Note to Tony Wagner, Co-Author of “Most Likely to Succeed”

Below is the text of an email I wrote (and re-wrote, and edited, and re-wrote and changed a bunch) to Tony Wagner about some passages in his book. We had an exchange on Twitter that was mostly about math education but I slid in my strongly held opinions about the history in his book. He was kind enough to offer his email so I could share my thinking in more than 280 characters at a time.

Hello! Thank you for being open to feedback and sharing your email address. And to be sure, this is an issue that’s larger than just your particular book. I wrote this Wikipedia article as a way to try and correct some misperceptions around what’s called the “factory model” or “industrial era” model. The first paragraph includes links to pieces by education historians who speak about the problems with adopting the model described in your book, movie, and in Dintersmith’s book. I’ve highlighted two topics of concern below (Mann and the Committee of Ten) and why it’s so critical to end this idea that schools were created to prepare children from factory jobs. 

The tension – and the frustration that I mentioned in my tweet – is there are entire passages in your book, Most Likely to Succeed (and repeated in the movie) that are simply historically inaccurate or misleading. As an example, Frederick Taylor (mentioned on page 25) was three years old when Horace Mann died. They, and their philosophies, did not overlap. More to the point, there is no evidence in Mann’s writing that he was focused on workers or employees; instead, his focus was mostly on “basic citizenship“, as you say. This is most evident in his essay, A Historical View of Education. This is to say: there is no mention of “jobs in a growing industrial economy” in Mann’s writing. In addition, he cited the history of public education in New York State – begun in the late 1700’s – almost as frequently as he mentioned Prussia. 

Page 25 also includes one of the more frustrating examples from your book and movie (and Dintersmith’s book, and Robinson’s video, and Rose’s book, etc. etc.). You use the phrase “assembly-line model of education” (the quotes are yours) without any connection to source, speaker, or context. I’m going to set aside the problem with the paragraph above it (but will offer that there are still at least 5 one room schoolhouses serving students in NYS as of 2019) but must stress how misleading the paragraph on “batch-process” students is to an uniformed reader. I appreciate that you were trying to cover a great deal of ground but this notion of “train[ing] millions of young adults to perform repetitive tasks quickly” simply isn’t supported by the historical record. First, children working in manufacturing wasn’t unusual in the mid-1800’s – there was no reason for educators to advocate preparing children to work as adults in places children already worked. Additionally, at the time of his writing, most student assessment was done via recitation, not writing. So, it’s difficult to contextualize what repetitive tasks you’re referring to. Second, Mann, among many others, were vocal advocates of feminizing the profession. The sentiment was basically women teachers could better coax children towards learning than men. In effect, your book implies Mann helped harden American education while numerous books and historians lay out that, in fact, he played a significant role in softening it. Third, factories of that era weren’t necessarily focused on speed and didn’t look like factories as your readers would think of them. Audrey Watters piece on the “Invented History of the Factory Model” does a good job explaining the difference.  

It’s also worth highlighting that the source you cite regarding Mann, The Prussian-Industrial History of Public Schooling is not authored by an educational historian. This alone is not an issue, but what is great big giant red flag is the reference to James Taylor Gatto in the author’s citation list. There is a great deal to be said about Gatto but the fact he referred to the people Thomas Jefferson enslaved as “employees” should be enough to disqualify him, and by proxy, any source that cites him as a credible source.

Which leads us to Chapter 2 and the Committee of Ten. First, a reader is left to believe the Committee of Ten had authority over American public education. It’s not clear to the reader that the Committee was entirely advisory, and they were describing what was happening and making recommendations based off these observations, not telling school leaders or states what to do. The initial committee work revealed 9 common subjects across American high schools (as well as mention of art, music, physical education, rhetoric, logic, etc.) While they did speak to 5 subjects as a way to organize the school day, the 5 they used as categories are different than those you cite (“math, science, English, history, and foreign languages”, p. 40). In their report (p. 36), they offer:

  1. languages — Latin, Greek, English, German, and French, (and locally Spanish); 
  2. mathematics — algebra, geometry, and trigonometry; 
  3. general history, and the intensive study of special epochs; 
  4. natural history — including descriptive astronomy, meteorology, botany, zoology, physiology, geology, and ethnology; 
  5. physics and chemistry.

On page 43, you speculate about the goals of the Committee of Ten. Taking creative license with historical texts is understandable. I’m unclear, though, why you didn’t provide the reader with the Committee’s actual goals or even source the actual report. A review of the final report shows each committee articulated their rationale for their topic area. These rationales include statements that speak to the opposite of what you claim. Committee members remind schoolmen “It is scarcely necessary to say that the simple memorizing, or the slavish following, of the textbook should be avoided (p. 218)”, or “This [history class] may also be so arranged as to create in the minds of pupils a desire to possess and use books, which will do much to break the monotony of their lives and to cultivate the habit of judicious expenditure” (p. 193) and “[geometry]  possesses remarkable qualifications for quickening and developing creative talent” (p. 115). The members of the Greek committee advocated students read The Odyssey, “as it deals with fairy land, enchantment, and human effort” (p. 79). Meanwhile, in one of the minority reports, an author argues, “The relation between the subjective power and the objective — or subjective — knowledge is inseparable and vital. On any other theory, for general education, we might well consider the study of Egyptian hieroglyphics as valuable as that of physics, and Choctaw as important as Latin” (p. 57)It’s clear the members of the Committee of Ten were being thoughtful, careful, and reflective about what was and should happen in schools. Reducing their work, and the work of the teachers of era to the “1893 Model” misleads readers around the evolution of American education. 

Which leads us to why any of this matters. Your text claims: “It’s shocking that the typical student day in 2015 is eerily similar to what it was at the beginning of the twentieth century” (page 40) and you ask what’s in American education “DNA.” Our exchange on Twitter happened to occur on the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education which to me, is the heart of the matter. One piece that isn’t mentioned in your book or the movie is that Committee of Ten were all white men. They were being thoughtful, careful, and reflective about the education of their sons, maybe their daughters. They were mostly unconcerned with what was happening in the under resourced, understaffed Black schools in the South or with doing anything to setting up the children and grandchildren of previously enslaved people up for successful lives. It’s easy to disprove your statement with regards to content; a typical white, male school day in the early 20th century would have included recitations, Latin, Greek, heading home for lunch, few, if any, married or pregnant women teachers and probably no peers with disabilities. A student from 1900 would be baffled by the American high school of 2000, or 2015. However, what would be shockingly similar would be segregation by race and harm to Native and Indigenous children.

I’d offer that the DNA of our schools is white supremacy and institutional sexism and it appears we lack the collective courage to do anything about it. 

