guest perspective

I’m an education reformer, and Betsy DeVos is going to kill our coalition. Here’s a game plan.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / jeweledlion

At her Senate confirmation hearing this week, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos failed to answer basic questions about civil rights, measuring student growth, and children with disabilities.

Her answers also validated what left-leaning education reformers have suspected for months: DeVos embraces school choice as an education panacea, while grasping little else about federal education policy. That philosophy will likely lead her to prioritize some of the least promising, and most divisive, components of the education reform agenda.

When that happens, she and Donald Trump will kill the bipartisan education reform coalition.

Having participated in that coalition for 15 years, as a nonprofit president and member of President Obama’s 2008 education policy committee, I will be disappointed, though not surprised, to see it dissolve.

The coalition was surprisingly durable. By the early 1990s it was attracting centrists frustrated with their political parties and enthusiastic about results. At the time, the right blamed weak school performance on things like “family values” and resisted sweeping changes on the basis of respecting local control. The left blamed poverty and was similarly resistant to change, based on an allergy to holding schools accountable for their results. For most of the years since I entered the workforce, the reform coalition was an ideal home for a technocratic public school graduate who realized that the system had worked for him, but not for kids with less privilege.

DeVos, however, is no technocrat. The glue of the reform coalition has been an orientation toward results and accountability. DeVos has shown that her real commitment is to an ideological position, dominated by a faith in markets and the economic theories of conservative economists like Milton Friedman.

The nomination of DeVos signals that our country’s Republican leadership will abandon the technocratic agenda in favor of an ideological one. DeVos’s own history indicates that her department of education will prioritize federal funding for private religious schools, a laissez-faire approach to school accountability, and a hands-off approach to the enforcement of federal civil rights laws. Those priorities would shrink the federal government’s role in safeguarding equity and increase the flow of federal dollars to unaccountable private entities. I don’t think low-income families should take that deal, and frankly, neither should tax-averse conservatives.

In the meantime, DeVos’s nomination should be a wake-up call to the left-leaners of the reform coalition. We’re about to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, where pushing away from DeVos’s education policy agenda could mean getting subsumed by the traditionalist agenda of our own party. That agenda still hews to the positions of management interests and labor leaders, and not closely enough to the needs of vulnerable families.

To avoid that trap, left-leaning reformers like me need to build a legitimate reform agenda of our own — one that can both improve students’ lives and garner motivated, popular support in the coming years. I think that agenda must consider four things:

First, we must put the perspectives of the families and children of our most vulnerable communities at the center of our work. If we can’t explain to a mother why a policy will make her child’s life better, it’s not a good enough policy. To the extent that families view other issues as critical – like healthcare, poverty, civil rights, and jobs – we should be allies in those fights.

Second, we need to hold the line on accountability, academic standards, and making teaching one of the most valued professions in the country. Year after year, research finds that these three factors are the foundational elements of successful education systems. While standards and accountability have been central to reform since the 1990s, both are now under assault. The third leg of this stool also is a political nightmare, since reformers and traditionalists disagree about how to elevate teaching. That doesn’t mean we can give up.

All of that means that the third thing progressives need to do is spend more time talking to teachers. Teachers, and their unions, have been some of the most outspoken critics of reform. Some of that pushback has been political. Much of it, though, is a genuine response to feeling like the teaching profession has become unmoored from joy and creativity. Great teaching cannot flourish while our country’s teachers are miserable. That’s bad for children, and we need to help fix it.

Finally, reformers on the left must continue to support ideas that get results, even when other progressives push back. For example, huge segments of the left despise charter schools, but there are amazing charter schools that get stunning results under adverse circumstances. Those results are worth defending.

Whatever happens to the reform coalition, the Trump-DeVos regime will cause a significant realignment in education politics. If the coalition does survive, it’s likely to limp along in a diminished form.

The realignment will offer challenges and opportunities to everyone with a stake in improving public schools for all children. If reformers on the left want to be key voices in these debates, we’ll have to focus less on accommodating DeVos’s views and more on building power for our own coalition. Students will need it.

Justin C. Cohen is a writer who focuses on the intersection of education and social justice. Before that, he was president of Mass Insight Education and a senior adviser to the chancellor of the DC Public Schools.

First Person

I’ve spent years fighting for integrated schools in New York City. I’m also Asian-American. Mayor de Blasio, let’s talk.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents weigh in on a proposal to integrate District 2 middle schools by making them enroll students with a range of academic abilities earlier this year.

Dear Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza,

I write as a school integration advocate, racial justice activist, public school mother, and a first-generation Japanese-American.

I have spent years working with other parents to make New York City’s public school system more equitable, facilitating conversations on school integration as a means to dismantle racism in our society. I believe it is past time we address the segregation in New York City public schools, and I agree that something must be done with the specialized high schools — which currently admit few black and Latinx students — as part of this work.

However, I am concerned about how you’ve rolled out this proposal without including the people it will affect.

As opposition mounts and the Asian communities across the city mobilize against your plan, I wanted to share some thoughts so that you are better prepared to create a meaningful dialogue on perhaps the most complex part of the school integration work.

I would like to ask three things from you. One is to please see us Asian New Yorkers for who we are.

There is no question that Asians have been (and many still are) marginalized and disempowered. If one learns the history of Asians in the U.S., she understands that our past is filled with violence and struggles. Our history is steeped in discriminatory policies at federal and local levels, including the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment. We were only given the “model minority” status because doing so was convenient for domestic and international politics.

