Thursday, July 28, 2011

SOS Conference 2011, Day One

Today, the first day of the SOS Conference in DC, I had the privilege of being around some phenomenal people and having some very interesting conversations.

The day began with a talk by Jonathan Kozol. Although he's always been one of the people I've looked up to most in the education world (and I learned today just how many others have too), I was even further impressed by his ability to address a crowd. He gave a riveting talk (Norm Scott has a few notes on it here). He demonstrated an ability to be sensitive and genuine in his description of his time in the classroom and, at the same time, intensely passionate about his anger and frustration with the ongoing catastrophic inequities that continue to plague public education. For me, his compassion, tenderness, and commitment to this cause came through even more clearly than when I read his books.

I moved on to a lecture by Texas Superintendant John Kuhn. Kuhn has written and spoken out widely on destructive state and federal policies that have hurt him and his students. He's even published an ebook that you can access for free.

Kuhn was equally impressive. He compared teachers to an American military outpost that was ambushed by the Taliban in 2009 in the Battle of Kamdesh. He noted that although the military personel did not succeed in defending their outpost because of poor planning and administration on behalf of the US military, they were nevertheless recognized for their efforts by the government. He noted the irony in the fact that many teachers are put in situations in which they cannot succeed on a daily basis, but rather than being recognized for their herculean efforts in impossible circumstances, they are lambasted for not trying hard enough to cure the effects of poverty.

Kuhn also noted that he thought it important for every teacher to read Joanne Barken's recent article in Dissent, "Firing Line: The Grand Coalition Against Teachers." He said that while efforts at improving education in impoverished communities should involve improving parenting, he noted that the government has leverage only to act against teachers and not against parents. He also said that he thinks that when teachers cry out that children have been neglected and are accused of creating "excuses," they are actually making "diagnoses" of problems. "You can't fix poverty through carefully crafted algebra lessons," he said. Lastly, Kuhn said that we will move closer to solutions when we realize (as Michael Marder pointed out in the Texas Tribune back in May) that many of our educational problems are tied closely with problems associated with poverty.

After Kuhn's lecture, I ate lunch with a woman running in a school board election in Louisiana and two Teach for America graduates (from 2000-2002) who are still working in schools in the Houston area. The woman from Louisiana lamented to me just how disgraceful she thought it was that Louisiana recently passed a senate bill that would allow corporations to sponsor charter schools. The two TFA alums told me that they'd lost faith in the mission of TFA. One said that when she went through the program, she was told that TFA intended to work itself out of existence, by making it fashionable for talented people to go into and stay in education. She seemed frustrated when she said she didn't hear that anymore. Both alums said they thought Wendy Kopp was arrogant and were generally disappointed in the direction education policy in the country has been headed.

After lunch, I attended a session led by Mike Klonsky. In it, bloggers, teachers, writers, policy analysts, and activists brainstormed ideas on how teachers might come together to fight corporate reform with a single united voice.

All day long, I was privileged to be working, talking, and listening around so many amazing people I admire. They include Karran Harper Royal (my hero from New Orleans), John KuhnJonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Rachel Levy, Mary Levy, Ken Bernstein, Anthony Cody, Nancy Flanagan, Sabrina Stevens Shupe, Martha Infante, the author of JD2718, Norm Scott, Julie Cavanagh, Lisa Donlan, Brian Jones, and many more amazing people who I'm just beginning to meet.

The challenge that we all face, as I've heard all day long (and agree with wholeheartedly), is how we make this conference and march in DC the beginning of a movement. How can we continue to support each other and make use of each other's talents and capital to make this movement effective?

Tomorrow, we start with Diane Ravitch.


  1. Thanks James, so even mention me along with these great people is an honor.

    I'm loving the spirt here. So many like minded people reassures me that I'm not a raving lunatic about public education. So great to be in the company of so many others who truly "get it."

  2. I agree, Karran. It's an amazing atmosphere. I'm so glad I'm lucky enough to be a part of it.

  3. Thanks for all the info James. I'm so disappointed that I can't be there...it's nice to have you so I can attend in spirit! Please continue to report on what happens.

    I heard Kozol speak at a Reading Recovery conference a few years ago. I, too, was greatly impressed. He's a hard worker for the weakest children in the country.

  4. Great post...I just posted your blog over at our FB page.


  5. Great post--it captures the richness and diversity of the thinking, plus the excitement. It was a pleasure to meet you--connecting name to face--and even more fun to read your take on a great day.

  6. Stu: We certainly miss you and all the other committed defenders of public education who couldn't make it.

    Anon at 827: Thanks!

    Nancy: Thanks! It was great meeting you too. It's so nice to meet people like you that you know from their great writing in person.

  7. "how we make this conference and march in DC the beginning of a movement. How can we continue to support each other and make use of each other's talents and capital to make this movement effective?"

    Simple! See www.Uniting4Kids.com which is already in place as an umbrella for you all! See who's joined: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/U4Kids/

    I wholeheartedly hope this will be pursued! The title is great as everyone, authors, educators, teachers and parents can stand united 4 kids while retaining their own group's identity and autonomy.

    Please help get this going!! It seems that individual groups may be afraid to lose ground if they will not get to be in charge. It all could come crashing down if not staying united!

  8. I've been watching the news and haven't seen a thing about this march. I'll watch again tomorrow. I wish I could be there. Do you have any idea as to how many people are and will be there?
    I'm also very proud of the committee not caving in to the White House.
    I'm so proud of all of you.

  9. Note: Live Webcast of #SOSMarch events tomorrow staring at 9 PDT/12 EDT @edtechtalk http://dld.bz/ajhMa

  10. There was certainly some cool conversation.