One of the tensions is that we could create schools exactly like what you advocate for and still have deeply segregated, deeply unequal schools. In other words, I’m frustrated by the use of the bad history to set a particular narrative around education while there appears to be a desire to ignore or brush aside the actual history. Every time someone talks about the “factory model,” they’ve centered the conversation on white boys and men, away from the legacy of chattel slavery and the sexism that formed our country. Away from hard truths, towards white-centric narratives that only approximate change. Meanwhile, there is a two-century long history of American education being about men on the outside of the classroom telling women inside the classroom how they need to change. Which isn’t to say change isn’t necessary or that all advocacy is wrong. But rather, we’re repeating patterns, generation after generation.

Another tension is we’re talking about systems – but systems are made up of individuals. While we all do our best to advocate from the position find ourselves, we have different levels of authority and leverage. It’s my sincerest hope that those with voices that carry – such as yourself and Mr. Dintersmith – use them to interrupt patterns, to signal boost the voices of the those, especially women of color, doing the work to change school every day. My thanks for listening and I look forward to future conversations. 

Best wishes – Jenn Binis, host Ed History 101

Gender, Navel Gazing

Thinking About the Spine of Education

Inspired by Harriett Logan, owner of Loganberry Books in Cleveland, I added an extra step while dusting and tidying up my office this morning.

My assessment, psychometrics, statistics, and research books.

My instruction, rubrics, policy, grades, and learning books.

My history, pedagogy, cultural competency, and anti-racism books (I moved some around while cleaning as I just got in a bunch of new history books).

I tried not to spend a lot of time counting or looking at patterns. If there was a male-presenting name or more male names than female ones on an edited book, I flipped it around. However, I noticed that almost all of my psychometric books were written by men, almost all of the books around classroom culture and related to K-2 are written by women. I noticed I seem to like authors as I saw the same name several times as I dusted and flipped. I wondered why I purchased a particular book and remembered the reason or excuse I used to buy other ones. I found a few books I’d forgotten I’d picked up and one I thought I lost. There’s a few I want to re-read and more than a few I’ll move to the basement and the bookcase of forgotten books.

We know women make up the spine of education – 75% of teachers are women – but they aren’t reflected in leadership positions. We can speculate about sociological reasons why such as institutional sexism (and racism) and the glass escalator or we can pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s hard though, at the individual level, to influence those statistics unless we’re in a position of leadership with the ability to hire or promote. That said, we can consider whose voices we boost, which authors we support, and who we cite. And while we may not be able to influence all male panels, we can do something about all male bookcases (or all White bookcases). It seems like a small, meaningless move but I’m a firm believer that small moves can add up to a sea changes. Eventually. Slowly. Hopefully.



From Beecher to DeVos and all the Benevolent Sexism In-Between

By the time I finally hit publish on this piece, it’s likely that Betsy DeVos will have been confirmed as our 11th Secretary of Education. Which… grrr. Argh. Grumble. There are lots of reasons people don’t want her confirmed and each group has their own reasons. I was one of the many folks livestreaming her confirmation hearing and learned that a number of reporters, authors, and celebrities that I follow have a child with a disability and are *deeply* invested in public education which speaks to the broad interest in her. Dana Goldstein’s piece in the NYTimes does a solid job walking through the various forms of the pushback.

Late last week, Anya Kamenetz a writer for NPR, wrote a piece about DeVos and the response. Included at the end of her piece was a few paragraphs about gender. She included quotes from two men with different reads and framed it around a question: Is gender at play?

I peeped Kamenetz’s mentions to see how people responded to the piece and sweet chickens, the evidence seems to suggest that educators really do not like talking about gender, even as a theoretical talking point. There are even mentions of the “gender card”, suggesting that Kamenetz was defending DeVos. Which is not only odd but contrasts pretty sharply with the rest of her piece. The number of responses to her that suggested women can’t be sexist was an extra interesting thing we’re eventually going to have to circle back around to in education…

However. The question of gender presents an interesting challenge from an argument perspective. There’s a couple of ways we could frame a claim statement about it:

The vocal pushback to DeVos is based in sexism because people don’t think a woman can do the job.

  • Evidence that challenges that claim? We’ve had two female Ed Secs, including the first one.
  • Evidence that supports that claim? Education is a female-dominated profession but women are underrepresented in leadership positions.

Sexism is evident around her nomination because during her confirmation hearing, questioners referenced her husband.

  • Evidence that challenges that claim? DeVos has spoken at length about her involvement in the schools her husband started. A supporter referenced  her husband and those schools.
  • Evidence that supports that claim? The second reference, from a dissenter, cited a quote her husband made and asked if she agreed.

The vocal pushback to DeVos is sexist in nature because we seem to be okay with men with no experience taking cabinet positions but not women.

  • Evidence that challenges that claim? This is a tough one. On one hand, Domina’s quote in the NPR piece gets at this. We may have collectively balked at DeVos because of our discomfort with women stepping outside a particular role and that discomfort allowed her nomination to register in a way that Carson’s didn’t. On the other hand, education is front and center for nearly every American – parent or not – through school taxes, sports teams, and daily life. HUD isn’t something most are aware of or can understand in any meaningful way. As a result, we’re more comfortable with calling out an unqualified female candidate than we are calling out an unqualified male one. If she isn’t confirmed, there will likely be a veneer of sexism to her downfall – we were all so enraptured by the unqualified woman, we didn’t speak up about the men who are more likely to do real and actual damage.

Some of the pushback to DeVos has been sexist in nature because it focused on her appearance, her smile, or her affect.

  • Evidence to challenge? We’re living in Trump’s world now so it’s okay to talk about what she looks like because that’s clearly how he judges women.
  • Evidence to support: Yeah… what I just wrote is BS. Don’t talk about a woman’s smile, voice, appearance, or affect when critiquing her. Unless your critiquing her ability to act, model, or dance.

So, while on an academic level, I’m happy to poke at the different ways institutional sexism manifests itself, I want to throw out a big ol’ claim out into the void. Her very nomination and subsequent support is an explicit example of benevolent sexism.

beecher_008In the mid-1800’s, when the common school structure was starting to come together, a woman named Catherine Beecher spoke about “missionary teachers.” She saw teaching as something akin to preaching; by saving the neglected American children, young White women would be saving the country itself. She lived, breathed, and proselytized this philosophy with such vehemence it became entrenched within the DNA of the profession. Feel that teaching is a calling? That’s Beecher’s legacy. The message itself isn’t bad unto itself – teaching is hard work, usually at low pay, and finding a reason to join a derided profession can be a good thing.

The problem is when that message gets tied up in gender (and race). Beecher openly bashed male teachers and told horror stories of what would happen if parents entrusted their children to Ichabod Crane type caricatures. Women, you see, were born to teach. Teaching was what women were meant to do (until they got married and became mothers, of course.) To this day, male Kindergarten teachers speak about the response they often get from the public. That? That’s sexism. The idea that a particular gender better equips candidates for a particular job, and a different gender means someone is less qualified for that same job.

I was frustrated by DeVos from day one so drawing a bright line from her to Beecher is crystal clear to me. From where I sit, DeVos is the 2017 version of the White Savior Teacher that Beecher envisioned and that is exactly why Trump nominated her. She fits the part.

We all know Trump is explicitly sexist. Any man who would joke that he’d date his daughter if she weren’t his daughter doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt. (Having Conway on his team or kids who love him doesn’t negate any of that.) We also know he makes decisions based on how he thinks it’ll play in the media. If you wanted to cast the head of education, who better fits that role than a well-intentioned, middle-aged White woman who cares deeply about America’s “forgotten students?” His benevolent sexism lies in putting forth a nominee he can only describe as an “advocate.”

I’ve no doubt DeVos is an intelligent woman who feels she understands education and wants to do good. It’s that wanting to do good that is exactly the problem with her being the Secretary of Education. Public education is messy – it’s built on a racist, sexist foundation and consistently inhibits the best and the worst of America. Yeah! An all-female high school science team design a project that’s going to the space station. Boo! Detroit schools are literally falling apart. A team full of wanting-to-do-gooders isn’t going to fix that. *Wanting* isn’t enough. In other words, she has consistently embodied the wanting without the doing. She mentored but has seemingly never worked as a sub. She pursued a degree in business and political science but there’s no evidence she’s even taken a single class in pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, or heck, even ed history. She has to borrow other people’s words to describe her vision for ed. She wants to change a system she doesn’t want to be a part of. It suggests she will see every aspect of education as a problem that only she can fix as those in the system just don’t see what she sees. That’s deeply problematic.

There is an argument to be made that, for her, “doing” lies in how she donates and spends money. That’s a different argument that is wrapped up in class and I’ll defer to others to make that point.

Which leads us to the benevolent sexism around supporting her nomination. Just after the election, I was venting my frustration about Trump to a conservative educator. I cited Trump’s infamous bus quote and prefaced it with “my president said…” He basically shrugged and said, “my president supports school choice.” This was before DeVos’ name came out and I suspect he’s a supporter of her nomination because she supports this vague concept called “school choice.” That by itself, isn’t necessary sexist. That’s Machiavellian – the ends justify the means. As is liking her because unions don’t or because you trust Trump’s choices… that’s not sexist but it is something worth doing some navel-gazing about. Joe Lieberman throwing in the line “she’s a mother, a grandmother” when listing why she’s qualified for the job is. The repeated stress on How. Much. She. Cares. is. Suggesting she’ll be good at the job because she understands, empathizes, gets, wants to save children? That’s benevolent sexism.

To be clear, using these arguments doesn’t make you sexist. But. If you’re relying on the depth of her ability to care as your driving argument behind her skillset to do the job, you’re shoring up the same argument Beecher used to persuade young women to travel across a country. Teaching is hella hard work and teachers (male and female) who are good at their job are well-trained, well-resourced, and highly reflective.They’re not good teachers because they care.

In truth, DeVos will likely have little impact. Most things that impact day to day practices happen at the state or local level. I read through her responses to Murrary’s questions and I found them to be thoughtful, vague, and generic. Heck. I even agreed with some of them. Odds are she’ll be fine. However, she can, though, have a major impact on LGBTQ students. On students with disabilities. On future teacher sources and professional development funds. On Title 1 fund dispersement. On a whole bunch of things. Perhaps I’m wrong and she hasn’t been confirmed yet or that third Republican saw the light and voted no. If that happens, Trump can always give me a call.


Opening Statement from Secretary of Education-Designate Jenn Binis

When I was but a wee educator, I belonged to a group that can best be described as a teacher think tank. We collaborated, gave each other feedback, planned, and designed together. It was fantastic. While preparing my induction portfolio, I made the decision to write a letter to the reader as if I were writing to my current self from the future. Despite spending hours looking for the evidence to support my claim, you’ll have to take my word that I signed that letter from my future self as Jennifer B., United States Secretary of Education.

It’s true, sports fans. I used to tell people that I was going to be Secretary of Education. It feels like an entire world ago but Senator Clinton had just been sworn in and her being president was still just an interesting speculation. (Take a moment of silence if you need it. I’m going to take a few.)

I’ve had a variety of reactions to Betsy DeVos’ nomination for the job I once wanted. It’s ranged from frustration that the first thing she wants people to know is that she’s a grandmother and mild amusement at how many are working to assure the field that her lack of experience in education isn’t that big of a deal. She’s the ultimate outsider to this profession and system I love with a passion. She’s a person of deep faith who seemingly wants to change the world according to that faith. As an agnostic who supports secular public education, that terrifies me. She’s agreed to work for Trump. I suspect she thinks her wealth protects her from having to work for a boss who’s bragged about sexually assaulting women or joked about sleeping with his daughter. As a woman, that decision saddens me.

So while I’m all aboard Train Dump DeVos, I can’t shake the idea of who it should be instead. What qualified, talented educator would I ask to take the job instead? Would a man be better because he [likely] wouldn’t be subjected to sexual harassment? But he might be in an environment where he’d be expected to join in “locker room talk.” And what if he’s gay? Would it be fair to ask a man to work for a Vice President who thinks he’s merely in need of conversion therapy? That would be – in my favorite phrase of late – a hard ask.

I don’t know. I don’t know who’d I ask instead. I got nothing. But, inspired by a tweet from Jon Becker, I decided to write my opening statement as if I’d gotten my dream job as Secretary of Education. I’m not well-versed in higher ed issues and really have no idea – at all – how the department actually works so I probably borked some parts. (Duncan’s opening statement in 2008 was 2400 words. DeVos’ tonight is about 1200. I kept mine somewhere in the middle.)

Chairman Alexander, Ranking Member Murray, Senators, thank you for all for the conversations we had leading up to today and my thanks for your diligence in vetting my record and finances to ensure I will fulfill my responsibilities fairly and maintain a focus on what is in the best interest of America’s 55 million school-aged children, 16 million college students, and the 23 million who will be enrolling in school within the next five years.

I suspect many of you can appreciate what a difficult decision this was for me as a woman and the daughter of gay parents. I do not support most of President-Elect Trump’s policies and proposals. He is aware that I will be taking no action to roll back protections for the most vulnerable children in our schools, including our DACA DREAMers and LGBTQ students. When we spoke about this position, I told him that I would be the dissenting voice in his cabinet and that he can count on me to speak up when I think he gets something about education wrong. Simply put, if he was unwilling to accept that condition, he should not nominate me. I’m here today so you know how that conversation ended. Despite our differences, President-Elect Trump and I do have one thing in common – a desire to bring radical change to the status quo.