We are also a very diverse group of people, representing more than four dozen countries. This fact alone makes it very difficult to make any general statements about us.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we should be ignored in this conversation or inaccurately lumped in with whites. High average test scores do not automatically equal privilege, and they are certainly no match for white supremacy — a concept many self-proclaimed “non-racists” are unable to recognize. This lack of understanding makes it nearly impossible to identify Asians as oppressed people of color.

The second thing I ask is to bring all of us – whites, blacks, Latinx, and Asians (East, South, and Southeast Asians) – together to develop solutions to integrate our schools.

The unfortunate fact is that our city is not typically equipped to have productive conversations about race and racism. And if racism of white against black/Latinx is difficult to grasp for some, understanding how Asians fit into this discourse is even harder.

Our position is so complicated, even racial justice activists – including Asians themselves – often do not know how to talk about us. When we are not ignored, we are perceived as “outsiders,” even if this is the only country some of us know.

But there is no reason we can’t work together. History tells us that Asians have been fighting for civil rights alongside black and Latinx people for decades, even after the white system began using us as pawns. Even in the highly contentious affirmative action arena, in which some Asians have been co-opted by white anti-affirmative action groups, many Asians remain in favor of affirmative action and are continuing to fight for equity for all people of color.

Finally, to make that work, I ask that you adopt a “bottom up and top down” approach, in which community conversations and shared decision-making happen under your leadership. Such a framework has been proposed by a group of advocates, including students.

The Department of Education has already hosted a series of town halls to solicit ideas on diversifying our schools, and has done a good job of getting people to come out. However, on this proposal for the specialized high schools, there was no consultation with affected communities, including students.

Let’s practice what we preach and have an inclusive, participatory process. Let’s not ignore the Asian community when we talk about school integration, and let’s specifically include Asian voices — parents and students — in this discussion about specialized schools and all schools. Let’s have real conversations aimed at uniting those who have been marginalized, not dividing them. And let’s explain how these decisions will be made and why.

This is an opportunity to start a conversation that should have happened when Brown v. Board of Education was decided 64 years ago, and to create more equitable, integrated schools. Let’s make sure we do it right.

Shino Tanikawa is the vice president of District 2’s Community Education Council and a school integration advocate.

First Person

If teachers aren’t equipped to help trauma victims, students suffer. Learn from my story.

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

It took one of my kindergarten students, Andrew, to help me figure out how to handle my toughest teaching challenge.

My classroom wall was full of pictures that Andrew had drawn for me. He often greeted me at the door with a smile. But Andrew would also scream, act out, and even hurt himself in my class.

For quite some time, I thought that if I could find a different way to ask him to get back on task, maybe he would not become so aggressive, not bang his head on the floor. But regardless of how tactfully I approached keeping him engaged or redirected his behavior, Andrew would implode. And with little to no support, I quickly grew weary and helpless.

Eventually, I did learn how to help students like Andrew. I also eventually realized that when you teach students who have been impacted by trauma, you have to balance ownership and the reality that you cannot solve every problem. But the trial and error that it took to reach that point as a teacher was exhausting.

I hope we, as a profession, can do better for new Memphis teachers. In the meantime, maybe you can learn from my story.

I grew up in a trauma-filled household, where I learned to mask my hurt and behave like a “good girl” to not bring attention to myself. It wasn’t until a high school teacher noticed how hard I flinched at being touched and privately expressed concerns that I got help. After extensive investigations and professional support, I was on the road to recovery.

When I became a teacher myself, and met Andrew and many students like him, I began to see myself within these children. But that didn’t mean I knew how to reach them or best help them learn. All I knew to do when a child was misbehaving was to separate them from the rest of the classroom. I didn’t have the training to see past a student’s bad behavior and help them cope with their feelings.

It took a while to learn not to internalize Andrew’s attacks, even when they became physical. No matter what Andrew did, each day we started over. Each day was a new opportunity to do something better, learn from a mistake, or work on developing a stronger bond.

I learned to never discipline when I am upset and found success charting “trigger behaviors,” using them to anticipate outbursts and cut down on negative behaviors.

Over time, I learned that almost all students are more receptive when they feel they have a real relationship with the teacher. Still, each case must be treated differently. One student may benefit from gentle reminders, private conversations, or “social stories” that underscore the moral of a situation. Another student may respond to firm consequences, consistent routines, or reflection journals.

Still other students sit in our classrooms each and every day and are overlooked due to their mild-mannered demeanor or their “cooperativeness.” My childhood experiences made me aware of how students mask trauma in ways very unlike Andrew. They also made me realize how imperative it is for teachers to know that overachieving students can need just as much help as a child that physically acts out.

I keep a watchful eye on students that are chronically fatigued or overly sensitive to noise or touch, jumping for minor reasons. I encourage teachers to pay close attention to students that have intense hygiene issues, as their incontinence could be acting as a defense mechanism, and I never ignore a child who is chronically withdrawn from their peers or acting out of character.

All of this took time in the classroom and effort processing my own experiences as a student with trauma. However, many teachers in Memphis aren’t coming from a similar background and haven’t been trained to see past a student’s disruptive behavior.

It’s time to change the way we support teachers and give educators intense trauma training. Often, compassionate teachers want to help students but don’t know how. Good training would help educators develop the skills they need to reach students and to take care of themselves, since working with students that have been impacted by trauma can be incredibly taxing.

Trial and error aren’t enough: If teachers are not equipped to help trauma victims, the quality of students’ education will suffer.

Candace Hines teaches kindergarten for the Achievement School District, and previously taught kindergarten for six years with Shelby County Schools. She also is an EdReports content reviewer and a coach and facilitator for Teach Plus Memphis. Hines serves as a fellow for Collaborative for Student Success and a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow.