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.



Telling Stories

A child so committed to “getting a 4”, she worked for six hours, rushing through lunch to give herself more time. 

A recent arrival to NYS, forced by the state to take a test she couldn’t read. Adults didn’t realize she was copying the test questions and answers over until she was finished.

A high achieving student so stressed by the test, she came home and cried to her parents at the end of the first day. Her parents didn’t send her to school on Day 2 or 3. 

A boy, who loves running and moving, is angry he lost PE because of tests. Again. 

I don’t know any of these children. I didn’t learn of their frustration from them. Rather, I heard their stories on social media. Their parents and teachers, who love them dearly, do not like state tests. It makes sense that when they see children they care for so frustrated by the state tests, they want to make it stop.

So they call it “state sanctioned child abuse” and spam media outlets timelines with the students’ stories. They repeat the stories and the anxiety of everyone who reads them goes up – including the parents of students who were going to take the tests next week.

3-8 testing remains in ESSA – which means unless Congress agrees to change a law they just passed, tests will remain. Is this to be the look and feeling in NYS every April? Will the stories of students’ pain and frustration be traded and swapped to try and change a system that appears impervious?

As I jot down my thoughts, I’m listening to the Linda Darling-Hammond tell the story of No Child Left Behind and how policy makers tend not to listen to the stories – and data – provided by researchers.

And so it goes… and so it goes.



Setting aside politics, setting aside who is the better candidate, setting aside who said what when… last night’s quote from Sanders packs a punch: “You are not qualified …”

She was Secretary of State. Senator. Lawyer. Decades of experience in public service. There isn’t exactly a checklist of what qualifies one to be president but on its face, that’s a pretty impressive list. Meanwhile, everything Senator Sanders said about Secretary Clinton, except for her vote for the Iraqi War, applies to President Obama.

Who is qualified, not qualified, has the right to determine if others are qualified – it’s a loaded, complex concept. It’s one I struggle with regularly.

I know my qualifications. I know the research I’ve done, the courses I’ve taken, the content and skills I’ve mastered. I’m getting better at recognizing when I’m not qualified and accepting that if I get it wrong, nothing is lost by apologizing and stepping back. I don’t think I’m alone in holding those traits. I struggle with how we respond to each other’s claims of expertise, especially when their claim would trump ours.

Last month I spoke up to correct a factual error in a text in my field of expertise. I checked a textbook on the topic – yup, the fact was wrong. I googled the fact just in case the textbook had a typo. Yup. The article was still wrong. I contacted the author and was told I wasn’t qualified to make the correction.

Granted, that particular word wasn’t used. Instead, the author pointed to speakers in the article and cited their expertise.

Here’s where qualification runs headlong into socialization and self-doubt.

Is it relevant that the avatar next to my Twitter handle makes it clear I’m a woman? Is it relevant that the author of the article, and all of the sources cited in the article, including the one that provided the wrong fact, are men? I’m currently going through my semi-annual I am so terrible at Twitter I should delete my account and never share a thought publicly again phase, which no doubt feeds into my response related to the word “unqualified.”

I don’t know. I do know I was right – and I was told I was wrong. It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last. It’s easy enough to say, “nope. Had nothing to do with gender.” And yet… and yet..

What is the message that’s being sent when a male candidate running for office says his female opponent is “unqualified” when the list of accusations are nearly identical to the things done by a man? My hunch is that’s similar to the message that’s sent when a profession full of women says, “This *thing*? It’s not helping us do our jobs. Fix this.”


Reflecting on an #Educolor Chat

Note: Sections of this post have been updated following conversations and feedback from people not inside my head. In a thread on Twitter, Jamie Gravell offered these wise words.


On March 31th, #Educolor was focused on women and girls of color and it was messy and provocative; just like any good Twitter chat should be. Melinda Anderson and Dahlia Constantine were purposeful moderators who elevated and encouraging participants throughout the entire chat. The full transcript is here.

To be clear, the ponderings below are based on my reflection and wonderings. I defer to #educolor and their goals and objectives about the chats and how they see them situated within the larger system. The group is clear about their mission: EduColor seeks to elevate the voices of public school advocates of color on educational equity and justice.  

My wonderings stem from the patterns I noticed, likely because of other patterns I’ve been attending to or thinking about such as women and leadership, the messages we send boys and girls, and who is seen as an expert.

As a participant in the chat, I got to ponder and learn and bonus! got to chat with and follow some cool people whose paths I hadn’t crossed before. All of the questions were compelling but two stood out from my perspective as they connect to the other writing and thinking I’ve been doing.

Q5: What is the responsibility of men to uplift women and girls of color? (Example: teachers, principals, dads)

Q6: How do we teach boys about their role in the patriarchy and the effects they have on girls?

I had no answer to either one. In fact, I had to borrow someone else’s tweet to even give an answer and then offered up my cats in exchange for an answer to Q6. The group, though, offered up a bunch of ideas. Because I am, at heart, a data nerd, I did a quick and dirty coding of participants’ responses to both questions and four themes emerged.

Listen – listen to women of color when they talk. This means stop talking.
Acknowledge power – men hold positions of power. See it. Use it.
Amplify – celebrate women and girls of color through words and actions.
Equality and Equity – Women and girls belong first to themselves.

These things seem like clear and explicit advice any person seeking to elevate the voices of women could take.

Shortly after Q6, someone RTed a response to an earlier question and it caught my eye:

Alia’s tweet gave me pause for two reasons. First, I’m reading Pushout, about the criminalization of Black girls in school and her tweet connected to a theme in the book.  The author, Monique W. Morris, devotes several pages to the history of education for Black girls – a movement that was – and is – often lead by Black women. My take away was that even though Black women are doing everything in their power to ensure they and their daughters, sisters, and nieces receive a quality education, their efforts are often blocked by policy makers….

… policy makers who are more often than not, white men.


A Twitter exchange with Melinda, one of the chat’s moderators,  helped me realize that the question I was mulling was less “where are the white guys?” and more “what does it look like to listen?” That is, how can one be an ally on social media while not re-centering the conversation? 

Running parallel to the issue of listening without re-centering, is understanding what it looks like for white educators to do the work of learning about social justice and resolve their own issues without imposing upon people of color’s time, space, or shoulders?


Not long after, I started to notice that most of the avatars belonged to people of color or white women. (Every tweet is accompanied by an avatar – a small picture. In most cases in the eduTwitter-sphere, users provide a picture from which a viewer can infer race, gender, or sometimes religion. Not always and sometimes a viewer may infer incorrectly. I guessed at gender based on name and avatar and made hashmarks. An exact study this was not.)

#Educolor was a well-attended chat with lots of avatars representing a diverse set of educators and experiences. It remains, though, that there weren’t many avatars suggesting a white male at the keyboard.

(Edited to add: it was so inexact, that I missed five. I’m keeping the above section, as to me, it’s a clear example of confirmation bias on my part. I had a hypothesis -> I looked for data to confirm my hypothesis -> I rejected or overlooked the data that challenged my hypothesis -> Success! I was right!)

To which, I wonder:

What are the implications when the majority of educators who show up for a discussion about supporting people of color are themselves people of color?

What are the implications when the majority of educators who show up for a discussion about supporting girls and women are women? 

How will things change if we cannot get those with the power to listen, to acknowledge their power, and amplify the voices of women? Are they unaware of that power? Unsure how to use it? Uncomfortable with the implications? In what ways does listening translate into amplification and support? 

There are likely a hundred reasons for why there didn’t appear to be white men in this particular chat. Including the fact that many may have been lurking, seeking to learn and listen, rather than chime in.  The reasons, though, seem simultaneously irrelevant and critically important in terms of making changes and supporting girls and women of color.

In addition to Pushout, I’m also reading a great book by Robin DiAngelo  about developing white racial literacy and she speaks at length about changing systems and the dilemma in Audra Lorde’s quote about the “master’s tools.” As a part of laying the foundation for her anti-racism work, she says:

I believe the need for white [educators] to work toward raising their own and other whites’ consciousness is a necessary first step. I also understand and acknowledge that this focus reinforces many problematic aspects of racism. This dilemma may not make sense to readers who are new to the exploration, but it will later on.

The dilemma makes sense to me – which gives me hope. I know, though, I’ve still a long way to go in terms of unlearning messages I picked up along the way.

Many thanks to those who offered feedback on this post. Sharing thoughts publicly is always a frightening adventure. Doing it around issues related to race and gender borders on terrifying. Yet, I agree, in my bones, with Jamie. It’s awkward. We’re going to f it up. We have to make conscious decisions every day.


Intersection of Women and Leadership in Education

A version of this post was originally published on Education Week’s blog The Intersection.

The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein is hopefully going to be one of those books that all teachers remember reading in their undergrad days. Just like so many leave teacher prep remembering Montessori, Hunter, and Bloom, I’m hoping the profession comes to namedrop the women in Goldstein’s book at the same rate.

Given I’m a mite impatient, I also hope it’s read by anyone interested in education and the stories of educators like Mary McDowell, Ella Flagg Young, and Anna Julia Cooper become more widely known. While it’s primarily a look at the past and present of the profession’s relationship with the public, Goldstein’s book is an explicit reminder that teaching is a female-dominated profession.

As Christina said, there are compelling and interesting through-lines to explore around what it means to have 76% of a profession identify as female. Goldstein’s book looks to the past and gets at some of how that came to be but in the present, that history seems much less important than the fact teachers of color – men and women – are significantly under-represented in classrooms. Yet, when we ask Christina’s question, What does it mean to be a woman in education and/or the classroom? there’s another, slightly uncomfortable question resting behind it: Are women recognized as leaders in the profession they dominate?

Doctoral dissertations have been written around what it means to be a leader in education but for the sake of this post, I’ll start with explicit leadership. For example:

  • At the 2015 Bammys, winners in 7 of 21 categories had female-presenting names (30%)
  • Eight of the 28 members of Congress’ Education Committee are women (21%)
  •  In 2011-2012, 52% public K-12 school principals identify as women (64% at the primary level, 42% in middle school, 30% at the high school level)
  • 22% of public school superintendents identify as women

At the same time, the presidents of both national teachers’ unions are women. The president of the National Councils for Math, English, Science, and Social Studies all have female-presenting names. Education books written by female authors have dominated in 2015 and 2016 and women were at the head of several recent movements. Women hold leadership roles in practically every organization, group, school, or district.

So what are we to infer? It’s possible we could average out the numbers of female leaders in the data sets and end up with something close to 85%, but that math won’t change the fact that those making both the day-to-day and policy decisions in education are more likely to be men than women.

Opinions may vary on if this fact is good, bad, or neutral. It’s useful, though, to look past the numbers in education to society writ large. A recent piece in Vox by Amanda Taub unpacks the phenomenon of panels of all-male experts and tries to understand its source. One thing she hits on is that women are less likely to be viewed as experts in their given field and in many cases, this stems from their lack of access to positions of authority in their field.

A hunch she follows that has a connection to women in education is what is referred to as the confidence gap and its cousin, overconfident bias. That is to say, in Western society, especially in America, women have a tendency to hold back and be more cautious in their public statements, while men are more likely to make “bold predictions and sweeping arguments.” Again, this society-wide phenomenon may be good, bad, or neutral but it can be observed in local union leadership, in faculty and department meetings, and who gets elevated as an “expert” on social media and in publishing. As a result, women do not dominate leadership positions in the same way they dominate the profession. What is a profession to do when 85% of its members are predisposed to caution while 15% are primed to share rough drafts of their thinking?

Tied closely to confidence cousins (gap and bias) is our shared comfort with the voice and look we believe represents the concept of “expertise”; an image that is communicated via who anchors the most popular newscasts or how stock photo sites define the word. For a laugh, we can visit the Tumblr, White Guys Doing it By Themselves and see the pattern. There are many reasons behind these patterns, one of which may be “time.” Female classroom teachers and experts may say less simply because they are too busy. Yet make no mistake: there are female teachers who are eager to be leaders, trying to find the right opportunity to step up out front.

If we accept that educators become leaders because their voices are heard and their names become known, we must work on who is heard and known. The first step is accepting the impact that socialization has on us and give it voice, while not trying to explain it away through anecdotes and personal experiences.

This first step may be hardest for male leaders and experts in education as it’s asking them to be hyper-vigilant around their privilege and voice, especially its volume. When they speak, people are socialized to listen. When they talk over a woman, she has likely been socialized to stop talking. In order for the system to change, it’s going to require that white men elevate and boost, consistently and regularly. Change will not happen without white men being active participants.

In truth, we cannot talk about the representation of women without talking about race. Mainstream feminism, that of Lean In, has rightly taken knocks for not being inclusive, attending to intersectionality, or looking at systemic issues. As a white, female educator, I empathize with the messages many white women get around gender and race in childhood and tried to unpack some of where that comes from. White, male educators, who for decades if not generations, have seen themselves reflected as the default, will need to figure out what that means at the individual level.

This background work, for white male and female educators, is critical. It does little to jump into the conversation, declaring “I’m an ally” or be ready to “fix” issues without doing the private reflection first. Namely, those seeking to “help” need to be incredibly conscious of not “co-opting or tokenizing” issues related to diversity.

