Navel Gazing, Uncategorized

Talking to Conservatives


I don’t know how to talk to conservatives.

Whew. That was a hard confession but it takes a weight off my shoulders that I can now kick around and try to figure out.

Having been raised by the oldest of ten children and born with a thread of gregariousness hard-wired into my DNA, I’ll talk to anyone. I’ve talked to people while waiting for the light to change at a crosswalk because why not? I compliment strangers on their shoes and do that thing where, if you’re wearing a nametag, I’m going to use your name if we talk.

I spend entirely too much time talking to strangers via Twitter and laugh the laugh of the obscene when I get feedback in which one of those strangers think I’m cold or stand-offish. I blame the two-dimensional medium of talking in 140 bursts for that. So, despite my habit of sometimes doing Twitter badly, I generally feel there’s more gained by talking to people than not.

I’m not an extrovert per se more of a “life is so weird and if we only get one shot at this, I wanna make it as pleasant and interesting as possible” variety of human. Sometimes idle chatter with strangers can do that. (Sometimes not talking can do that. It’s a fine line.) When that person, though, presents an idea or mindset that is the polar opposite of my own, I struggle to do more than compliment their shoes. Even my metacognitive strategies fail me.

A few years back, I attended a conference on systems thinking and in the midst of work around feedback loops, inputs, outputs, and behaviors over time graphs, I stubbed my brain. I lost my ability to speak and could only gesture weakly towards the other people in my mapping group.

One of the facilitators saw my reaction and sat beside me. “You’re holding too tight,” she said. “Imagine you’re helping a friend rappel down the side of a cliff. Your job isn’t to grab the safety rope and stop her descent. That would hurt both of you.” I think I nodded, trying my best with my broken brain to stay with her. “Instead, you need to let the rope pass through your hands, holding tight enough to slow her fall but loose enough that the rope barely brushes your hands and she progresses safely. Treat each idea here today like that. Let it pass through your mind just like that rope through your hands. Don’t worry about grabbing tightly. When you’re ready to think deeply about an idea or concept, when it makes sense, you’ll feel your friend’s feet hit the ground safely.”

Learning scientists may disagree with that analogy but it sure as heck worked for me in that setting. I felt when an idea went thump as it landed and when it didn’t, I let the rope keep slipping, holding just tight enough to feel it pass by. I got better at saying to my group members, “I’m still working on that. Can you tell me more about it?” I left with a clear understanding of what I mastered and what I still needed to throw off a cliff a few more times before I got the safe landing that means deep, accurate understanding. I still remind myself of the analogy when I encounter something unfamiliar and feel the first tingles of rope burn because I’m trying to stop something that’s not yet in a safe landing place. Just because I don’t understand something now, it doesn’t mean I can’t eventually work through it.

So, this morning, I read this by Robert Pondiscio and wanted to throw it off a literal cliff. I noticed the image of a white woman to represent the “left”, Hess describing the generic conservative reformer using male pronouns, and the repeated use of the phrase “social justice warrior ” which has a history methinks the speakers aren’t aware of. Part of me wanted to accidently forget to clip in the safety rope and listen for the ker-splat.

In truth, I did feel a thunk and figured I owed it to this concept of public education that I hold so dear to take a beat and figure out what the thunk was. To my chagrin, the thunk was the hollow ring of stereotyping. Despite my willingness to make small talk with all sorts of folks, my understanding of conservatives comes from the media. When it comes to school reform and the faces I associate with conservationism – ie. white men of a certain age and income bracket –  I’m skewed by my hobby. Doing research at night and on weekends has me deep in the dusty pages of history in which white male reformers, with the best of intentions, offer a solution to a profession that is, depending on the date, anywhere from 60% to 89% female. I know that reform isn’t all good or all bad and that there’s a long history of female reformers with bad ideas and male teachers with good ones. I spent entirely too long talking to my entirely too patient non-educator husband about it for the latest episode of our podcast.

However, it’s hard to read a text with one part of your brain trying to actively avoid stereotyping while the other part of your brain is reading statements and thinking, “that sounds racist”, “this feel sexist.” My sense was becoming that conservatives think progressive reformers can’t walk and chew gum. That we can’t talk about racism and sexism and teaching and learning. I can’t know, though, if that’s what they think without talking to them.

