Why do so many white people care about education reform?

Why do so many white people care about education reform?

Inspired by a blog post about BAM! Radio Network's push to take on taboo education topics, I'm writing about the inequality that must be leveled--too many voices in the local and national education policy conversation are white, thereby perpetuating the social structures that prevent low-income black and brown youth from achievement.

There--I said it.

On Monday, Michael Petrilli, the vice president of the Fordham Institute, a self-labeled "Education Gadfly" restless in its quest to improve America's schools, published a list of "The Top Twitter Feeds in Education Policy" to much acclaim and criticism.

Virtually no African American or Latino voices made Monday’s list.  His selection rationale is based on, what else, but data, data, data: Klout scores, a measurement of one's online influence.  And, it seems, the number of tweets and followers may have also played an implicit role.  After asking, "Who did I forget?" Petrilli got some push back.

The list was modified Wednesday so that 11% of the voices in the top Twitter feeds list belong to African Americans and Latinos.  That's an average representation of 5.6% for each group.  The dominant voices in the education policy are white while, nationally, most students and families affected by this conversation are not.  In Chicago, about 90% of our students are African American or Latino.  About 9% of them are white.  Whose voices should dominate the ed policy conversation?

Furthermore, Petrilli’s list automatically alienates the people who arguably--no--who do know the most about education: teachers.  Teachers and effective instructional leaders do not have the time or resources to recruit followers and manage social media accounts.  People like Arne Duncan, Diane Ravitch, organization such as Teach for America, and even Petrilli's organzation do.  In other words, their influence, their clout on Klout, comes from the fact that they can pay people to say, "Hey!  Listen to what I / we have to say."  This is certainly an advantage hinting at the concept of white privilege, mentioned by Peggy McIntosh in her piece "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."

Teacher bloggers, on the other hand, automatically lose credibility because, as someone told me recently, "You don't have an editor."  No, but I do possess professional judgment and educational expertise, not because I have a Ph.D. or an MBA but because I teach.  And I teach well.

I sent a tweet to Michael Petrilli saying that basing the list on Klout scores is the same as expecting a certain test score for admission.  Hmmm.  Quantity over quality?

In an April blog post on Charting My Own Course, Marilyn Rhames, well-recognized but Kloutly insignificant teacher blogger for the list, wrote how minority professionals keep doubting ourselves around more privileged people.  We keep asking, "Am I good enough?"  I've been there.  Marilyn writes how she's worked to overcome this.  I have too.

Despite having male gender advantages, I am first and foremost brown--Chicano brown.  That's the first thing people see when they meet me.  And I am reminded every time I watch Chicago Tonight or read the Tribune or Sun-Times or listen to Chicago Public Radio or NPR, that brown teachers’ voices remain unheard.

Michael Petrilli did post Wednesday that he expanded the list by adding a few minority voices.  Jose Vilson, a New York math teacher, rightfully made the list.  Petrilli's criteria did not, however, allow Marilyn Rhames to make the list, despite her national award-winning EdWeek national blog.

So I keep asking myself, "Why do all these white people care about public education?"  Even in Chicago, the leaders of the big-voice organizations are white.  While their children go to Chicago public schools, they (I'm almost certain) attend either selective enrollment or higher performing schools.  A well-known Chicago education reporter recently revealed her child will attend Whitney Young this fall.

Let's say for a moment that all of the white advocates and activists and bloggers and dominant voices truly believe in the principles of social justice.  Let's not even suppose that they work because of political "berrinches," self-centered philanthropy, or self-imposed guilt for having a better life.  So they start organizations like the Academy for Urban School Leadership, Raise Your Hand, or Teach for America.  Or they become U.S. Secretary of Education or write a daily education blog like Diane Ravitch.

Because they ground themselves in helping low-income black and brown youth gain access to traditionally white institutions, they run the risk of negating the cultural values, socio-economic issues, and overall reality that will rarely be accepted into white mainstream world.

Don’t get me wrong.  Some of our values, such as materialism, complacency, machismo, should be eradicated.  But with few or no black or brown voices dominating the conversation, social justice may become what is fair for black and brown youth--according to whites.

Nationally syndicated columnist Esther Cepeda recently wrote about the "pobrecito" syndrome.  "Educators," she says, "come up with misguided policies to go easy on groups of underperforming students, perpetuating the worst kind of disrespect--that of lowered expectations--on whole categories of children who are assumed to be less capable."

So it becomes easier during many of these ed policy conversations to avoid talking about the color of voices at the table or in the retweets.  Gender is easy to talk about; race remains taboo.  Or we go the other extreme.  We focus on the hurtful, violent racist views against low-income black and brown youth.

But as NPR contributor Shankar Vedantam reminds us in The Hidden Brain, a book that explains how our unconscious minds control us, dismissing the race conversations or focusing on the extreme racists, "distracts us from the far greater challenge--the unconscious biases of the majority, including people in positions of visibility, influence, and authority."

Because I am an independent blogger who teaches and does not create policy (besides the policy in my classroom) and because I do not have the inherent credibility ivy leaguers who enter education automatically do, my voice--and the voice of many other black and brown voices on Twitter and at the ground level of education--doesn't make it into the upper echelons  of Petrilli's list. What else is new?

I want to be explicit--I'm not saying all white people are bad or uniformed or unqualified to be in education policy conversations.  I've worked and work with many extraordinary, caring, high competent, and culturally sensitive white educators.

What I am saying is the Petrilli's list supports the idea that being white usually equals authoritative voice.  However, if education policy decisions are meant to truly transform the lives of low-income black and brown youth, the criteria for being an integral part of the mainstream ed policy conversation have to change.

This does not mean that any and every minority voice provides fair insight into our profession or ed policy.  We do have unqualified, overly confident minority experts who, while capable of being loud, do not think or speak or about students first.

Petrilli's list is useful, however, because it allows us to see who has clout because of Klout.  And if the top Twitter feeds people on the list--Arne Duncan, Diane Ravitch, Teach for America, EdWeek, Michael Petrilli (who made his own list), and all of them--want to increase their influence beyond the tweets, they need to step back, quiet themselves, and use their position of power to let non-traditional voices be as popular as theirs.

Can you suggest other thoughtful bloggers or Twitter feeds that did not make it on Petrilli's list below, especially non-traditional ones?  It would help if you included a sentence that describes who these people / organizations are and why these voices are important in the ed policy conversation.  

On Twitter, I asked people to react here, not through tweets.  Tweets, as we know, are fleeting.  Posting comments here allows more people to interact with each other, not just with me.

Updated 10.29.13: Stand for Children was originally included the list of organizations led by white leaders.  A Stand for Children employee contacted me to say that Executive Leader Jonah Edelman is African American.


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