Ed policy

Stop Berating Black and Brown Parents Over Charters (and Give Your Twitter Fingers a Rest)


I read too many edu arguments for my own good. It’s a known issue in my household.

The argument I find most cringe-inducing is the fight over charter schools. With the news that Secretary DeVos is coming to Seattle, I’d like to put this out there for folks.

If there's one lesson that I have learned over the last few years, it’s that you're never going to convince a black or brown mother to change her mind about where to send her child by demonizing her choices, calling her a “neo-liberal,” or labeling her a “tool of privatizers.” And since black and brown parents are the primary target of most charter operators, this presents a conundrum I want to help my (mainly white) progressive friends work through.

Before I go further, a few caveats: I’ve worked in public schools since 2006. This is by choice. I have been offered roles in teaching, as a principal, and on the board of charter operators in my state. I have declined. I consider myself a “charter agnostic.” I believe the traditional public school is the right venue for the kind of work I want to do and the student population I desire to work with. But, I don’t begrudge the choices others make for their own children.

Now that my cards are on the table, I want to give y’all some advice:

You must address their concerns and motivations: The loudest, most vociferous opponents of charter schools I see are middle class, white, college educated, liberal-progressives entrenched within the educational establishment. In contrast, charter parents are typically from low-income neighborhoods that are serviced by under-resourced, low-performing public schools. Understanding that dichotomy is essential.

The ed establishment has a lot to answer for. Folks in educational spaces systematically silence, marginalize, and awfulize parents of color and their children. We can cite example, after example, after example, after (local) example. Add to this report-after-report about disproportionate discipline practices and persistent Opportunity Gaps, it shouldn’t surprise us that parents of color are looking for options and not in the mood for finger-waggy lectures on privatization. For activists this is a long-term societal-philosophical-cultural-political issue; for parents it’s an immediate, pragmatic what-is-best-for-my-child issue. You have to approach them through that lens. 

Work to improve the experience of students of color in traditional public schools: In urban areas, students of color are the bread and butter of charter schools. If these students received the quality of education they deserve and were treated with the dignity afforded to white, suburban, and wealthy students, charter schools wouldn’t exist and wouldn’t attract families of color at the rates they do. If you truly oppose charter schools, the most impactful thing you can do is work to make public schools places where students of color, particularly low-income black and Latinx students, feel valued, welcomed, and loved. 

Every time a parent of color enrolls their child in a charter school it's a vote of no confidence in the traditional K-12 public school system. Sooner or later we have to reckon with that.

You can be right on the issue and still be wrong: Here’s the deal, friends. You’re right about neo-liberalism and the decaying of public goods, but ain’t nobody trying to hear that from you when it comes to their child’s well-being. We all know there are awful schools and school systems out there in desperate need of transformation. The folks who are supposed to send their kids to these schools deserve better.

Whether intentional or not, sometimes it seems activists value the “institution of public education” more than they value the "outcomes of the kids within it." I don’t think this is actually the case, but this is a rhetorical misstep that parents of color see and that school choice advocates seize on.  

Screeds, hot take FB rants, and 300 word newspaper comments berating folks may feel good, but they also turn potential allies into actual enemies. If you really care about public education, you’re better off standing shoulder-to-shoulder with parents of color in pursuit of fair treatment, (non-test based) accountability for teachers, better instruction, and funding equity than you are berating them in FB threads and with your Twitter fingers.

That's the real work.

Dedicated to my friends Sheree, Keith, and Korbett for putting up with more nonsense than you should ever have to about what’s best for your own children



What We Owe the Next Generation of Teachers

My classroom, midday on a recent Saturday

My classroom, midday on a recent Saturday

I was a fairly mediocre teacher when I first started. Sometimes I look back on my first few years and wonder why my students didn’t walk out on me. My old slides look atrocious; my handouts were too wordy; my instruction was completely teacher centered: me talking, me explaining, me doing some weird dance.

There were some long, sad, doubt-filled nights my first few years of teaching. I thought frequently about moving into law. For the first several years of my career, every spring, I would thumb through an LSAT prep book and browse law school catalogues. It wasn’t until my seventh year that I didn’t get that “ritual spring itch.” That’s when I knew I had hit my stride.

I am now eleven years in and I think I have things kind of figured out. In my classroom my students do most of the talking and a fair amount of the teaching. They tweet articles from the National Review and the Atlantic to me and to each other in the evenings. I have waves of students in college and they almost always report they felt prepared. I have sharpened my craft. I have grown and progressed.

But I wonder what might have been for me and for others in the career field? Roughly half of the teachers who started this fall will be gone from the career field in five years. Nearly ten percent will bounce before the year is up. For many of them, that’s for the best. Teaching isn’t for them or they aren’t especially good at communicating complex ideas or building relationships with students and their colleagues. But also in that 50% are some phenomenal educators who will never get a chance to hit their stride.

