The Villains of Education

Back in the early days of internet bulletin boards and discussion platforms, there was a seminal piece on forming virtual communities that was passed around by educators interested in using technology to do more than record grades and attendance. Its author (Howard Rheingold, maybe?) posited a working theory of how virtual communities evolve, and the kinds of connections they built, if they were allowed to exist over time without moderation.

The author said most groups and interactions tend to cluster, over time, into three patterns: Sex. Religious veneration. Common villains. (Or something pretty close to those.)

What s/he meant was that people in online groups either flirt, worship particular heroes, heroines or initiatives—or communally post critiques about persons or initiatives they don’t like.

These were not the outcomes of virtual communication that I wanted to consider when I read this white paper. Back then, I wanted to believe that real and complex work, deep learning and genuine community could be accomplished online, and that the crummy habits we develop in face to face encounters could be avoided. But no.

If you wallow in ed-related social media (and if you’re reading this, you likely do), then you’ll know how a group that forms around an education topic can go off the rails. You’ve seen someone post an out-of-mainstream idea and get crushed by horrible, trigger-happy commenters, folks who live to uncover a villain and pile on.

The last time I saw this happen was when a teacher in Massachusetts posted that she hoped MA would not waive spring testing this year, because she believed the scores would show that her students did just as well online as in face to face schooling.

You can imagine that this outlier opinion did not go down well on a ‘teachers’ unity’ Facebook page. You can also imagine that it didn’t take more than about ten minutes for accusations about this teacher’s work conditions, privileges, inferior moral judgment about children in poverty, and lack of intelligence to start flying. Nobody was posting: Hmm? Tell me more!

Of course, there’s probably an All Kids Must Test!page she can join, and find new friends, but that’s not the point. Online discussion groups around education DO tend to evolve into monolithic viewpoints—veneration of certain policies, thought leaders and policy-makers, or a place to complain, bitterly, about the same things. Plus, a kind of flirting—looking for others who find our ideas and appearance attractive.

So much for vibrant, informed discourse or intellectual challenges. Even Facebook page names—Dump DeVos, BadAss Teachers—let you know that the readers may have a common POV. Many aren’t interested in an exchange of perspectives as much as finding Their People.

That’s OK. Most of the recent, pre-pandemic Red for Ed organization happened via Facebook pages and Twitter. And, of course, the January 6th Capitol insurrection organizers used the same social media sites.

Shutting social media sites down (or warning users about their real or imagined transgressions) won’t keep us from the Big Three human-group behaviors—flirting, veneration and attacking common enemies. Whether we’re good-hearted public school teachers or Proud Boys, we’re looking to find compadres, heroes and villains.

It’s when emergent events that impact all educators quickly morph into ad hominem attacks and assumptions that I worry about our ability to act as activists around education issues. Let’s not get stuck on naming and shaming enemies before we negotiate and advocate for the things that will support public education. Pointing fingers is cheap; better to hone your talking points.

Let’s not, for example, turn every policy issue into second-guessing the results of the 2020 election—who Bernie or Elizabeth or Pete may have chosen to craft policy as cabinet members, and how much better that would have been than Biden’s cautious, dismantle-the-fortress approach. The same goes for panning high-profile teachers’ union leaders, most of whom are currently trying to build relationships with policy-makers in hopes of impacting education legislation during what might be a short window of change.

Over the past year, teachers across the country have taken it on the chin from frustrated parents and craven political leaders. But there are a whole range of issues—standardized testing, safely returning to in-person school, vaccinating kids, the advisability of school sports during a pandemic, summer enrichment, the curriculum we need now, you name it—where there is room for debate, opinion and local differences.

We seem to be paralyzed by the window of policy shifts opened by a year of forced adjustments to habits of educational practice, plus a new administration in D.C. Reverting to ad hominem jabs at elected and appointed leaders—same old, same old—is wasting an opportunity. Better to throw out some new ideas.

That doesn’t mean we stop advocating. On the contrary, it means better, issue-focused arguments instead of poking at people who have not been on the job long, people who are trying to address life-and-safety problems and please a range of constituencies.

I have made similar comments on social media: Hey! The guy you just denigrated? He’s on our side!
This usually doesn’t go well: It’s my right to criticize!

And so it is. This is a democracy. It’s your right to condemn, fan-boy and flirt. But if you want to solve problems? As F. Scott Fitzgerald said:The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

4 Comments

  1. I do think too many people are feeling left out of the discussions. It is too easy for entrenched and powerful lobbyists and their constituents to play an out-sized role in policy decisions. Teachers in particular have been not only ignored but dismissed, using those very tactics you decry, for far too long to the detriment of the profession as well as public education. I hope that productive conversation is going on behind closed doors where all voices are heard. Sometimes in the recent past collective “screaming” in the streets has seemed the only way anyone has listened.

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  2. So– of course, people who matter are left out of ed policy discussions. If I had a dollar for every time a teacher said: ‘If they would only ask teachers…’, I could move to Maui and retire. And there is a lot of truth in those teachers-should-be-at-the-table comments. It seems that every generation of teachers and teacher leaders discovers this fact–it’s the lobbyists and corporations who are steering the policy ship!–and tries to figure out what the solution is.

    I went to D.C. in 1993 as part of a National Teacher Forum, where our motto was ‘Teachers want to be partners in–not objects of–reform.’ We thought we were going to change the world, and for awhile, given the teacher-friendly Secretary of Education (Richard Riley) and Democratic Congress, there was enormous hope. The Teacher Forum met 7 times in D.C., and formed partnerships with Ed Dept leaders, sending them our suggestions about policy and practice, most of which they politely responded to and some of which got wings.

    Remember what the Big Solution was in 1993? Standards. We thought that if we developed standards for teacher practice and common curricular standards, with extra resources for kids in poverty, we could ‘raise the bar’ for all students. These weren’t evil bureaucrats coming up with this stuff–these were educators. Practicing teachers, given a voice about what schools and instruction and curriculum *ought* to look like. Lots of policy initiatives sprang from those ideas–National Bd Certification, national standards (the first incarnation, written by teacher disciplinary groups, not the Common Core), innovative instructional models. There were still poor schools, inequitable funding, and Lynn Cheney single-handedly trashed the national Social Studies standards, while parents loathed the new math standards actual teachers developed.

    One of the things I learned from all that work was that lots of teachers do not understand how policy windows emerge, and believe that being a good practitioner is enough to prescribe useful policy. It’s not. It’s also not enough to scream in the streets, unless you’re screaming for equity for kids. Teachers screamed about Arne Duncan for seven years, and the hedge fund managers who were in charge just ignored them.

    I believe that, for the first time in a long time, the people running the show around ed policy are divided–the old DFER group (some of whom got juicy positions at ED) and the newer, more progressive, pro-public ed folks (some of whom also got juicy positions at ED). We will see a lot of ups and downs and compromises, and should continue providing our policy-makers with lots and lots of information. Parents should opt out in large numbers (which can be used as data to support the fact that parents hate excessive testing, too). We should be thinking: dismantle. Present evidence. Not smash. Not criticize (especially people who have been on the job for four weeks). We have a long way to go.

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    1. Yes, we have to give them time but watch them carefully. i disagree about the “screaming in the streets,” though. Of course, that was a poor way to word union action although that is how unions are too often portrayed. Your take on that visual was entirely appropriate. Karen Lewis and the Chicago Teachers Union demonstrated the power of the strike and taking to the streets. Rahm Emmanuel tried his best to bully her. He failed. The national unions really have to be willing to “take to the street.” They spent far too much time trying to sit at the table, but, to use a tired metaphor, spent most of the last twenty years on the menu.

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