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Why I Do What I Do – A Reflection After Student Power 2013

I believe that there are three key things you need to always do when leading a movement for social justice and change.

  1. Be willing to listen and learn.
  2. Have the courage to speak out and act in the name of justice.
  3. Never forget why you do what you do and who you do it for, and make sure everything you do honors that.

As you may know, I recently got back from the National Student Power Convergence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Words can’t even begin to describe how inspired and moved I feel. 5 days of meeting and connecting with student activists (including the wonderful and amazing Stephanie Rivera, Jacob Chaffin, Asean Johnson, and Israel Munoz), exchanging ideas and strategies on how to organize action around key issues affecting youth, and celebrating the power of student voice and action? It was seriously a dream come true. I wish I had the time to delve into every detail of every experience that I had during these 5 days, but I hope you take my word for it that the NSPC was life-changing and groundbreaking.

With all that I’ve learned and all the new friendships I’ve made, I am so excited to take all that I have learned to begin building my very own chapter of Students United for Public Education (SUPE) in Los Angeles and well as working alongside my great friend and mentor Stephanie Rivera as a national organizer for SUPE.

But I’ll be honest: as excited as I am, I’m actually kind of scared. I’ve spent most of my life doing what I love most: learning. And most importantly, I’ve devoted a lot of time to learning about myself, what I really feel passionate about, and how I could to contribute my gifts and talents. I never wanted to really act until I was sure of myself and until I understood the issues fully and deeply. And to be honest, I’m still learning, but since starting this blog, I’ve been starting to speak out and act. When I created this blog, I wanted to use it not only as a place where I could continue to learn and develop my thoughts, but to also speak up about my beliefs, raise awareness, inspire others to think critically about these key issues.

Of course, I will continue to learn, listen, and grow for the rest of my life. It’s my favorite thing to do. But I feel like I’ve finally found my voice and I’m at a good place where I can begin to translate my passions, my thoughts, and my ideas into meaningful action and activism. Making that transition, stepping out of my comfort zone to put myself out there, is scary. But so far, what I’ve learned and how much I’ve grown has been more than worth it.

Attending this convergence was a big first step towards action for me. One of my favorite experiences in this entire world (maybe even more than singing a solo on stage) is meeting people who care. People who have passion coursing through their veins. Who really care about something so much that they go out and do something about it. Who have the courage to stand up and fight for justice and what they believe in. Whose eyes light up and heartbeats speed up at even the slightest mention of something that makes them angry, hopeful, inspired, determined. Who are driven by love: love of compassion, solidarity, justice, freedom, and equality. These people are not only passionate; they’re revolutionary. They are the game-changers and change-makers. These are people who live and breathe that list at the top of the page. These are the people who have fought the fights and walked the talks. These are the people who have taught me what it means to be a part of the student movement, to stand up, speak out, and take action.

I went to this convergence to do the first two things on that list that opened this post. I am here to learn from and listen to these amazing people and their stories. And from learning from those who have walked the talk and fought the fight, I hope to find the courage within myself to become more action-oriented, to continue to speak out against injustice, to immerse myself in my community, and work with and alongside others already doing great work to make a better tomorrow for youth.

But before I continue working on my action plan for SUPE, I want to give attention to the third and most important point on that list. I’m even going to repeat it here because it’s so important:

Never forget why you do what you do and who you do it for, and make sure everything you do honors that.

What I’ve seen happen often times (especially in… yup, you guessed it: the education reform movement), is that intentions start out good but the sword starts to swing the other way when money, power, and statistics are valued over the lives and humanity of students. “Kids first” and “For the kids” becomes merely rhetoric, as people jump to enact radically dangerous and untested policies that do anything but put kids first. It’s even scarier when these policies are put in place by people with power and money, because then they are blinded by their power and money and fail to see all the intricate parts of the matter.

This scares me, because I believe my intentions are good, and the last thing I want to happen is for what I fight for to put students at a greater disadvantage. But I know that won’t happen, as long as I make sure that everything I do for my students stems from why I do what I do. I need my vision to be clear and for that vision, story, and root of my passion to drive me. I need to stay humble and true to my roots.

So why do I fight for educational justice?

Well for starters, I want to be a teacher. Every time I play that “nine lives” game at conferences where in each life you can choose any career you want, high school civics and social studies teacher is written in #1-9. But why do I want to be a teacher? Is it so I can watch people’s face fill with disappointment and bewilderment when I tell them my life’s ambition? Is it so I can work 2 other jobs to pay for my first job? Is it so I can have my impact measured by my students’ test scores? Is it so I can get weekends and summers off?