Our public education system, unlike the country itself, does not have an anniversary. There is no date on the historical calendar we can point to and say, “on this day, American public education was born.” Instead, like so many things, it evolved in fits and starts. A system shaped by those designing it, it has passed from generation to generation with multiple goals but one overarching vision: provide American’s children with the knowledge they need to be successful citizens and adults.

The challenge we face is that the definition of “America’s children” has been informed by the adults constructing the system, schoolhouse by schoolhouse, classroom by classroom. Public education is an amazing, powerful, inspiring idea. It is also deeply flawed. For entirely too many generations, the definition of “American’s children” has been centered on the needs of White children and their parents. This is the status quo that needs to be disrupted.

There’s a comic that you will frequently see in you’ve made the rounds in education. I remember seeing it first when I was a young student teacher, trying to figure out how to support students with special needs without removing their agency, in the faculty room where I had my first classroom, and then again on a professor’s door when working on my PhD in Special Education. It shows a group of students waiting to get into their school on a snowy day, shivering in the cold while an adult shovels the steps in front of the door. A student waiting in a wheelchair points to a ramp leading up to the door and says, “you know, if you cleared that first, we could all get in.”

For too many generations, we’ve been focused on clearing the steps. On making small, incremental changes with our eye helping one particular group at a time, our backs turned on other groups. For a while after Brown v. Board of Ed, we turned our eye towards the needs of students of color. Since, then though, we lost sight of what matters. Our schools today are as segregated, and in some cases, more so than they were in the 60’s. And as a result, the brilliant students and talented educators in schools with large populations of students of color are working with fewer resources than schools with large populations of White students. I agreed to work with President Trump because he declared he wants to make America great. I believe we can accomplish that at the Department of Education by radically re-thinking a system that has perpetuated institutional racism and sexism for generations.

First, this means looking at funding equity. America will be great when every child spends their day inside a well-maintained, fully-resourced building where they feel safe, engaged, and challenged. I believe we can accomplish this by looking at how we fund suburban, urban, and rural districts and providing state lawmakers with the information they need to make informed budgeting decisions. Rather then splintering the core of what public education stands for through vouchers, we can encourage states to allow cross-district enrollment, re-frame how we think about the neighborhood school, and focus on equitable funding. School district boundaries can be permeable. Zoning lines can be crossed.

I know there have been some concerns around federal overreach. One of the other reasons I agreed to accept this nomination was to protect the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights. In that office, all 55 million children are our responsibility, not a select few. More importantly, rights are not a zero sum game. Parents of all backgrounds should know that under my leadership, we will work to protect the civil rights of all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, disability, immigration status, gender identity, religion, or geography. At the same time, I will work with state leaders to help parents see that when other people’s children do better, so will their’s. Through our actions and words, the Education Department will send the message that public education is about all of us. 

The Education Department has a 10,000 foot perspective on education which provides a vantage point that states don’t have. I will instruct my staff to work closely with data collection, and privacy, experts to ensure we are regularly using demographic, learning, and financial data to stay informed of trends and patterns at the state and local level. Our office will analyze and advise so that those 1000 or 100 feet from the students can make the most informed decisions possible. I will not insult educators, families, or yourselves by suggesting anything related to education is simple. It’s a complex system for many reasons, primarily because parents are trusting the great loves of their lives to the adults within it. We owe parents and taxpayers accountability. We’ve gotten accountability wrong in the past but we will ask teachers to help us learn from our mistakes and identify which systems worked well and which ones didn’t.

When we see little or no movement towards closing access and achievement gaps, we will provide states and districts with the information they need to close those gaps based on what’s working in communities across the country. One of teachers’ many rules of thumb is to beg, borrow, and steal resources from those with more experience. I will do everything within the power of the department to ensure that there is never an excuse for a lack of action and work with state and local governments where there appears to be a lack of will. This means supporting dissemination of knowledge through on-line research warehouses and constant communication between the department and all state chiefs to ensure those standing beside the students have what they need to do their jobs.

Second, this means re-thinking our current mental models around K-12 education. Although there is no set start date for public education in general, a number of decisions made in 1893 at the National Educational Association’s Committee of Ten set in stone how we think about school as something that begins at age 5. Students change grades every year until they age out at 17 or 18 and move into a second system of higher education.

While most of us sitting in this room found great success with that model, it doesn’t work for all. It’s resulted in 11 year old 3rd graders held back by a single test, too many gifted children going un-served, or some students with disabilities stuck in a gray space between their chronological and cognitive age. There are districts in this country having great success with multi-age schools that are too busy doing what matters to spread what works. That will be one of my responsibilities.

I have no plans to pursue any changes to the finalized regulations to Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), with one exception. I will propose, with hopefully Congress’ support, that we put forth changes to the regulation language around grade levels in order to remove barriers for communities that wish to move to learner-centered, competency-based learning structures, shifting away from the grade-levels established more than a century ago. I will continue to support states in their efforts to create public charter schools that seek to fulfill a need the public school cannot. However. Education is not a business and should not be treated as such. Any states looking to enable revenue generating charter management companies will be expected to provide detailed explanations on how they will hold them accountable to ensure consistent quality education that is par with the vision I’ve set out for public education.

This will also mean thinking differently about college and degree certifications. The harm caused by for-profit universities should serve as a lesson as we have those conversations. I will lean heavily on experts in the field to advise me how to guide our way forward to ensure that crushing debt is not a given for recent grads and that adults looking to change careers or peruse other interests, have the supports they need.

Finally, America will be great when our schools fully reflect the diversity of our population and collective experiences. It should not be acceptable for white children go their entire lives without having a teacher of color. Black parents should be able to assume their children will routinely see and learn from Black educators and peers. Indigenous and Native parents shouldn’t have to worry that their children will encounter curriculum that treats them as relics from American history. Discussion of a Muslim registry shouldn’t be the first time our citizenry is learning about the Asian internment camps of World War II. Curriculum belongs in teachers’ hands. However, there are 3.4 million teachers. It is my goal that educators come to see the Department of Education as trusted partner and advocate for quality curriculum and pedagogy. I’ll propose expanding the What Works Clearinghouse so it includes guidance on creating inclusive, anti-racist learning environments. We will regularly celebrate what is working at the local level, using measures of success that go beyond test scores.

Changing a system as large as public education takes time and an open and explicit commitment to challenging the status quo. Part of this means making  teaching a profession that appeals to all. I will continue to support programs started under Secretary Duncan and King that are using research-based strategies to recruit, train, and support teachers of color, especially men of color. Likewise, I will look carefully at the previous administration’s actions around campus sexual assault and use colleges’ feedback as well asking students who have been sexually assaulted to provide their input in order to make changes as needed.

There are numerous challenges facing this country and this administration. President-Elect Trump has proposed some truly radical changes to how government operates and while each department will have it’s part to play, it’s my belief that educators at each level – from the Education Department to local school boards – bear the greatest responsibility. We are the ones shepherding the next generation into the future and I know we all take that responsibility seriously. Thank you for considering my nomination and I am happy to answer any questions you have.


