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?