The Experiential Illiterates

About John Kuhn

John Kuhn is a public school administrator in Texas and a vocal advocate for public education. His ''Alamo Letter'' and YouTube videos of his 2011 speech at a Save Texas Schools rally went viral, as did his 2012 essay ''The Exhaustion of the American Teacher.'' He has written two education-related books, 2013's Test-and-Punish (Park Place Publications) and 2014's Fear and Learning in America (Teachers College Press).

I try very hard–and often unsuccessfully–to avoid hyperbole and straw men in my argumentation on behalf of the American institution of public education. My bias is clear, and there is no preventing it from seeping into my writing and speaking and thinking. There’s no getting around it.

I have friends both in real life and online who–in varying degrees–disagree with one or more of my points-of-view regarding education reform. That’s okay. I spend a lot of time trying to listen and learn and decide what I think and what I believe about education policy proposals, and my opinions aren’t static. There are organizations and individuals selling their wares in the marketplace of educational ideas whom I don’t trust. For example, people and groups that pushed hard for the basic architecture of No Child Left Behind convinced me–via the approaches they advocated–that they lacked a sufficient appreciation for the nuances inherent in educating children to be trusted on anything without a great deal of caution. But there are other voices out there that I have found–though I may disagree with them–are worth hearing out. Still, even in the hearing, there is a core that is unchanging within me, and it’s based on what I’ve seen as a student, teacher, and administrator in three very similar American public school systems.

I’ve seen public schooling as practiced “in the wild,” and I honestly like it. I don’t just like it enough to brag about it or write blog posts about it. I like public schooling so much that I subject my three children to it on a daily basis. I entrust my kids to this system that–astonishingly to me–is so often painted in the newspapers and by think tankers and pundits and government officials alike as an abject failure. My kids’ future is totally dependent on that indictment being wrong. And that is a decision that some 90% or more of American parents make each and every day when they pack up their kids and send them off to public schools. This overwhelming popularity gets overlooked pretty egregiously in the constant sales pitch for school choice that much of education journalism has morphed into.

One thing I find extremely interesting is the remarkable uniformity of opinion that forms on either side of the reform divide. There are areas of divergence, of course–the guys at Fordham and Rick Hess disagree occasionally, say over the Common Core State Standards, and so do Diane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten. There is some disagreement between reformers about whether vouchers are a good tool or not, too. (Rhee was against them before she was for them. Obama–for now–is against them.) But those areas of diversity of opinion appear to me to be the exception and not the rule.

Anyway, the chasm between the pro-reform crowd and the anti-reform crowd is real. And the feeling that there are two education policy “teams” is also real. We all get on Twitter and point out the flaws and faults of the other team, and they in turn get upset that we’re ignoring our own team’s faults. Then they do the same thing. We all pretend we’re objective, but none of us are. It all gets boiled down, essentially, to tribalism. A few commentators pretend rigorously to be above it all, but they aren’t. Not really.

Anyway, we are all illiterate in the lived experiences of others, obviously, but the teachers and the education pundits might as well be from different planets. I am illiterate to much of your reality, and you to mine, but if we are both teachers then we can find much common ground. And if we are both disruptive education innovators with fine whiskey collections, then we can also find common ground. But if you are a teacher with smudges of dried snot thigh-high on your khakis and I’m a pundit in pressed slacks who clacked witticisms about lousy American teachers on a keyboard all day, it’s going to be hard for us to get ourselves onto the same page. So we are left to make guesses about one another (and one another’s motives), embracing hunches and filling in the gaps of what we don’t know about one another with what we think we know or what we hope, or what we want to be true.

We are experiential illiterates. I don’t pretend to know as much statistics, for example, as the education reformers who use statistical knowledge to cast doubt on narrative claims about education using fancy value-added formulas. (I do know, however, that Nate Silver said using test scores to rate teachers was dubious. And he knows statistics.) On the other hand, very few of the reformers have experienced the joys and tragedies of teaching for a career in a high-poverty school district–not a two-year stint with an escape hatch sure to deliver them to a great job in government or a think tank, mind you, but a career, a permanent, live-or-die situation wherein their future long-term livelihood is connected directly to the well-being and learning of other people’s kids, with no obvious way out only a way forward. Compared to the teachers they harass, those who bloviate the most at the snarkiest edublogs have (statistically) dried fewer playground tears and broken up fewer hallway fights in places where our nation’s brokenest children try and get over pains inflicted by our unfair culture just long enough to learn. Yet they can’t stop telling us what is wrong, and how to fix it all.

This is infuriating to many on the ground in the schools. Some have the grace to understand it really only boils down to politics, and they let it go. Some just don’t pay attention to it, don’t even know it’s there. Some of us want to find them and drag them into our classrooms, and leave them there for twenty years so they can see what we are talking about.

It is experiential illiteracy that has built these camps, and it seems these camps are real. I’ve put together a short survey that may help us to get an idea of who thinks what in education. Maybe I’m wrong–maybe we’re all wrong–and these camps aren’t as polarized as we think. I hope you’ll take the survey–it’s only 10 questions. If I get enough responses (I’m expecting like maybe two), I’ll share the breakdowns. I think it could be interesting, though not remotely scientific.

To access the link click here.

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About the Author:

John Kuhn is a public school administrator in Texas and a vocal advocate for public education. His ''Alamo Letter'' and YouTube videos of his 2011 speech at a Save Texas Schools rally went viral, as did his 2012 essay ''The Exhaustion of the American Teacher.'' He has written two education-related books, 2013's Test-and-Punish (Park Place Publications) and 2014's Fear and Learning in America (Teachers College Press).

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  1. […] I try very hard–and often unsuccessfully–to avoid hyperbole and straw men in my argumentation on behalf of the American institution of public education.  […]

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