Sick from cancer and the side-effects of chemotherapy, Ted Sizer made his way to a meeting with the Massachusetts Secretary of Education. It was 2009, and I was privileged to join Ted and several other educators as we tried for the umpteenth time to make our case about the damaging impact of high stakes testing on students and advocate for more thoughtful assessment practices. Each spoke in turn. When it came to Ted, all he said was “Change the conversation.” There was an uncertain pause. He said it again. “Change the conversation.” The Secretary nodded and we moved on. There were plenty of smart people in the room that day and they all had smart things to say, but there’s just one comment I remember six years later.
We live in a kind of a dark age for public education. All the talk is about punishing accountability metrics, incompetent teachers, big data, and faddish quick-fixes. We ignore history. The privileged classes send their children elsewhere, and pass laws that further harm the chances for other people’s children.
As of 2014-2015, our public schools are majority low income and non-white. Public school is, increasingly, where you go if you don’t have money, can’t speak English or are a person of color.
Ted was right. We need to change the conversation. While the dominant political culture is oppressive, like the European dark age, there are hidden places where good work is being done. I have been fortunate, as an educator, to inhabit some of the hidden places. My writing and my research is about them. Sometimes, like when I walk through hallways of a mainstream public high school, or listen to a radio talk show featuring education policy makers, I feel confused, the same way an Amish man must feel who strays into the big city. So much doesn’t make sense. Under the circumstances, I am tempted to react, to think the opposite of what I see and hear. But if I do that, I am operating within the dominant culture.
This blog will strive to do something different than simply react to the dominant culture. Rather than accepting the terms of the debate, it will attempt to reframe it, to ask different questions, to consider ideas largely ignored by the mainstream. It will attempt to join the conversation and disrupt it. I hope to honor Ted’s imperative.