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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

Emperors, clothe yourselves

Not alone by StormPetrel1

Not alone by StormPetrel1

This may surprise you, but I was a loudmouth jerk in high school. I routinely took on teachers (and classmates – sorry GHS Class of ’96!) if I felt slighted by them in any way. Looking back, sometimes I had a case, but more often than not I was arguing just to argue. Compliance wasn’t enough for me, but I didn’t have healthy ways to ask for more of teachers, so I went after their decision-making in the classroom.

One day in 11th grade my English teacher asked us to share some sentences we had written as part of a mini-lesson on composition. Since 10th grade, I had loved Faulkner, Capote, and the Southern Gothic genre. I also loved cutting up in class. I wrote some two-page-long sentence about mashed potatoes that the teacher eviscerated on grammatical grounds. I defended myself by saying that Faulkner would have gotten away with it, to which my teacher replied, “Yes, but you will never be Faulkner.” Ba dum bum.

In reading the give and take on this week’s press about the educational philanthropists’ efforts to influence educational policy by paying big money to big names in ed media and research, I feel like I’m back in 11th grade, reddening and readying to let loose on the teacher.

Take this Rick Hess, piece, for example, in which he defends his acceptance of Gates money by arguing “we’re all implicated.” Of course, by “all” he means “academics, activists, and the policy community,” for whom “philanthropic support is often the ticket to tackling big projects, making a difference, and maintaining one’s livelihood.”

Someone else can debate with Hess whether or not anyone who achieves the status of educational pundit needs $500,000 of Gates money to get by. I wouldn’t know in that I don’t do the work Hess does – nor would I deny him any of that work.

I do, however, teach, so I’ll debate with Hess on this point: academics, activists, and the policy community, whether they like it or not, are not the only people invested in American public education. Pieces like Hess’s defense are res ipsa loquitur of the arrogance and disconnect from the realities of students’ lives and schools to which such “stakeholders” are susceptible. I can hear my teacher say, “Yes, but you are no Hess.” That’s exactly right. No one is paying any teacher – or student – $500,000 to advocate the humane, sane educational practices necessary to reach our most imperiled youth – or to truly inspire our most privileged to lives of altruism – because few people at Gates or Hess’s levels seem able to bring themselves to acknowledge the singularly hard and hard-to-sell truth that no system, new or old, can account for the needs of all of our kids. To reach every single kid will take every single strategy we can try; no single strategy will do.

Reform away. Insist that everything is above board. Take advantage of those deserved tax breaks for philanthropic giving and business expenses. Do what you think is right.

Just, at some point, acknowledge that our educational system won’t ever lift up every student until we allow ourselves the chance to make a mess of things – until we allow ourselves an educational framework that lets kids do work that holds personal meaning for them – until we allow ourselves professional standards that put kids before adults, relationships before test scores, and communities before polling points.

Acknowledge that the teachers, students, and parents – especially those who are not backed shell companies – have important things to say about their shared work. Even if you won’t listen, make sure your audiences know that it’s okay if they do.

I get it – everyone is very careful about language. No one wants to come out and say, “There can be only one!” However, the net effects of all this philanthropical, corporate, consortial, and government spending are the exclusion of educators, students, and parents from policy conversations about changing schools and the chilling of teachers’ willingness and capacities to innovate for their kids.

But look:

  • Standardization alone under any system doesn’t change students’ lives for the better. It just lowers the costs and raises the profits of doing business to them. No set of limited standards and assessments will change pedagogy as beneficially to information age learning as a democratic, inquiry- and project-based school “system” would.
  • Innovation asks us to learn by making new mistakes; it is not the same thing as punishing people for making the same mistake you ask them to make repeatedly over time. We have to have assessment options – diagnostic tools for school health – that sample student work, not just test scores.
  • Common sense suggests that we hold on to what works for most – like the National Writing Project – while we experiment with what might work for some – like Teach for America.
  • The federal government is strong-arming state and local policy with faux competitive grants that are won through compliance, rather than through innovation. This is clear and it will come back to hurt the United States Department of Education and our schools.

Emperors, clothe yourselves with some modest scrap of democracy. It’s painful to look at you. It’s painful to hear you. It’s painful to think of the lost opportunities you cost us in changing public education and lives for the better.

You’re welcome at my table when you dress for dinner with the unbought.

Just join us and listen.

That would be payment enough for me.