Even while doing the work at the individual level, it’s possible to work towards systemic change through the use of quotas for the books we read, the things we re-tweet, and the voices, faces, and names we boost. On a gut level, the idea of “quotas” may feel unfair, almost sexist… but rest assured; it is not sexist to attend to issues of gender any more than it is racist to attend to issues related to race. (MSNBC’s Chris Hayes provides a nice overview of how he uses quotas to work towards equitable conversations.)

For white, female educators who look around and see an abundance of female leaders in their system, consider making a conscious effort to lift the voices, names and faces of women and girls of color through social media or book talks at faculty meetings. Actively seek out chats and discussions by or about women of color in education, and commit to re-tweeting or sharing something written by one of those women of color at least once a day. If you notice that you have re-tweeted, shared, or namedropped a white male author, actively seek out a female author of color and share her thinking.

For white, male educators, do an extra bit of research before speaking (or writing.) Before writing a blog post or article on a topic and sharing it with your readers, see if a female educator, especially a teacher of color, has already said something similar. If you find a tweet or text that’s close to what you want to say but doesn’t get at what you want, give the author a shout out in your writing by honoring her writing and then adding your thoughts. Elevate her name and words. In case it needs to be said, writing a critique about something written by a woman isn’t the same as elevating her voice and expertise.

If you notice you are on a thread or in a conversation about an education issue and all of the faces or names belong to white men, do something about it by drawing the group’s attention to a text by a female expert. Become conscious of how often you re-tweet or cite male authors and then do it less. If you see that an account with a white male avatar has tweeted a link to something you suspect wasn’t written by him, check the text’s byline. If it is written by a woman, find her Twitter account and RT her link or tweet it yourself, putting her name first.

For educators from both genders: not sure of your gender balance on social media? Sites like Twee-Q can provide data for you to analyze.  Even just scrolling your timeline and looking for patterns among the names and faces in those you’ve RTed or boosted can be a powerful way to draw attention to your unconscious behaviors.

If all things were equal, there would be no need to attend to gender, race, sexuality, or other variables in discussions of an idea. All ideas would stand on its own.

All things, though, are not equal.

Teaching is a female-dominated profession, and teacher leadership remains predominantly male. Knowing that we are socialized to elevate certain voices and names doesn’t mean we’re sexist or racist. Instead, it means that socialization goes deep to our bones. It does not however, go to our DNA. If we want to change the future of teacher leadership to ensure that it reflects the population of children we serve, we need to walk right on up to that intersection and deliberately choose a more thoughtful path.




The Problem with Kohn*

I’m going to use my author’s prerogative to borrow the language from my post about the history of testing and standards in NYS before John King’s tenure to introduce this post:

I don’t know Alfie Kohn. Never met him, never worked for, near, around, or with him. I know Joe Bower liked Kohn’s message and in a great many cases, I do as well. I disagree vehemently with Kohn’s take on rubrics as I think he uses the worst of what rubrics can be in order to support a hard line position; a position that is explicit in his lectures, books, and writings. And to be clear, this isn’t about Kohn himself or his words. It’s about how we, the education profession, respond to his words.

*Edited to add: I got powerful feedback on this which helped me see I wasn’t explicit enough in my intent. So, to be extra, super clear – the problem isn’t Kohn. The response to his edtech post is an example of a pattern that isn’t unique to education.

On his website, Kohn’s bio lists accolades and topics for his lectures. He self-identifies as an expert on parenting and education issues. He talks about standards, tests, and our obsession with grades and rankings. All interesting and compelling stuff. What’s not on his bio? Ed tech.

As a fellow writer and researcher, I’m happy to see anyone find a new topic of interest. On the other hand, there’s this:

Male experts dominate media coverage. On primetime cable and Sunday news shows, for another example, 75 percent of national security and foreign affairs commentators have been men …

The entire piece, The #ManPanel problem: why are female experts still so widely ignored?, is a great read.  did a solid job looking beyond surface statistics and getting to what’s behind the issues. Her post was written on March 16.

On March 12, Kohn released a post his wrote on educational technology. It was then published on Valerie Strauss’ space on The Washington Post website. From there, it was picked up by several education newsletters and Twitter accounts with thousands of followers. His own tweets linking to his article were re-tweeted at least 100 times and those who tweeted a link to his article were likewise RTed. In other words, lots of eyeballs saw Alfie Kohn’s thoughts on ed tech.