So back to the beginning of the text. On the second pass, I read it closely, looking for a quote I could connect with, not push back against. Right there in the 9th paragraph, I found one from a reformer who identifies as politically independent: “I’d hate to lose the next [conservative reformer] because people believe you can’t be [progressive] and also be a pragmatist who can make alliances and get victories.”

I so get that! I’m pragmatic! I’m a vegetarian butcher when it comes to assessment design! Wahoo! Common ground!

A connection means I can free up brain space to ask questions and consider their implications. Take 1: What is the thing that conservatives think they bring to the work of school reform that we liberal progressives are missing? I see the concern around groupthink. I kinda wish there’d been a woman or a man of color at the table for the Committee of Ten to raise some concerns but eh… what’s done is done. If odds are good progressives and conservatives have more in common than not, is the concern we can’t get changes made without you? And that’s mighty hostile of you, Jennifer. Dial that back a notch.

Take 2: Is there a fear we’re not pragmatic enough? That we won’t get things done and need a strong, guiding, dare I say, paternalistic hand to guide us? My sword is in the shop at the moment but that might be the social justice warrior in me speaking. Maybe it’s that progressives have an air of holier than thou and we need a translator in the world of school reform between … which wow, holy mean, Batman. That’s a dead end for discourse if ever I’ve offered one. 

Take 3: If you see it as a “drift”, what’s the center point? And how far back are you looking? Teacher evaluation, merit pay – neither new nor unique. This group of conservative reformers who worked with Republican governors to make it happen are bringing up ideas their foreparents had and implemented with varying degrees of success. This thread feels comfortable, not unkind or stereotypical.

From that question came a possible entry point into a conversation. My hunch is that the “drift” is actually pushback from those in the ranks in a form that is fundamentally different any other previous period of reform. For generations, teachers weren’t even at the table. And if they were, they were likely on the fast track to becoming a schoolman.

My thinking is that I’m OK with the profession doing a bit of knee and elbow-spreading and taking up more space while they get familiar with the new view. It seems like a small price to pay to edge out conservative voices for a bit while social justice advocates find stable footing. More to the point, today’s classrooms are overwhelmingly staffed by women who experienced second and third wave feminism (flawed in its own way, especially as it relates to white, female teachers) which means speaking up in a way that’s different than previous generations of women.  Oh dear. I suspect this is me being all progressive and liberal and feministy which means I’ve set up any conversation as a sparring match and that’s no good.

Questions aren’t working. Back to the text and the concerns raised at the end. I think I get what’s being said. The “risks” you listed helped me realize where to start when we end up at crosswalk together.

And then I see it. The entry point lies that within this quote: “If [progressives] are convincing themselves that to be conservative means not caring about the disadvantaged, then they don’t understand conservatism.” That speaker is right. I don’t understand conservatism.

Hey, Robert, nice shoes. So, in your opinion,

when it comes to school reform, what makes a conservative reformer different than a progressive reformer?

Clean. Simple. Left unanswered by the text. Mostly un-discussed in the meeting halls of the social justice warriors. Huh. Maybe I can talk to conservatives.


Assessment, Uncategorized

Vegetarian Butchers Unite!

Believe you me, being the assessment equivalent of a vegetarian butcher means being in perpetual state of cognitive dissonance. On one hand, I’m Team Rubrics! Team Performance-Based Assessments! Team Portfolio! on the other, Let’s talk p-values! Let’s discuss passage selection criteria! Let’s talk large-scale test design!

So here I am yelling, “let’s work to make sure schools are chock full of authentic, meaningful and engaging tasks and assessments!” in one breath and then trying to politely ask, “May I pushback against your criticism of this multiple choice item?” in the next.

I try to straddle that line. I fail a lot but I’m going to keep trying for one main reason – if we can’t agree on the the easy stuff, what’s going to happen with the messy stuff?

With the PARCC test, consider that:

You don’t have to take my word for it. You can read the words of a teacher who was in the room for the work. Or this one.

PARCC had a process to follow because people have been studying multiple choice since their appearance on the scene.  Stepping away from PARCC itself, there’s the challenge that:

At some point, we’ll get around to better assessments like what’s happening in the NYS Performance Consortium, New Hampshire, or on the local-level across the country. At some point, we’ll move past multiple choice and get to what’s next.