I may not be Faulkner, but I’m cheap.

About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


10 thoughts on “Emperors, clothe yourselves

  1. Well done, Chad! At the recent NSVF meeting in California, some in the ed-reform venture-fund meeting commented (as Dana Goldstein reported via Twitter) that they had made some considerable sacrifices of family time for the sake of education reform. And I thought to myself, well, at least that’s what you’re paid to do. Teachers make sacrifices of family time as well – not that I’m interested in comparing sacrifice of family time relative to income or anything like that. What I want to point out is that most teachers who also make the effort to contribute to education leadership and policy debates outside the classroom are vying to have their voices heard without the benefit of time or support from so-called philanthropists or venture funds.

    Posted by David B. Cohen | May 26, 2011, 1:04 pm
    • Thank you, David – that is the big picture and the big point: all sorts of people with all sorts of effective ideas for Learning are talking with one another at the practice level, but at few at the policy level seem interested. I am astounded, for example, that Hess would argue that buying allegiance is okay so long as every one who matters is bought – or that that Justin Hamilton, @EdPressSec, would dedicate several tweets to combating bad language on Twitter without ever picking up his end of a thread of policy conversation with a teacher.

      We can’t stop voicing what know works. We can’t stop insisting that the gate-keepers open the gates. Students and under-represented parents, as well as teachers, deserve as much attention from policy-makers as the policy makers and lobbyists – philanthropic and otherwise – give one another.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 26, 2011, 1:53 pm
  2. Oh Chad, oh Chad, how it surprises me that you gave your teachers a lot of shit in high school.

    Actually, I think you’re approaching Faulknerian monumentality in this post, and in many others. You’re kicking ass and naming it. My clothes off to you. (Oh well, something like that.) Thanks for steering this mighty unruly ship so well and pushing all the rest of us to bring it up to the next level and make it real.

    And as I’ve said many times, for your links alone…Yo folks, you gotta check his links.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 26, 2011, 1:39 pm
    • What I especially love about the Highlander video is that whoever posted it complains in the comments about how Duncan (from the later Highlander TV series) was never in the movie with MacLeod (supposedly the last Highlander alive according to the movie). I would much prefer Scott McLeod to Arne Duncan for Secretary of Education.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 26, 2011, 2:00 pm
  3. Well said, Chad.

    Sometimes I wonder why the likes of Bill Gates or even Rick Hess are the “experts”, and then I think they are the experts because we make them so. Of course, it isn’t the likes of the Cooperative that anoint Rhee and Duncan as experts, but the media does – and they were bought a long, long time ago.

    I loved the way you ended your post with a reference to the Emperor’s clothes.

    Well said. Well said, indeed.


    Posted by Joe Bower | May 26, 2011, 8:42 pm
    • Thank you, Joe!

      The silver lining of our public investment in such experts may be how clear it is that we collectively want change. It’s time to shift our attention to what works inside classrooms and relationships.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 27, 2011, 8:43 am
  4. I’ve had mixed feelings on this subject. I’m not against someone taking money to write. If someone ever offers to publish “Drawn Into Danger” I’ll probably go with it. I’m also not against writing a piece for an organization I disagree with. Yet, combine the two and it seems like a disaster. The problem I have with Hess is not that he’s taking the money. It’s the way he tries to defend it and somehow separate himself from Gates that bothers me.

    Posted by johntspencer | May 27, 2011, 9:10 am
    • You raise a good point, John, and it’s entirely related to the issues with which we struggle daily.

      If it’s okay to get paid to teach, is it okay to get paid to teach in a way with which you disagree?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 27, 2011, 11:04 am
  5. A brilliant read thanks Chad!

    I’m having a debate online in one of my papers with someone who really should work for the government – I don’t think he’s working for the students. Possibly a bit cynical of me, but he really needs to read what you, and so many of us, are writing.

    I couldn’t be paid to teach in a way I don’t believe in or disagree with.

    Off to read more of your posts.


    Posted by Justine Hughes | May 27, 2011, 10:38 pm
    • Thank you, Justine, for your kind words and commitment to teaching an accordance with your conscience.

      One of our primary concerns is how to help colleagues shift from maintaining a teacher-owned culture to creating a student-owned one. How do we help catalyze “a-ha!” moments for others?

      I hope this post is of some use in that regard as we share it with others.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 28, 2011, 7:28 am

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