Kohn, a non-expert on technology in schools was treated as an expert in technology in schools. The reason this matters is because of a woman named Audrey Watters. I’ve never met her in person or talked to her outside of Twitter. I support her on Patreon because I love her clarity and voice. Her piece on the invented history of the “factory model” of schools is one I frequently return to when thinking about or engaging in ed history and if I see she’s tweeted a link, I will likely read it. Her annual Ed Tech wrap up is widely read and shared by those in education and in technology. To be blunt, Watters knows her shit when it comes to ed tech.

Here’s the kicker – there is nothing in Kohn’s piece that Watters hasn’t been saying for years. Years. Kohn framed his piece as “rethinking ed tech in schools” and has seemingly stepped right into the cognitive pothole of “if it’s new to me, it must be new.” You need only to scroll through a few of Watters’ pieces to see that she has been helping educators and schools be thoughtful around nearly every point Kohn seeks to make in his piece.

My wondering: what are the implications when a man who is not an expert in a topic presents his thoughts on a matter as “rethinking” and offers his opinion as one that can be trusted in this matter? And then, the field – which already had an expert among its ranks in the form of Audrey Watters – signal boosted, elevated, re-tweeted, and celebrated his thoughts?

Kohn does give a shout out to those doing work around ed tech – based on their names, I’m inferring its 3 men and 1 woman. He cites another writer with a female-presenting name [but why he chose to put “blogger” in front of her name and not others’ is likely a challenge of how often we share our words without editorial feedback] to support his claims. The piece, though, is firmly centered on his opinion, his perspective, and his advice.

That he did not cite Watters or Rafranz Davis or Sylvia Libow Martinez, the writing partner of one of the men he did cite, should infuriate anyone who cares about equity in education. That his piece did not begin with “Go read *this* by Audrey Watters (or Davis or Libow Martinez) and then come back here and I’ll share my thinking about how technology fits into the kind of education I write and lecture about” is a problem that lies at the heart of the Voxer piece about all male panels.

All of the boosting, re-tweeting, sharing, and elevating is not without repercussions. With one short column, Kohn just dramatically increased his odds of being asked to speak on panels about ed tech. It’s possible, based on some of the sources who shared his post, a superintendent just made the decision to hire Kohn to speak to his or her teachers about tech in the classroom on an up-coming PD day. And perhaps Kohn already does. The challenge is that his post cemented his place in social media rankings and memory.

I’ve written about the tension of “over-confident men” and the need for us to literally count when it comes to supporting equity. So in this post, I’m going to offer a new option, straight up. This isn’t about asking male authors like Kohn to stop talking but rather, ask that they (and you) actively work to boost female experts. To boost them, yes, at the expense of momentarily muting a white male voice. If a profession that is 72% female gives this much attention to a male non-expert, what chance do female experts in other fields have?

To be clear, there’s a lot more to unpack around this issue. There’s the nature of intersectional feminism, the history of men of color and how their voices are heard or not heard. There’s the nature of what counts as expertise and the complicated nature of social media. All of which I’m happy to discuss in the comments or over a good hard cider.

Post script: Many folks came into my mentions on Twitter when I tweeted about this and said basically, “yeah but is anything he said wrong?” To which I say: that is not the point.


Making it Count

It’s International Women’s Day. It’s a fantastic way to count – to take stock – of issues related to women around the world. Which opens all sorts of interesting tensions in the world of education around women, power, and who counts.

I embrace the idea that there’s no perfect feminist but believe that being in education and not embracing feminism is trying to hold on to the past while trying to influence the future. Some who struggle with the idea of feminism will use today and this month to appreciation and acknowledge women. Which is swell and great and lovely. But… does it count? Will it matter?

Best way to make it count is to well, count. Count every time you go to the movies. Consider the tally your $20 will count towards. Withhold your hard earned dollars if the movie was made without women’s voices or input. Use those twenty bucks to buy a DVD you may have already seen or have no intention of watching so that purchase counts.  If you’re ever a Nielsen household, make sure women’s sportsball are on and tallied whenever you can find them on the proverbial dial.

Count the number of female faces in trailers. Mentally tick off the number of lines said by men or women of color in movies centered around the story of a white, male protagonist. Look in the background of your favorite TV show and count patterns. Haven’t heard a female voice? Haven’t seen a face of color? Stop watching.

Don’t go on Twitter without counting. Count who you re-tweet. Count who others RT. Look for patterns and then for evidence to disrupt the pattern. If none exists, speak up. Even if you’re told you’re wrong. (The irony being of course, is that if your avatar presents as a white male, odds are good that your followers have been socialized to accepted that you’re right. Even when you’re wrong.)

Want to make this day, this month count? Then start counting.