make up for the deficit. We give more and more, but it often feels like we get less respect, less funding, less attention, less of a stake in the way schools should run. This may or may not have been caused by the CCSS [Common Core State Standards], but one thing is clear: the standards are but a symptom of a system that devalues the input of the people it affects. 
I would have asked teachers like me all along, during every steps of the process. But they didn't ask us because teachers like me have an opinion -- and we all know how David Coleman [the lead author of the CCSS] feels about opinions. [That's my link, not Vilson's -- JJ]
I'm a bit reluctant to put that quote out here first, because you might come away with the impression that this book is yet another whine about how teachers are being set upon by forces from on high. Vilson certainly is an advocate for his profession, and he has little time for those who seek to impose an agenda that doesn't have the evidence to back it up.

But if Vilson has a primary thesis, it's to be found in the quote above: the "teacher voice" is sorely lacking in our conversations today about education and its role in the perpetual problems of race and class that dog our society.

There's more, however: when a teacher like Vilson raises his voice -- and it's a hell of a voice, because Vilson is a beautiful writer, doused in authenticity simply through his command of his prose -- no one goes free without coming under scrutiny. And that includes Vilson's fellow educators:
As teachers, we see the effects. When our students arrive at school malnourished and uncared for, they're treated like vagabonds. They act out, stealing from each other and screaming at their teachers. Teachers and administrators scrutinize them for every possible disorder or dysfunction; while such kids can benefit from more substantial help than any individual can offer, many of them don't really have a disorder at all. They just need someone to talk to them like human beings. Yet, if they are not being misdiagnosed for some disability, they confront an instant bias against them in the classroom. Some people who decide to teach for all the wrong reasons will let their classism and racism creep through, stoking distrust among students toward an educational system they need.  
We can't blame hip-hop for social inequity, war, infant mortality rates, the rising cost of attending university, racism, or high incarceration and unemployment rates. This is what our kids carry in their backpacks every morning at least 180 days out of the year.
It's because Vilson has such respect for teachers that he demands so much from them. As a music educator, I was particularly struck by the story of his high school choir teacher, Ms. Kittany, who "unlocked a voice that I didn't know I had." His elegy for Elana Waldman, a colleague who continues teaching while battling with and eventually succumbing to cancer, is full of admiration (tempered with candor). And he's humble enough about his own teaching to acknowledge just how hard the job is; what he won't do is use that as an excuse for educators not to engage in meaningful self-reflection.

Which brings me to the slightly more difficult part of this review:
I can't always pinpoint what makes me, or any man of color, any different from other teachers of different backgrounds, but here are some things I've learned:
  • The Black/Latino male students respond more readily to me.
  • The girls in my class are more willing to share their experiences with me and often look to me as a role model or father figure.
  • The people in my class may act like they hate me temporarily after I've scolded them about something, but they know I have their best interest at heart.
  • They ask me about what it was like when I was growing up, because they know my experiences mirror theirs.
  • Some of them have considered becoming teachers because of me.
  • Many teachers of color have seen firsthand what might happen if their children don't get a good teacher.

I have tried on this blog to be a strong advocate for teachers. I really do believe we, as a group, are being blamed for a whole host of problems we didn't create and cannot be possibly expected to fix on our own. I have seen firsthand how tenure and other workplace protections have kept good people in the profession, and I've seen how innumerate and illogical teacher evaluation systems have pushed good educators out.

But I have to admit that this point of view is somewhat limited, because it runs the risk of viewing teachers as a homogenized mass, and of viewing the effects of teachers as being similar for all students. Reading Vilson, it becomes clear that this isn't the case.

One of my favorite talking points -- one echoed by many people who share my inclinations -- is that 10% to 15% of the variation in test scores can be traced back to teacher effects (it may be even less). I stand by this and I think it's critical to understand how this fact impacts test-based teacher evaluation.

But when I step away from a policy-centric way of thinking, I grow concerned that this fact is conveying the wrong message to those who aren't viewing education through my lens. I worry that I'm inadvertently making the case that teaching doesn't really matter and, therefore, teachers don't have to worry much about their practice. Obviously, I don't believe this; but the point is subtle and difficult to put across, and I fear I haven't done a very good job at it.