(Edu)Tweeting While Feminist — 2016 in Review

Source: Matt Cornock (Flickr)

On one hand, labels stifle us. They box us in. They present only one aspect of who we are and push to the back the thousand other things that make us a complex, complicated, mess of a human being.

On the other, labels are shorthand. They communicate quickly where our hearts and minds reside. When we select a label by which to identify, we are communicating to the world what we value, cherish, or see as important.

Labels we chose to apply to ourselves can offer comfort and camaraderie. Labels applied to us by others can denigrate and dismiss. They are a ridiculous way to describe a human being. They are the best tool we have for creating social groups and communities. They’re terrible and they’re wonderful. At the same time.

With and because of their strengths and flaws, labels prime us. When it comes to conversations that take place on Twitter, that priming plays a role for both the account holder and those who interact with them. On Twitter, we can pick whatever words, including labels, we want to use to describe us. The space in our bio communicates quickly who we are and how we identify. It gives a cheat sheet to the reader. Identify as a Red Sox fan and Yankees fans will know where you stand. “Grade 5 Teacher” in their bio? They know a bunch of ten-year-olds and don’t need their time wasted being told about “kids these days.” Which brings us to accounts with the word feminist in their bio.

2015 was the year I labeled myself a feminist.

I picked the label because I wanted to identify myself with a community. I’ve done my homework, and I keep going back for re-education. I try to focus on intersections and systems, not just individuals and events. I know I can’t control what a reader is primed to think when they see the word but I’m not ashamed or worried about what the label implies. I picked it. I find comfort and camaraderie in it.

2016 was the year I decided to act like a feminist on Twitter.

Adopting a label doesn’t come with a rule book so I bumbled around a bit, trying to figure out what that might look like. I started by culling and updating who I follow. I kept track of who I re-tweeted and at what frequency. I set up my own website to share thoughts in 140 plus and I sketched out the plans for a podcast with an education and feminist bent. The year started off quietly — I mostly burned my bras off-line. It wasn’t until February that I actually used the word feminism in a tweet. However, on January 5th, I started using the phrase “paired texts” (it took me til October to wise up and use #pairedtexts to make them easier to track.) My first paired text was about birth control in response to a post written by a male, conservative education reformer. In 2016, I tweeted out paired texts or text sets 350 times. It wasn’t my goal to do it once a day but it appeals to my data-loving heart that it kinda almost worked out that way.

I think it was around this time that Twitter lifted the character limit on DMs so I ended up having a whole bunch of really interesting conversations with conservative men around birth control and abortion. Some of those conversations are still happening, some of them ended with one of us blocking the other. I started 2016 by navel-gazing about being blocked. By November, I no longer cared about being blocked.

In late January, a Canadian educator and passionate progressive, Joe Bower, passed away and it was sudden, surprising, and sad. He and I had been exchanging thoughts in 140 snippets, emails, and blog comments since 2010, back when I had the handle DataDiva, and though we disagreed vehemently around details, we agreed on core values. Having a discourse partner as stubborn and as committed to an idea as you are is a rare gift, provided you’re both willing to bend. I don’t know if Joe identified as a feminist but I suspect he would have if asked.

In February, I went all in around intersections and feminism. I was fascinated by the role of white women in this system made in our image. Writing it helped me identify where my passions and interest were really anchored. I decided to give it a voice and words and I wrote a book manuscript to go with the idea. Kinda? Maybe? I struggled with negotiating the space between writing about teachers and loving teachers. I focused on being a better, more precise writer. Between February and December 2016 I used the phrase “white and female” when talking about the teaching profession more than a dozen times so I got better at explicitly describing demographics.

In March, I made the decision to speak up about something written by one of Joe’s co-authors, Alfie Kohn. Unlike Joe who would respond to any and all tweets, Kohn doesn’t respond to any. He wrote a piece about technology and it made me a bit cranky. It went… well-ish? Since Kohn doesn’t directly engage on Twitter, I’ve no idea if he read my piece but friends of his did and shared their thoughts.

In May, I became full on obsessed with patterns. I started to pay more attention to who was saying what and speaking up. Sometimes it went well and the conversation ended with a “I hadn’t thought about that” but more often it ended with:

So I shifted from observing patterns to actively working to interrupt them. And sweet chickens, I could give a master class in passive-aggressive-aggression around butting in. I clarified tweets with the word “but” 127 times. I apologized 2 dozen times and was aggressive enough on several occasions that I was blocked. I was very single-minded in my focus — despite education being a female-dominated profession, women are mis- and under-represented, overlooked and treated differently than male experts and educators. This, to me, was made explicit in how the field responded to Angela Duckworth — not her science, not her theory, but her personally. She came to the forefront of EduTwitter in 2016 when her book was published. I put down some words about her and had some conversations.

In July, a male reader of my blog kindly read all of my posts and submitted comments on them as he read. He stopped, alas, before he got to Overconfident Men. Double alas, I never approved his comments and they’ve disappeared from the comment queue so I can’t revisit them.

A blogger on Ed Week sent out a call around feminism in education and I did some research around the representation of female leaders. And with each post I wrote or assertive tweet I sent, I recognized the hubris in assuming my words would change anything or that I was always right. But, I’d come to dislike more the feeling of regret after not speaking up. Along with the hubris and regret came frustration about patterns and inaccuracy. I tried to organize my frustration into thoughts when I spoke up about a clear wrong and was told I wasn’t qualified to speak up. I was told I was wrong a lot in 2016. I met a bunch of cool new people and had a bunch of neat conversations.

The pattern endures. Men lead.

The pattern isn’t about the authors themselves — rather the art work the publishers used.

Women teach, guide, and support.

(+2 points to you if you spotted the pattern in the authors’ names. I promise I grabbed 3 books with photo covers)

In September, I had a bit of a “come to Steinem” sort of moment. I saw an exchange that was, to me, a clear parallel to what happened with Duckworth as a critique on social media become about the woman not her work. Quick summary of what happened: Professor A, an expert in field A, saw a handout designed by Professor B, an expert in field B. The handout had mention of something from field A and Professor A felt it was wrong, wrong, wrongly wrong, wrongest. So Professor A shared a correction on Twitter. The tweet included a picture of a handout with the corrections and Professor B’s Twitter handle right in the middle of the tweet. Which meant everyone who followed Professor A saw it and unless Professor B happened to check Twitter mentions right then, they saw it before Professor B. And howdy oh boy, did Professor A’s followers have opinions: “How much money is [Professor B] making off education right now?” and “Why can’t you just admit you are in the wrong, [Professor B]?”

