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.


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.


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.

Gender, Uncategorized

But what if I’m wrong…


Earlier this week, I tweeted:


Timothy’s tweet caught my eye for two reasons. First, because of my recent writing on gender , I’ve been primed to look for everyday sexism. (You know that thing where you notice cars with the same make and model as your new car? Same idea.) Second, because of Yvonne Brille. When Brille died, the first line of her obituary in the New York Times was:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.

Oh… bee tea dubs, Mrs. (her preferred title) Brille:

  • was the only female rocket scientist in the 1940’s
  • received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation
  • invented a propulsion system that helps keep satellites in orbit
  • supported women in math and engineering until her death

Yet, try it on your favorite male scientist or inventor and see how odd it feels. One writer offered up:

It feels awkward to say “this is sexism” when sexism is a big systematic … thing. Some like to say that voting for Hillary because she’s a woman is sexist. (Spoiler: it’s not.) Which means we don’t really have a good handle on what is or isn’t sexist. So while it feels like talking about Nancy Carlsson-Paige as “Matt’s Mom” isn’t *really* sexist, it is a part of a system that defines women by their relationship to men. That mental model is what supported a claim for 100’s of years that women couldn’t own property, or that didn’t need to vote because her husband was voting anyway. In the world of school, dress codes come from that same mental model – girls can’t wear certain clothes because they’re distracting to boys. Let that sit for a bit.

So. I saw it. And I spoke up. A few days later, I noticed a tweet from Timothy in which he included Nancy’s name, instead of Matt’s Mom and I tweeted a quick “thanks.” In a direct message, Timothy shared that the reference was actually a joint idea with Nancy. That part of their podcast is to point out the irony in people asking for Matt Damon’s opinion on education when in fact, it’s his mother who is the education researcher and well-versed in public education. Timothy and I chatted a bit and apparently I wasn’t the first one to raise a flag. Nancy herself did. So did other guests on his podcast.

Is it still an example of everyday sexism? Yes – it frames a highly-qualified, talented woman by her relationship to a man, her son. Is it malicious? No. Was I wrong? I’m going to go with wrong-ish.

Then this morning, I saw this:

As a result of discussions with a variety of people, some of which got a little peevish on my end, especially when I got a hat trick of accounts with white male avatars telling me that “gender is irrelevant.”, I’m undecided if what’s happening here is the same kind of everyday sexism as in the case of Brille or Carlsson-Paige.

So, at this point, these are the claims that I’ve fleshed out:

  1. Yes, it’s sexist because it frames Ms. King’s job against Mr. King’s identity.
  2. No, it’s not sexist because if Mr. King were a Ms., it would still be a conflict for Mr. King to hold a job at a lobbying firm.

I have thoughts on both but am more curious in what others think. The funny thing for me is that in every case, the men who responded focused on the conflict of interest – staying away from the idea of sexism. Two men privately DMed me and mentioned they were hesitant to speak up about sexism in case they were wrong. That to me, speaks to a pattern. But as I shared, I keep seeing Gray Honda Crosstours everywhere I look.