The answer is simple: I want to devote my life’s work to inspiring and fostering young, bright, creative, and passionate hearts and minds. The thought of crafting creative and engaging lesson plans, bringing them to life in my classroom, sharing my stories and wisdom with young minds, taking my students to places they’ve never been (both intellectually and literally on field trips and such), and watching them grow into conscientious, open-minded, kind-hearted, passionate people excites me like no other. I’ve gotten a taste of it through working with children of all ages during my high school and early college careers, and I really cannot wait until I am finally fully trained and prepared to teach my own classroom.

But why become active in educational policy and activism?

Well the answer to that connects to what I want to teach and how I was taught. Let’s start with the latter.

I am very lucky to have gotten the education that I got. It completely changed my life. As I’ve mentioned before in my other posts, I didn’t realize what learning was until I was exposed to a full, well-rounded curriculum that included the arts, humanities, and social justice education. Before, I depended on my high test scores to know that I was learning. Today, I know that no test score could ever reveal how much I had truly grown and learned through my education.

For the first time, I was experiencing what I was learning, rather than passively regurgitating information that I barely internalized (something I’m really excellent at doing… I could be a professional test taker and that’s something to be ashamed of). I was finally opening my eyes to the intricacies and complexities of our global society and the field of education, and finally understanding concepts like solidarity, inequality, privilege, human rights, justice, and my role in all of these things. Social studies and civics woke my mind and heart and sparked such an immense passion in me that in my spare time, I found myself delving into the issues I studied more and more, as well as becoming more involved in my local community through organizing work and volunteerism.

During this time in my life was when I found my passion in education, partly because realized the magic of education through my own transformational experience, and partly because I decided to write my sophomore year research paper on standardized testing and it shattered my long-held (arrogant) faith in tests as well as everything I thought I knew about education.

As time went on, I slowly developed my biggest belief: that EVERY student should receive a free, quality, democratic, and well-rounded public education, unhindered by huge class sizes, dilapidated infrastructure, terrible working/learning conditions, inadequate funding, child poverty, high stakes testing, or other broken reform policies. I believe that this is a fundamental human right and true justice.

This is why I am fighting for educational justice now. My education helped me find my voice and understand the importance of standing up for justice and equality for my brothers and sisters. When I look at the current attacks on public education, especially by a group of people I used to trust to improve education, I get this intense emotional reaction that mirrors the kind I would get in high school every time I read about or discussed a social injustice. My insides burn, my heart races, and every inch in my body longs to get up and do something because what is happening to students, teachers, and schools today is not reform; it’s destruction.

I cannot possibly stand by while countless students are literally robbed of true education by neoliberals under the guise of “innovation”, “high expectations”, and “accountability.” I cannot possibly stand by while I hear my students’ stories of feeling unheard and powerless in what should be THEIR fight for THEIR education. I cannot possibly stand by while students continue to be silenced and invisible, their humanity reduced to digits and their futures determined by people who ignorantly implement harmful policies without considering student voice. I cannot possibly stand by while people who don’t want to devote a day of their life to educating a child use their money and power to manipulate and profit from a system they destroyed in the first place (Why is there a billionaire boys club? Oh right, because poverty and economic inequity exist and are silently hurting public education).

I realize that I could not care about any of this, live a very easy life, float through grad school, get my teaching credential, and just be a teacher in a high school somewhere. I’m sure the reformies would love that. But I refuse to do that. And that has as much to do with how I was taught as it does with what I want to teach.

I want to teach the things that made me a more open-minded, empowered, and justice-seeking person. I want to be a high school teacher of social justice and civic engagement.

I believe that true education can and should awaken the mind and heart by fostering critical thinking (mind) and a commitment to social justice (heart). Yes, learning about all the terrible injustice and oppression that has marginalized groups of people throughout history is naturally discouraging, but I feel that there is also such beauty in looking at how the marginalized have historically risen up against their oppressors and fought for the justice and freedom from oppression. When students engage with learning material that relates to them and their cultural histories, they are more empowered to think and learn for themselves and take action. This kind of social justice education brings not only knowledge and enlightenment, but also hope for students. Hope that they too can not only live in a better world someday, but also be the reason for that better, more just and equal world.  

This is what I hope to bring to students. Hope. Light. A true sense of wonder for the world and love for those living in it. Motivation to learn and turn learning into positive action. A sense of empowerment.

But how can I possibly begin to teach social justice in a system with so much injustice?

I fight for educational justice because I believe that I myself have the power to contribute what I can now so that by the time my future students reach my classroom, the education system will be a more just place. I believe that empowered students like myself can and will stand up for what they believe is right and demand educational rights for all. I believe that education is liberation from oppression.

I know I’m going to get a lot of opposition for fighting for what I believe in. Social justice education is equally liberating and threatening to authorities that pray for compliance. But I will not comply under policies and rules that put students at a disadvantage. I will not comply with people who wish divergent perspectives and beliefs be silenced. I will not comply until there is justice.

Instead, I will continue to hope. Hope that I can not only teach in a better education system one day, but also be the reason for that better, more just and equal system. Hope to live my lessons now and one day have my lessons come alive.