Patterns aren’t always nefarious. Sometimes they’re just patterns. But sometimes the majority of avatars replying to and about Professor B belong to men. Their avatars presented as male faces and their Twitter handles had names like David, Adam, Carl, Robert, Mark, and Joost. And here’s where theory becomes practice. Professor B is Jo Boaler: a smart, kind, patient, always enthusiastic mathematics educator and researcher. Jo and I followed each other on Twitter and hadn’t connected much. I did, though, know she’s gone through the wringer. What’s more, the pattern Jo describes in her post isn’t unique — other women from academia have shared similar experiences.

How we chose to describe the pattern I saw, I suspect, relates back to the labels we assign ourselves. I connected the pattern to systemic sexism — in academia and social media. In I jumped. I raised the issue of not giving Jo a heads up in private and the unintended consequences of calling out a woman in public. Cue the tweets telling me I was being silly, sexist, and quibbling over details. Talking about the finer points of social media discourse in the midst of a social media tweetstorm is well… about as effective as it sounds. But *stomps foot*, I was determined to do it.

Many of those in the thread who I suspect would label themselves as an academic appeared to see it as critiquing someone who got their field wrong and oh, by the way, if they brought up other stuff, well… it’s important people know about that other stuff. The discussion became one of those mighty threads that ended because of exhaustion, not because of closure. I was annoyed and insulted. Jo was hurt and insulted. Professor A was defended and possibly insulted. Jokes were made (but not by me) about safe-spaces and PC culture. I’d like to say it ended with hugs and bridge-building. It didn’t. A month after the exchange petered out, the following appeared in Jo’s mentions:

And then, while working on this year-end review, I came across this.

(I want all the cookies for the self-control it took to obscure the handle because it’s not about him. It’s about patterns.) And we’re reminded that even good, kind, smart men can be sexist. Heck, even good, kind, smart women can do things that contribute to sexism. Case in point? Professor A is Dr. Yana Weinstein. And because the difference between calling someone a sexist and saying, “this is sexist” isn’t often recognized, the implication here is not that Dr. Weinstein is sexist and Dr. Boaler’s work is above reproach. Rather, it’s that even academics can fall victim to forgetting the person at the other end of a Twitter account is a full person with feelings and emotions and that social media is a different beast than a critique published in a peer reviewed journal.

I tried to remember that lesson as we went into the final push before the 2016 elections; that people could not support the candidate I wanted them to support and still be decent human beings. Shocking, I know. I worked on a local campaign, knocked on doors, declared #ImWithHer on Twitter, and talked politics with friends and family until it became untenable.

Just before the election, I had a crisis of conscious around whom I deemed worthy of defense from a feminist perspective. A former Sanders’ supporter, turned Jill Stein advocate, raised the issue in my Direct Mentions that women weren’t speaking up around the sexism leveled against Stein. I kinda hemmed and hawed. I could point to explicit things that happened around Clinton or female education researchers and say, “This. This is sexist because…” but with Stein, I couldn’t finish the sentence. Which lead me into a loop of introspection and reflection around for whom, why, and when I make the choice to speak up. I messed it up earlier in the year when I reflected on an EduColor chat and I knew right away after that I was wrong and I could totally be wrong again and I’m really just a bad feminist after all because I’m not seeing what I got wrong about Stein and ….

The election happened. So many white, college-educated women voted for Trump, demographics say teachers voted for him. I planned on writing a whole series around different demographics but I couldn’t find the words after the first post. I was one of the many bewildered white liberal Americans who had lost sight of just how deep racism and sexism go in our country. And then I got angry that more white, liberal Americans hadn’t bother to vote. I was primed for a fight when more than few male educators immediately put the blame on Clinton and the female presidents of the the major education unions. One particular post, listed the names of all of the people who should be fired because they supported Clinton and not Sanders. When I pointed out in a rather ranty rant that all of the names he listed belonged to women, I was eventually given this advice.

And I thought, isn’t that kind of him. Isn’t that lovely. I’d offer him the label of “mansplainer” but he blocked me and I suspect he wouldn’t like that label.

I spent the middle of November, like many, trying to reconcile what happened with what I thought was going to happen. I changed my avatar to a safety pin. I changed it back. My husband and I put Black Lives Matter stickers on our cars. We took another look at how we invest, shop, and donate. I went back for more education and double-checked to make sure I was following as many Black feminists as possible.

Then, the other proverbial shoe dropped. The new PEOTUS released the name of his proposed Secretary of Education and she introduced herself to the field by saying:

That’s the first thing she wants us to know about her. She’s a grandmother. A statement that would make some of the earliest education reformers delightfully happy. The person that will be leading a profession that is 75% female — a demographic that has a long history of sexism behind it — wants America to know, first and foremost, she identifies with the label “grandma.” My mind… it does boggle.

Then, at the end of November, this blog post was published on Ed Week’s site and just like that, I saw the bottom of my bag of righteous, feminist anger. The field, as they say, was empty.

I have no idea what 2017 holds for me personally or for this profession and institution I hold so dear. I know I’ll continue to learn, unlearn, and learn better. I’m hoping I can refill my bag of righteous anger. I hope I can find the words again to speak up and out. I hope I can meet some new minds at the intersection of feminism and education and persuade them to think differently.

That’s what I hope. But then I get advice like this:

… and I think, goodness, what labels would he ascribe to me?


So… You’re a White Female Teacher Who Voted for Trump


Welcome! Thanks for stopping by! I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about education, gender, and what happens when these two things overlap. And sweet chickens, did they overlap in this election. I want to steal a few moments of your time to chat. If you’re feeling anxious about what’s happening, I’m there with you. I’m still feeling pretty helpless and wondering what I could have done differently to get Clinton elected. If you’re not feeling anxious, I’d ask that you take a moment to check out what happened in our schools today:

  • Children are crying and stressed about what happened
  • Boys tried to pull off a girl’s head scarf because of her faith
  • Students are filled with fear and anxiety
  • All of these things happened
  • and this video where boys held up a Trump sign and chanted “White Power”

I know you care deeply about your job and students and these stories worry you as much as they worry the next teacher. There’s lots of great advice out there on how to talk to students about this stuff. Those conversations, though, are about the short-term. We also have to think about the long-term.

85% of the country’s 3.1 million teachers are White and 74% are female, which basically means all students in America will be taught by a White women at some point. With any group that large, there are patterns; patterns about where we grew up, went to college, and learned how to be a teacher. Last year, I wrote about what those patterns may mean around race and gender and being in education.

It’s kinda wordy (natch – “boys are good at math, girls are good at English”) but the gist: White girls, generally speaking, aren’t taught how to talk about, think about, and reflect on race. (White boys, too but this isn’t about them.) Odds are the title of this piece made you uncomfortable. We’re raised to be polite and good. We were taught to see people’s insides, not their outsides. Our parents called it being “color-blind” or told us to not “see color.” As grown women, it feels rude and impolite to talk about it or we believe race is a non-issue. As a result, when things like this happen, we don’t know what to say or we bollix it up without realizing it. A Black child asks what will happen to them under President Trump and we assure them by saying, “Nothing. You’ll be fine. There’s nothing to worry about. Now go work on page 17.” Or we see a White student make a comment about a Muslim girl’s hijab and we respond, “We don’t do that in our classroom. Be nice.” Not all of us, all of the time. But enough of us that we put a man who refused to rent to Black Americans in the White House.