Teaching is hard. The early parts of our career are harder. Being a new teacher in a high-need school, without the appropriate supports is the hardest. It breaks strong, smart people, but it’s the most important work imaginable.

We know from research and I tell audiences every opportunity that I get that the number one in-school factor impacting student achievement is the effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom. The constant turnover of teachers, particularly at high-poverty schools, creates a revolving door that robs our neediest students. Year after year, they have earnest, good hearted, but green teachers who are still sorting things out. Our neediest students deserve our best; instead far too often they get whoever is available.

For the sake of their students, we owe new teachers meaningful supports:

  • We owe our teacher candidates intentional placements with effective mentor teachers.
  • We owe our new teachers effective, successful mentors who can support them in their professional growth.
  • We owe our new teachers meaningful and timely feedback that gives them specific areas for improvement and growth.
  • We owe our new teachers a salary commensurate with the gravity of their work.
  • We owe our new teachers assignments that set them up for success—rather than failure.

I’m the teacher I am today largely because I stuck it out and learned from my early career failures and missteps. Too many who enter our ranks depart too soon. We owe them better, better preparation, better mentors, and better support.

This post originally appeared on the US Department of Education Homeroom Blog.

State Teacher of the Year Washington Week or the Life and Times of a Gov Nerd in “the other Washington.”

My view from the front porch of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

My view from the front porch of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Last week I joined my fellow State Teachers of the Year in DC for Washington Week: we met the leader of the free world, 44th President of the United States, and pretty darn handsome man, Barack Obama. We also met six-term senator, one of my favorite living rhetoricians, Vice President of the United States, “Uncle” Joe Biden and his (possibly more impressive) wife Dr. Jill Biden. We also met the Human Reset Button, the walking embodiment of bureaucratic tone change, Secretary of Education, Dr. John King.

Secret Service check heading into the Biden Residence.

Secret Service check heading into the Biden Residence.

On side trips, my wife and I visited the Ford Theater, where the namesake of my school, Abraham Lincoln, was shot by treasonous Confederate (those terms are admittedly redundant), John Wilkes Booth and Arlington National Cemetery. And last week at the invitation of CCSSO, I gave a policy talk on recruiting and retaining effective teachers of color, to members of the Whitehouse Staff and employees from the Department of Education.

In short fam, we had a helluva week in DC.

Policy Briefing to Whitehouse staff and employees of the Department of Education.

Policy Briefing to Whitehouse staff and employees of the Department of Education.

A Bit of a Whirlwind: Each year the 56... 55 (North Dakota just had a baby) State and territorial (DOD, Guam, Marianas Islands, Virgin Islands American Samoa and DC) teachers of the year gather in DC for Washington Week. It is intended to be a celebration of the profession. But recently, it has morphed into something more. The event is turning into a forum, where policymakers and ed groups seek input from practitioners from around the nation (and its territories).

This year we were provided an opportunity to give (often very frank) feedback to several ed organizations (NWEA, Pearson, ETS, Microsoft Education) on their policy platforms and upcoming initiatives in sessions called “Educator Perspective Breakouts.” I often talk about the need to include effective teacher voice in education policy formulation, I applaud those orgs specifically for listening to our collective points-of-view around PD, evaluation and assessment and seeking to create an ongoing dialogue around their work and ours. I don’t think we shifted the trajectory of their already laid plans, but we were invited to a conversation (a start) and we will see where that leads in the longterm.

In the East Room with 2016 Alaska Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners.

In the East Room with 2016 Alaska Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners.

While we were in DC some of the SToYs talked about how they’ve received pushback from colleagues when they’ve raised issues of teacher quality and effectiveness. But, I think Shawn Sheehan, fellow NToY Finalist, and candidate for Oklahoma State Senate, nailed it, and for the sake of my kids I unapologetically co-sign: “those who can’t, definitely shouldn’t teach.” It really is that simple. The work is too important to believe otherwise.

Back to Home and My Reality: Upon returning to the real Washington, I felt physically exhausted, but pedagogically inspired. Within 12 hours of landing, I was back at Lincoln leading our final AP Exam review session to a standing-room crowd of Abes, in preparation for today’s AP Government & Politics exam.

Somewhere over flyover country, masquerading as Jupiter.

Somewhere over flyover country, masquerading as Jupiter.

Within 24 hour hours, Audrey, Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, was proposing a collaborative story telling project to the SToYs. In the same timeframe, Talya from Maine was writing about her experiences in DC. Within 36 hours, I had started house hunting on Redfin, looking to recruit frustrated SToYs from states where they don’t feel as supported to work, teach and live in Tacoma.

DC was surreal at times, but it reminded me of the immediacy of the work we do here at Lincoln and in the South Sound with Teachers United. This work matters: Teachers are loved. Teachers aren’t appreciated. This work is draining. This work is energizing. This work often seems impossible. This work is always essential.

These are the contradictions we live with.