The problem with what’s next is that the performance-based assessments pool is shallower. To be sure, there are structures, guidelines, protocols, and research around ensuring reliability, but the pool is not nearly as deep as it is for multiple choice.

In effect, what’s next is going to be messy as all get up. If the field doesn’t trust the subset of field that designed the easier stuff using research-based practices, what’s going to happen in the next evolution?

Although I’m a NY-er and most familiar with our in-state assessments, I’m always happy to discuss assessment design, be PARCC or PBA. Hit me up on Twitter or in the comments!


Considering grit. Considering Dr. Duckworth.

People do not give it credence that a young girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood. But it did happen. I was just 14 years of age when….

true_grit_28charles_portis_novel29True Grit, a novel by Charles Portis was written in 1968. The plot is a pretty basic revenge story: A man is killed. The killer’s identity is known to the man’s family. A member of the man’s family seeks out assistance and tracks down the killer. What makes the story unique is that the family member is a fourteen-year-old girl. A girl who initially seeks out the help of a man she feels has the strength of character to do what she needs to be done. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear to the reader that Mattie is the one with the traits to do what must be done. True Grit is her story.


The first time I saw this billboard, I seriously considered road raging. I did yell to my imaginary, sympathetic passengers as I drove by, “The movie isn’t about him! Who is he talking to? Whose son? What is the message you’re trying to send here?!?” Because come on! What is the point of this billboard?

So, it’s Mattie Ross that comes to mind when I hear the word. It was her name, face, and character that was firmly tucked in my background knowledge storage banks when I heard of Duckworth’s research around the concept of “grit.” My initial response was, “That’s awesome! I love Mattie Ross!” I was also excited to see Duckworth herself getting attention as it’s surprisingly uncommon for female researchers in education to reach the level of one word status*. Even rarer for that woman to be Asian American.

She did a lot of thinking and wondering and writing and testing her ideas. Her work was noticed. She received the McArthur Genius grant. She did a TedTalk. She did a Reddit AMA. She wrote a book. In all of these things, she references her definition of grit:

Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals

This, to me, seems pretty simple. Mattie was grit made manifest not because someone was telling her she had to avenge her father’s death. She persevered because revenge mattered to her (as morally questionable as it might be.) My take away? If you’re asking kids to do things they have no interest in doing, that doesn’t connect to the long-term goals they hold, then it’s not about grit, it’s about something else.

Grit speaks to me on a fundamental level. I’ve spent time trying to figure out why that is and I’m still rolling it around. So I read the history of grit and I suspect some of why I connect comes from my German-Irish, white, middle-class upbringing which gets to aspects of privilege that are a part of my lived experiences. Which I’m always working to better understand. Yet, even as I sift and unpack the implications of privilege, grit doesn’t budge for me. I get it. I like it. It makes sense to me. Is it because I’ve achieved some things that were really hard and I want – or need  – a word to describe the thing in me that made it possible? At the same time, I know that KIPP’s “No Excuse” policy existed almost a decade before Duckworth came along so when I read comments that claim those who defend the concept of grit are doing harm to black and brown children, I feel my jaw clench.

Which is not to say the concept is above reproach. EduColor members critiqued issues with grit and the possible misuse several years ago. Ethan Ris suggests that grit has been packaged and sold in schools in a way that’s akin to what Ruby Payne did – offering a nice framework for white teachers and an inherently racist system to use as an excuse with regards to children of color. Those claims are absolutely worthy of discussion about what catches schools’ attention. About why some ideas feel like a balm to the teacher’s soul and just *feel* right.  That’s not about grit, though. That’s the “something else” I mentioned before and there is no magic number of essays on the problems of grit that’s going to solve whatever that else is.

That said, Duckworth doesn’t sell a product. She’s a researcher. She had a hunch, she followed it, and continues to follow it. Meanwhile, her research sits inside a world that is racist, sexist, and classist. As does the work of every single researcher. When you read Duckworth’s own words – not articles that talk about how others interpret her work – she’s incredibly nuanced and above all, very cautions about how her work can and should be used. She’s as bothered by the misuse as those writing so many words about the misuse.  Nothing I’ve seen in her writing suggests she’s offering a solution to poverty or that she thinks “grit” without “slack” is sufficient to right the wrongs in our schools. So why so much hate for Duckworth herself?