This isn’t about shaming anyone or preaching. I respect you too much for your career choice to do that. However. I’m going to ask that you start the work of fixing how you think about identity because that’s the long-term fix that’s in your control. That means thinking about your (and your students’) racial, cultural, religious, ethnic, sexual, and gender  identity – in other words, the things hurled at children by children as insults in our schools today.

If you don’t think you need to deal with racial issues – watch that video again. It’s short but important. Thinking about identity isn’t just for supporting children of color, it about ensuring another generation of White women doesn’t grow up thinking “color-blind” is a good thing and fail to teach their sons and daughters the problem with chanting “White power.” But if you think you’ve got it handled, you should read this letter instead.

You may not have needing this prodding from me. You may be ready to start this work, want to know more, and are ready to ask questions. Feel free to ask in the comments or reach out on Twitter. There’s no such thing as a silly question. I had a lovely Twitter exchange a few days ago with a woman who was mortified to realize she’d made it to her 30’s without knowing anything about Jim Crow laws. It happens. When we know better, we do better.

And don’t worry about saying or doing the wrong thing. A fellow educator, Jamie Gravell, once helped me think through some missteps when I blundered in a conversation and kindly reminded me mistakes happen. It’s how we learn. Mistakes though, by White adults as they learn and unlearn about race, shouldn’t impact people of color. In other words, don’t ask Black men or women your questions. It’s not their job to educate you. Jamie has volunteered to answer questions. Follow her on Twitter if you don’t already or check out her website.

Got wonderings but aren’t sure how to ask them? This is Elizabeth Self. She’s a professor at Vanderbilt and she studies these intersections for a living. She works with teachers at all stages of their career and probably has heard your wondering before. Talk to her. She’s lovely.

Ask us. Talk to us. We may not respond right away because educators and life, but we’re here for you. We’ll talk. I promise there’s no shame, no blame. This is where we are now. We can’t undo, we can only move forward. Children are afraid and we have to fix that. Not ready to talk? Check out Educolor and then come back and talk.

We’ll be here.



Clinton’s Concession

I was traveling for work yesterday and had to live vicariously through social media as women paid homage to the suffragists and activists who made it possible for us to vote and for a woman to run for president – people gathered for Susan B. Anthony in Rochester, for Shirley Chisholm in Buffalo, for Elizabeth Caty Stanton in the Bronx, and for Ida B. Wells in Chicago.

Yesterday, I wanted to be at their grave sites to honor their work and efforts.

Today, I want to go and apologize.

White women in America followed in Anthony’s tainted footsteps when we should have followed in Wells. We walked away from our responsibility to women of color and their families. We chose to vote for our self-interest instead of women’s interests.

A part of me is pushing back hard against my use of “we.” *I* didn’t vote for him. I campaigned and advocated for her as hard as I could. Me, and my fellow college-educated White women, voted for her. But look at how narrow that margin is.women

I continue to believe passionately and without equivocation in public education. Free, universal, compulsory education is what makes progress possible. I fear, though, my love for the profession I adore is cracking. In a few moments, a woman I respect, admire, and wanted to see be my president will give a concession speech. I don’t want to listen to it. I want this not to be real. I have to listen. I have to do better. I have to be better.

And tomorrow, I’m going to recommit to this field once called “women’s true profession.” I’m going to do everything within my power to change the narrative around who determines the rules of school, who sets policy, and whose voices get heard.

Step 1? Make Anna Julia Cooper’s name as familiar John Dewey’s.


Teachers for Trump

Last week at the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump Jr. had some thoughts about school and teachers. The response was virtually immediate (here, here, and here are just some examples.) That push back is powerful, important, and firmly in the wheelhouse of when and how the profession rises up with one voice: disparage us and we’ll tell you how and why you’re wrong.

At the same time, there is the painful reality that some teachers were watching that convention and making the decision to vote for Trump come November. Therein lies a tough, sticky conundrum: How does or should the field respond to teachers who support Trump? What does it take to change the mind of someone who will vote for a racist, sexist, egomaniac and then stand in front of a group of children the next day? 

There are two things that suggest not all teachers are Team #NeverTrump. First, there are about 3 million full-time teachers. Of those teachers, about 85% are white. Those large numbers combined with polls that show Trump’s support is almost exclusively from white voters suggest there would be overlap. On the other hand, it may be that the percentage of Trump supporters among teachers would be lower than among white voters in general due to teachers’ level of education. There’s also the gender factor – Trump’s fans are mostly male. Teachers are mostly female.

Then there’s the teachers who openly share their Trump love. From Facebook and Twitter to lawn signs, there are educators putting their thoughts and opinions out there as to why Donald J. Trump is best equipped to lead the country for the next four years. @TeachersforTrump has 805 followers, many of whom have teacher in their bio. A drop in the bucket in terms of registered voters – but in terms of counts of children they’ll interact with? That’s not a small number.

I’ve seen reasons for a willingness to support Trump that range from rationalizations, justifications, and explanations about his flaws to a focus on his unique approach to the world. Another common reason? Apparently, Hillary Clinton was spawned by the devil and is the worst politician to ever politic and voting for her is worse than voting for Trump. So casting a vote for Trump isn’t a vote *for* Trump, it’s a vote *against* Hillary. (I’m paraphrasing. Perhaps a bit flippantly. Mostly because I’m pretty firmly in line with this guy.)

Talking about politics can be messy and complicated. Talking about teachers and politics and Trump is asking for a complicated word soup. At the same time, if the profession can respond so forcefully, quickly, and vocally when insulted, what would it take for a similar response to a man who has insulted – many times – the children who sit in the nation’s classrooms?

Some are speaking up. Diane Ravitch was explicit about why she’s casting her vote and it seems like an argument any teacher should be able to get behind. AFT and NEA both gave raving endorsements to Clinton. I’m hopeful Clinton will be elected and, for the first time in my adult life, am engaging in political conversations in public. I hope we’ll see a wide-spread rebuking of the RNC platform and Trump’s message. I hope the American public declares with one voice come November that we will not repeat mistakes of the past and let hateful men dictate our country’s direction by reflecting back the worst of us.

Hope, though, isn’t enough this time around. Normally, I would work my hardest to seek to understand. I would do my best to fight against stereotyping Trump supporters and to approach conversations or thinking from a place of empathy and shared ground. On this topic, though, that resource manna is depleted. I got nothing. As always, I’m happy to engage and discuss but on this matter, I’ll be doing it with one hand tied behind my back. I will not change my vote and I cannot understand casting a vote for Trump.