Worse, I'm concerned this fact may convey the message that the effects of a teacher on a student's life don't depend on the student:
I'm not saying people from other cultures can't help us, but every student of color could use a role model. If their role model happens to be a teacher in front of them, that's perfect. 
We have high expectations for the children sitting in front of us because we were once them. We can tell the difference between a kid not knowing how to add fractions and not knowing how to say the word "fraction," because many of us were once English language learners. We don't take "Yo, what up, teacher?" or "Hey, miss!" to be a sign of illiteracy, but a sign that they want to connect with us as human beings. Our importance as teachers of color stems from this dire need for kids of all races and backgrounds to see people as multidimensional and intelligent people, different in culture but the same in capability and humanity.
José is making a case many have made, including myself: in a world where we have more students of color, we need more teachers of color (and it wouldn't hurt to have more out here in the white, leafy 'burbs as well --  but that's another discussion). I stand by the premise that removing tenure and instituting more test-based evaluation and imposing more unproven mandates and keeping teacher pay low and setting up merit pay and selling the Common Core like it's a miracle cure and creating chaos through school closures and all these other reformy policies will do more to drive away bright, young people of color from the profession.

But Vilson's book forces me to acknowledge something more: teachers matter, and there's a good case to be made that they matter more to students whose communities have been historically disenfranchised. Which means that we all have to raise our game -- because you can't ask Vilson and his colleagues to teach as if it's a matter of life and death without asking me and my colleagues in the 'burbs to do the same.

But we in the affluent public school districts have to do something else: we have got to start standing up for our fellow teachers, no matter where they teach. I am very fortunate to work in a well-resourced school with children who (mostly) don't suffer from the effects of economic disadvantage and racism. I know that small class sizes and a good physical plant and technology used appropriately and a curriculum that values creativity and critical thinking are the necessary preconditions for a great education.

That makes it more incumbent on me and teachers in my position to point out how utterly, shamefully wrong it is to allow the disgusting and dangerous conditions found in urban and poor rural districts to continue. And we must insist that the pedagogy of compliance found in "no excuses" urban schools should become as much of an anathema there as it would be in our suburban schools.

Further: it's important that we acknowledge the mission José and others have taken on as teachers of color and do all we can to support it. We need to listen to their voices and learn from their experiences, and take that back to our own classrooms, fully realizing that a socially-aware pedagogy only works if it is taught to everyone.

Which brings me to what is, for me, the most difficult part of this review:

José and I are very different teacher-writers. I am a numbers and policy guy. I happen to think I'm quite good at it: I'll dissect your reformy argument like nobody's business. I'll drown you in statistics and charts and linear regressions. I'll read your bill or your brief or your paper a dozen times and then put up a hundred links to show you're not reaching the right conclusions. I'll deconstruct your ridiculous editorial, and as soon as you write another, I'll do it again.

I obviously enjoy doing this kind of work, and I think it's important. But it's not expressing a "teacher voice." What I do here could be done by anyone, in or out of the classroom. I do think one of the reasons I do it fairly well is because being a teacher gives me an insight into how the education system actually works -- but that's not a "teacher voice."

While reading Vilson's book, I kept thinking back to one of my favorite quotes from Jonathan Kozol (as quoted by Bob Somerby):
KOZOL (page 163): You have to go back to the schools themselves to find an answer to these questions. You have to sit down in the little chairs in first and second grade, or on the reading rugs with kindergarten kids, and listen to the things they actually say to one another and the dialogue between them and their teachers. You have to go down to the basement with the children when it’s time for lunch and to the playground with them, if they have a playground, when it’s time for recess, if they still have recess...You have to do what children do and breathe the air the children breathe. I don’t think there’s any other way to find out what the lives that children lead in school are really like.
José Luis Vilson is doing something very brave and very necessary in This Is Not a Test: he is letting us breathe the air his students breathe. Again, because he's such a good writer, he's put us in his classroom and his schools' hallways; he's got us sitting in those "little chairs" (OK, not so little -- he teaches middle school).

I don't do that; frankly, many teacher-bloggers don't do that. And maybe I should.

I am very sympathetic to the argument that students' privacy must be protected at all costs. In my case, my students are even younger than José's, so I'm inclined to err even further on the side of caution. I'll probably never simply blog about my classroom because I'd want another pair of eyes on my writing first, just to make sure I was protecting my students. Books are a much better medium for this sort of storytelling if only because they are created through a social process that allows more time for reflection and editing.

That said: we don't have enough teachers telling the stories of their classrooms, and our debate about education suffers for it. Vilson is providing a valuable service here, and more teachers -- yes, including yours truly -- need to think about how we can inform the public about the everyday life of our classrooms.

The public needs to see Ruben Redman and Eduardo and JJ -- some of the students with whom Vilson has us "breath the air" -- as more than points on a scatterplot. They need to see José's kids, my kids, your kids, as human beings: struggling, laughing, getting into trouble, soaring.

Only the "teacher voice" can bring this to an American conversation about education that is sorely needs it. Can those of us doing the job every day find it in ourselves to unlock this voice?

Can we all be José Luis Vilson?


Liberal Democrat said...

After 24 years in this profession, I have come to the conclusion that it is not what we do but who we are that makes the greatest impact on our students' lives.

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