I’m going to start with this. I love Clint Smith. Like I’m a serious fanboy of his. I read his articles, teach his poetry to 5th graders, read books he suggests, listen to him bring the news on Pod Save the People, and just generally learn a fuck-ton from him in all of those formats.
But two nights ago I disagreed with some things he wrote and in the process, uh, ended up spending a long time on Twitter:
and then I said a few things:
and then he said…
Um, so after that a lot of people came for my head:
According to twitter metrics my tweets had approximately 18,000 impressions as of yesterday morning which is just tech-speak for a shitload. The thing that kept striking me is that nobody on here is agreeing with you. Seriously, nobody. It was pretty wild.
As I tried to explain to a few people who were really mad with me, Twitter is an imperfect vessel with which to have a clear-eyed and nuanced conversation about something that people are incredibly passionate about. So I’ll (briefly) explain my thinking and why I said anything at all in the first place and why I’m (still! three. days. later.) responding to people on twitter about this.
Here’s what I meant and what I should have just said (had I thought of how to say it at the time!):
Conversations around improving education outcomes need to start with improving teacher quality because they are the ones in the classroom with the students. The damage done by white supremacy, intentional and government-sponsored discrimination has made the jobs of teachers and schools extremely difficult. However, kids can’t wait for systems of oppression to be torn down in order to get the education they deserve. We have to work against a racist system and succeed in spite of it. Teachers have a tremendous amount of power and responsibility in classrooms and we need to own that.
(that was 140 characters or less, right?)
The feedback I got on my original tweets fell into a few categories:
You’re not acknowledging the damage systemic racism and white supremacy has done to communities of color
In short, we can be both compassionate and outraged about the legacy of oppression while also not using that as a reason (notice that I didn’t say “excuse!”) for terrible education outcomes for students of color. As I wrote about a few weeks ago, in the last fourteen years Minneapolis Public Schools has produced about 21,000 graduates and crapped out 22,000 non-graduates. You might look at that data and think “there’s systemic racism right there! Tear that shit down” I look at it and think, “Yes, systemic racism is terrible – so what are we going to do right now, this school year, for 4th graders in MPS so they graduate from high school?” See? Both outrage and acknowledgement with a productive question added on.
Systemic racism, defunding of districts, and other outside factors limit what teachers can accomplish with kids and are reasons why kids can’t read/multiply fractions/write essays/etc.
This one I can’t get behind. It goes back to Clint’s original tweet-slam of me. Systemic racism and defunding certainly make teaching students of color to read tougher. But there is nothing inherently wrong with children of color. Children of color can and do learn in spite of circumstances outside of their and their teacher’s control. Who is attempting to teach the student? The teacher, the teacher, the teacher, the teacher. So improving the quality of teachers will improve the learning of children.
Great teaching closes the achievement gap/opportunity gap/whatever you want to label it and increases high school and college graduation rates. End of conversation.
Would making housing and tax policy actually equitable for people of color also help? YES. So much, yes. But the 8th grader in English class reading at a 4th grade level needs help now. So we (educators) have to focus on that because this is a child with limitless potential that the system is letting down. So we fix the issues within the system.
And to be totally honest, if you believe students won’t be able to learn because of systemic factors, just say that to your parents and students at the beginning of the year. Be up front about it. Give them an opportunity to find a teacher or school that believes in their ability to learn in spite of these challenges.
My students can’t learn because they come to school hungry, traumatized, we need more social workers, counselors, etc.
This came up a lot which was strange because I didn’t say that those issues weren’t happening. It’s really tempting in conversations like this to give a rundown of our resume to show how real we are:
“Well I’ve been teaching in neighborhood/city/school, and these kids come to school without __________ and _______ and ________.”
This deficit-based thinking comes from a place of compassion, I’m sure of it. There’s nothing worse than handing a student breakfast in the morning and knowing they hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s afternoon snack. It’s awful. Or seeing the sleep deprivation in a student’s eyes who stayed up most of the night because there wasn’t anyone home to make sure they went to bed. Or or or. We could go on and on. It’s important to be compassionate and loving and understanding in these moments but at what point does compassion turn into benign sympathy? Can students who have experienced trauma still learn? Does a kid whose grandmother died still need to do their homework? These are tough questions with complicated answers. I argue that we do a disservice to students in the long-term when we say “you look tired, why don’t you put your head down?” in math class. It’s a shortsighted response to trauma to put a band-aid on it.
Teachers/Schools/Districts need more money
Much like my upcoming hot take piece on school lunch being better than people think, every teacher and principal ever has wanted more money. I’d love more money! My partner and I (also a teacher) just moved back to Minnesota and are looking to buy a house and it would be sweet if we got paid more. But tweeting things like “teachers should be paid like pro athletes!” doesn’t do much to solve the problem. A mediocre teacher getting paid an extra $5,000 is still a mediocre teacher. A school with people who don’t know what they’re doing getting more funding is just a school burning money not in service of kids. Again, kids and families can’t wait for that tax levy to pass or for housing values to rise in cities to create a more robust tax base. So definitely keep fighting for those things, but in the meantime how does having this be the focus of our conversations actually improve the quality of education for students in school right now?
“If I was only getting paid more I would teach your student subtraction better. If only we had more SmartBoards, then your child could learn about conjunctions. If only _____, then _____.”
More money can make the job easier, or attract more people to the profession, or make schools safer but more money doesn’t guarantee any of that. A really specific and recent example of this is Minneapolis Public Schools spending a combined $10 million on boxed K-5 reading curriculums for the upcoming year from Houghton Mifflin (remember them?!) and something called Benchmark Education Company.
I come from a lineage of training that really thumbed its nose at boxed curriculum and textbooks in general, so I’m clearly biased here BUT I tend to have faith in teachers to know what’s going to be most interesting and relevant to the students they teach and not a textbook company. This kind of lesson planning without a pre-packaged curriculum is more work but maybe instead of spending the 10 million dollars, we throw out the curriculum, have teachers and instructional leaders plan the reading curriculum, and use the money to do ____________(fill in the blank with some of these options: hiring more school counselors, snacks for kids, more books in libraries, laptops, pay teachers a little more, whatever floats your boat).
Teachers aren’t the most important factor in a student’s outcomes
I got some really interesting feedback on this and links to studies. This is a maybe/maybe not deal right now. Teachers certainly are a lever that can be pulled in a child’s life and let’s invest time and energy in quantifying the impact but more importantly figure out best practices and how to implement them at scale. Teachers are a very pullable lever in a student’s life, so let’s yank on it. Besides, if you show up to work thinking that you have a limited impact on a student’s life, why show up? Have more faith in your power, please!
Long story short, it’s important to have passionate conversations about the direction and future of education (maybe not on twitter though?). We can critique a system and at the same time do work within a system to overcome it.
So, I’m still on twitter, still talking to folks because education matters and kids are this country’s most precious resource and it’s worth the time to talk about it (especially when we’re on summer vacations, amirite teachers?!).
I’m glad I said something and I’m glad Clint and I could find some common ground.