Five Questions

By habit or design, a lot of my thinking is made manifest in the form of questions. Some of that comes from who my mentors are. Much of it comes from the sparks I pick up from educators and teachers in my life who let me to work, think, babble and collaborate with them.  I write questions on Post-Its, in notebooks, bury them in rambling blog posts, or save them as possible titles for half-drafted essays. Will Richardson’s recent post gave me an excuse to coral some up, dust them off, and set them lose.

The five questions that are rattling around at the top of my brain pan at this moment:

1. Do the cons of reducing learning to a number or symbol outweigh the pros?

2. What are the implications in education when those doing the telling are mostly white men and those being told are mostly white women?

3. What is the responsibility of those former good girls and good students in this system of our own making?

4. How do we navigate the implications of a profession that is 85% white without inadvertently overburdening or erasing teachers of color?

5. If we’ve made the collective decision that free, compulsory education is good for society, how do we ensure that as many days as possible are filled with experiences students give a shit about?

Some of them I’m working on answering. A few I know the answer to. I think. Maybe. As of right now. It may change in five minutes. Possibly.


Gender, Navel Gazing, Uncategorized

Learning To Defer


Our cats – Steve! and Kevin

I am not a parent. It doesn’t take a lot of navel gazing for me to reach the conclusion that I have nothing to say or write about how to parent. I don’t go near discussions of parenting because a) despite my fondness for my cats, I recognize they’re not children  and b) connecting my love for public education to parenting is some pretty high level brain gymnastics.  I don’t defer or claim expertise, I avoid.

I’m not gay or transgender but members of my family (born and made) are. I connected hard with Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and haven’t looked back since then. Deciding to speak up around  gender and/or sexuality  issues was as easy a decision as shutting up around parenting. I don’t claim expertise, I only claim the moniker of feminist and ally.

Meanwhile, I’ve made some awkward, mortifying, terrifying mistakes when sharing my thinking on topics related to race and equity. I think I’ve done enough work to understand an issue and then I realize (sometimes a moment before speaking, sometimes a moment after) I still have to do some unlearning and relearning and crack the spines on some new books. On these issues, I slip and slide in and out of understanding and confusion, occasionally stubbing a toe and working hard to do better. I am a perpetual learner. Any emerging expertise comes in conversations with fellow learners or in my written reflections here on my blog.

And then there’s assessment design. Want to know about performance-based assessment? I can share lit reviews through interpretive dance. Want to write a good multiple question? You want the short answer or the long answer? Don’t like rubrics? Give me five minutes and I’ll change your mind. Wanna debate assessment?

Come at me

Basically, I’m getting better knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. And when in doubt, I defer.

Deferring is a short way of saying:

  • “I don’t know enough about this topic. Let me point you towards someone who does.” or
  • “I think I know about this topic but I know this person knows WAAY more than I do, so go with their response.” or
  • “This isn’t my space. The owner of this space may have a different take than mine.”

We defer when we RT without commenting. We defer when we tag someone in a complementary tweet* and point to their expertise. The flip side of deferring is asserting  expertise, laying bare the tension in on-line discourse – be it threaded Twitter chats, dueling blog posts, or comment sections – where, in theory, all voices are equal.

Thanks to Southpark, many (myself included) can’t help but hear Cartman’s whining about RESPECT MUH AUTHORITAH! when the concept comes up. The implication is that asserting expertise is akin to acting like a spoiled, bratty second-grader, stomping your foot and saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong because I say so.”

And yet… and yet. Expertise exists. Some people know more about some topics than other people. This isn’t controversial nor earth shattering. My favorite quote on that subject comes from John Scalzi, a science fiction author.

Being an expert/pro doesn’t mean you’re right about everything in your field. It does mean you likely know when others are wrong about it.

When to defer or when to assert expertise? I poked at this a bit when I wrote about The Backfire Effect but it’s again on my mind. Because I write and think about gender in education, I notice patterns, patterns which are not unique to education. Patterns, though, that go back to the dawn of our country and are deeply entrenched in the teaching profession. To be clear, it’s not my claim gender is always at play when there’s a disagreement or someone someone says I’m not qualified to comment on something I am, in fact, qualified to speak about. (I would consider donating one of my cats+ to a loving home could I get some women in education to defer to my expertise.)  I do think gender is at play more often than we’re willing to admit.

And why would we admit it? Teaching is a predominately female profession! How can it be impacted by sexism? The challenge is that sexism runs deep in the profession for many reasons, some of which can be attributed to the dominance of women. Teaching was once referred to as “woman’s true profession” and seen as female equivalent of preaching. It was an acceptable profession for women who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to earn a living. By 1880, the mental image held by Americans of a “teacher” was a white woman. Almost 140 years later, the profession is still trying to figure out what to do with that responsibility.

To be good at school is learning how to play along, to be polite, to follow the rules – both informal and formal. And in many cases, those informal rules are created by white women to continue the grammar and tradition of school, a place they themselves thrived. Meanwhile, white boys who break the rules at school, who experience a “crisis” once a generation have gone on to lead our country and companies for as long as girls have outperformed boys at school.

So… I’m at a loss. What does it take to get a male non-expert in a topic to defer to a female expert? To get white men to listen to women about issues related to education? Beyond that, to listen to the black girls who are being pushed out of schools at alarming rates? To the boys of color who return to schools as adults at a rate far below that of any other demographic group?  Native Americans can’t get a white man to acknowledge the racism inherent in the name of a football team. Pragmatic, frustrated me wonders why should I expect the dynamics in education to be any different.

How do we get white men to defer? What would happen if I were to say to a white male blogger/tweet-er, “You’re wrong. I know more about you on this topic.” What labels might be ascribed to me? Can one shrug into a mantel of expertise? Or does it have to be draped over your shoulders by others? What are the implications when the default “expert” has long been seen as having a particular race and gender? What are the implications when there is a sense that because something is written in a blog post or tweet, it’s true?

I’m left asking a question I asked at the end of another blog postWhat does it look like to change the system, one mindset at a time? I still have no idea. I know though that I’m tired about reading mis-information about a field I care deeply about and know a lot about. And not that it matters, but I may very well test the limits of my ability to shout down a white male author the next time one blames Angela Duckworth for the birth of the grit narrative.


*It is not “deferring” to tag someone on Twitter to demand they comment on a topic of your choosing. It is not “deferring” to tag someone in a discussion you’re having with someone else to ask that person to settle a debate or comment. FWIW and FYI.

+ Kevin (the tabby) is what one might generously call a DogCat. He’s a tank with a walnut brain who can open cupboards and knows exactly where Paul keeps the thermometer with the laser pointer. So, if needed, I might let another family experience the joy that is Kevin.