So here we are. A female, Asian American researcher saw a glimmer of something in the sparkly mess that is the human mind and moved in closer to inspect it. Since then, she’s been called racist. She’s been accused of  romanticizing poverty. She’s been called irresponsible and a sloppy researcher for citing psychologists who made eugenics a foundation for their work+. And not necessarily in academic journals but in her Twitter mentions and Facebook posts. I’ve tried to engage with those who attack her personally, not the idea but the researcher herself, and when the exchanges ends, I walk away with the sense they won’t be mollified unless she packs up her checklists, apologizes, and disappears from public view. That she owes them a “thank you, sir, for pointing out how wrong I was.”

She’s been called names. She’s been insulted and accused of being bad at her job. She kept writing. She kept researching and wondering. She keeps working on something she’s passionate about, despite being told she should stop and go away. If that’s not grit, what is it?

It’s a strange thing, Duckworth said, to have played a significant part in the creation of an idea, only to have that idea run away from you and create a life of its own. Source

*Make a list of the number of education researchers you know by their last name. Betcha more have male first names than female. (Results may vary based on your background.)

+The funniest/saddest part of making history a hobby is realizing that nearly everything in education is steeped in racism and sexism. Sexism runs so deep in the American education system that I can promise that almost any “schoolman” or education researcher from the 1800’s or early 1900’s had misogynistic beliefs that went to the bone. Heck – the man who is basically responsible for Kindergarten had disdain for women that is breathtaking in its candor.


What do you see?

Check out the picture below.
What do you notice? What patterns do you see?


Source: Buzzfeed

In the picture, a group of young adults stand in two rows on steps in front of a home. The students in the back appear to be young men and are wearing pants, shirts and vests. They are looking off into the distance, chins raised and hands on their hips. The students on the bottom step appear to be young women. They are wearing formal gowns that are color-coded to their partners in the top row. Each young woman is holding open their partner’s shirt to reveal a superhero logo (Batman, Iron Man, Superman, Green Lantern, Captain America – all male superheros) and looking over her shoulder back at the photographer.

Feel the need to look at more examples before making observations about patterns in the picture? Do a Google image search for “prom superheroes.”

What do you notice? What patterns do you see?

What we see, what catches our eye, is informed by who we are. Our lived experiences, our frustrations, our interests, background, family, and friends. The challenge with images like this, as it is with so many things, is there’s no right way to interpret it. There is, though, a responsibility to consider what message we’re sending when we boost pictures like this.

More to the point, and more to what inspired this post, is how we respond when someone says they see something different. What do I see? I see kids having fun at the prom. I also see an image that is just the latest in a long pattern that presents boys as heroes, girls as helpers.

A pattern that includes images like this:

Students deserve to wear a cape… like Wolverine’s, Spider-man’s, Batman’s, Superman’s, Captain America’s, or Iron Man’s, The Hulk’s (half of whom I don’t think actually wear capes…). There’s a pattern there. A pattern girls and boys notice and internalize, to say nothing of the messages transgender children may be picked up.

Boys are heroes. Girls can only be heroes if they stop being a girl. Just ask Mulan.

They’re just kids having fun at prom. They’re just examples of superheros. It’s not a big deal. It’s just a picture. It doesn’t have any social value beyond that.

Speaking of the non-importance of the images we see in the media, may I introduce you to Ms. Marvel?  G. Willow Wilson, her creator, speaks to the importance of representation in comics.

Oh, in case you missed her, Marley Dias is changing the world. She’s changing it because she’s tired of “reading about white boys and their dogs.”

And by the way, did you catch #WhiteWashedOut yesterday? Give it a scroll. Read the words and stories of Asian Americans who talk about what it means to not see yourself represented in the media. I was especially struck by the stories of Asian American women around messages related to gender and beauty they got as girls.

One more: check out Geena Davis on Bullseye and listen to her talk about gender representation in the media. The statistics are staggering.

Representation matters. Patterns add up. If the images we boost, over and over again because they’re just “kids having a good time”, what images, voices, and representation are we not boosting? If we speak up about patterns and signal boosting and the response is, “eh, it’s just a picture”, what message are we sending about who gets to have their stories told or faces that look like them in pictures and media?

And for what it’s worth, there are about four things in the world for which I will not “agree to disagree.” This is one of them. I’ll go into the conversation with an open mind but any response that ignores the lived experiences of those who speak up about representation, I’m going to have words. Happy to hear your thoughts, though.