The recent conversations in education reform movement circles have all been about who does and doesn’t belong in the reform coalition. While the reformers play with their seating chart, they seem to be forgetting that there are many, many other voices that still haven’t been invited to the party at all; teachers among them. Let me make sure I have this correct: people who use the phrase “social justice” with derision are considered allies of a movement to improve educational outcomes for poor and minority students yet teachers are treated like enemies of this movement? Educational reformers would rather partner with those with whom they have irreconcilable existential differences than those who would dare question their corporate reform orthodoxy?
There is a simple truth that reformers are in denial about—no one can control what happens when the teacher closes her classroom door. God bless them, they have sure tried. But no policy, mandate, law, accountability system, or evaluation system can truly control everything that teachers do. Public education has real enemies—we cannot forget that. When the reformers act just like our enemies, why would teachers un-circle our wagons and let them in? Reformers have launched an assault when then should have been trying to win hearts and minds.
One of the tactics used to discredit teachers critical of education reform is to charge that we are complacent about and complicit in the widespread unacceptable educational outcomes of disadvantaged students. This claim is so infuriating, disingenuous, and insulting it is hard not to react in anger. Yes, there are absolutely a number of critical conversations that teachers need to have with themselves and each other about equity and assumptions—about students of color, poor students, and students with disabilities, just to name a few. Yes, it is frustrating that those who are privileged have to be slow walked to the epiphany of unpacking their privilege while others suffer from the effects of oppression—but that is exactly the nature of privilege. The inconvenient truth is that all (and I do mean all) of us always have some unpacking to do, regardless of our experiences with oppression or the awareness of some forms of privilege we experience. The truth is that these critical conversations have always happened within and among teachers in our private spaces.
(Remember how educators have been pointing out the inequities caused by corporate style reforms and high stakes testing? Remember how all that is being dismissed as just selfishness and laziness…like we are all motivationally challenged high school students who would rather complain about the assignment than just do the work? You know, the same teachers that happily work 80-hour weeks, spend hundreds of dollars on classroom supplies, take literal and figurative bullets for students yet suddenly get selfish and lazy when it comes to testing? As teachers, when our usually motivated students question an assignment, it is usually a sign that it is a poor quality assignment…)
Reformers have not earned the trust to enter into these spaces and conversations. You don’t invite nonbeliever to your critical theological debate. Teachers need space and time to engage in the kind of work that makes more socially just schools. Instead of doing that, the current reform approach has overwhelmed teachers with scripted curriculum, assessments, busywork, red tape, and extra duties and left no intellectual space or time for the work that matters most.
I am truly puzzled in the lack of faith and hope in a group of professionals who work in the currency of faith and hope every single day.
Another reason why reformers have not been welcomed into these spaces is the combination of naivety and arrogance with which they approach social justice issues. The simplification of the deep and dense philosophical underpinnings of current social justice movement has left us with a false narrative of “good guys vs. bad guys.” Reformers tend to self-righteously label themselves as defenders of justice and teachers as part of the “status quo.” Unfortunately, that is simply not how systems of power work. All of us (and yes, I do mean all) contribute everyday to the perpetuation of systems of oppression and privilege. Many of us also routinely challenge those same systems. Nobody understands this better than teachers.
To understand what teaching is like, imagine the most gut-wrenching decisions you have had to make in life, specifically those choices (such as parenting decisions) which impact someone else. Now multiply that by 100 decisions for 100 students everyday. Forgive us if we are uninterested in your expertise if you have never experienced that pressure. Teachers are painfully aware of how small miscalculations or thoughtless actions on our part can dramatically impact a student; that everything we do and say to those students could help or hurt them. Teachers work within a number of mind-bending contradictions, paradoxes, and ironies. We know we are part of a system that perpetuates oppression; we also use that same system to challenge inequity and contribute to more socially just outcomes for our students.
An overwhelming majority of teachers in this country do not need an “accountability” system. We remember the face of every single student that we suspect we did not serve effectively and every single student that we watched the system fail. Unfortunately, sometimes those memories are of faces in caskets, in mug shots, and in news reports when ICE picks them up on their way to school. The sooner that those who wish to reform public schools acknowledge this fact, and the role they themselves play in perpetuating inequity, the sooner we can get to actually improving in our public schools. The sooner we bring more authentic voices to the reform discussion and consider a wider variety of policy approaches, the sooner we can get to actually improving our public schools. Perhaps it is time to not just to recast the parts but reconsider even the definition of “ally” and “enemy.”