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Vergara vs. California – A Letter to the SFER-USC Chapter

So recently, I unofficially announced that I will be writing an open letter to the members of Students for Education Reform, just like Katie Osgood, wrote an open letter to new Teach for America Recruits.

Strangely, I also recently got an email from a SFER California representative, inviting the members of SFER USC to a meet and greet with SFER’s co-founder Alexis Morin. She also sent this “fact sheet” on Vergara vs. California lawsuit for us to learn about before organizing to support it. In summary, the lawsuit was brought forth by 9 students in California and is funded by StudentsMatter, a corporate education reform organization. Basically, if the plaintiffs win, 5 education due process laws will be eliminated:

  1. One teacher tenure law
  2. Three laws regarding the dismissal process of teachers
  3. One law on seniority (Last In, First Out)

First of all, I was completely shocked by the one-sidedness of the fact sheet and how it failed to take into account so many factors at play. Second of all, I’m not currently in Southern California, so I can’t make the meeting unfortunately. I would have loved to discuss my views in person with SFER members and Ms. Morin.

So instead, I wrote a letter to the members of my university’s SFER chapter, detailing my views on the lawsuit. Good head start on the bigger letter I hope to write I guess. I’m posting it here because I think I sum up most of my main arguments and this could reach other SFER members from other CA chapter potentially. Awareness needs to be spread!

Hopefully, I was able to encourage members to find out more for themselves. Many of them joined when I joined, and were sucked in with the same rhetoric that I was.

I encourage you to read what StudentsMatter (the plaintiffs) have to say about the case, before reading my letter to SFER.

The letter:

Hello USC SFER members,

Sorry to interrupt your summers with this, but I seriously could not believe my eyes when I opened that document. Whoa. Seriously, whoa. 

Let me first say that I really admire the people in SFER. I joined SFER because I want to dedicate my life to inspiring and helping students, and I wanted to start now by being active on key issues within education. Education is an issue I have always been passionate about and I understand that all of you probably share that sentiment as well. We all are here with young, bright minds and empowered hearts, eager to make a positive difference for students everywhere. And as college students, we leverage a unique kind of power to make that change. That’s something very exciting.

Now with that said, as college students just starting to delve into the incredibly complex topic of education, I think that it’s so important to look at ALL sides of any issue and question the information presented to us. There’s so many moving parts, intertwining and working together or against each other. It’s dangerous to blindly accept information thrown at us without viewing it first with a critical lens, because that leads to oversimplification of the issue and an oversimplified, “blanket” solution. I hope you will all agree with me that there is no ONE solution to education. We must target education from all sides.

That’s why the fact sheet that was sent out really alarmed me. It was very one-sided and didn’t take into account the bigger picture. I am afraid some members will blindly support without looking into the case carefully and other alternatives.

So in the spirit of open discussion, I’d like to present my thoughts on the issue for anyone who wants to learn more. Of course, go out and research the exciting world of education yourself! There’s a lot out there 🙂 Also if you have questions, concerns, or rebuttals, feel free to contact me!

In a nutshell, I think this case is a waste of time and money that could be directed towards better solutions rather than setbacks. I came to this conclusion after a lot of research. Here’s what I found:

Vergara vs. California aims to make sure every student has the right to a great education, which the plaintiffs (funded by a corporate education reform organization called StudentsMatter) believe means getting rid of due process laws that affect and protect teachers. There are 5 laws targeted: one tenure law, three dismissal laws, and one seniority law. Getting rid of these laws would result in “ineffective” teachers being fired more quickly and no overall protection for teachers. They say that this will then make teaching become a more respected and prestigious profession.

This sounds all fine and dandy, but I’m ultimately arguing that the solution to “reforming” education does not involve eliminating “ineffective” teachers first. Rather, it begins with eliminating high-stakes testing and devoting additional attention to building better communities around schools. I’m going to take a long path to argue this, but I hope the path is clear.

Whenever looking at education, it’s important to look at both in-school factors and out-of-school factors on a student’s education. Let’s start with the out-of-school factors, which are virtually absent in any discussion about “education reform”. Education reformers (I’m talking about the adults who fund SFER, not SFER members) argue that targeting the in-school factor of teacher quality will make the biggest difference in reforming the education system. You can literally look at the websites of any “Education Reform” organization like StudentsMatter, StudentsFirst, or Teach for America (oh the irony) to find this information. They don’t hide it. Their main goal is to ensure that students are taught by a force of highly skilled and effective teachers.

That is a very noble goal. It is one that we should strive for. Teacher quality is important. As an aspiring teacher, and as someone who’s had amazing teachers who believed in me and helped me tremendously, I understand this. I think that good teachers (along with abundant and skilled school counselors) are the most important in-school factor on a child’s performance.

But it isn’t the most important factor overall. Research shows that no matter how effective a teacher is, they won’t be able to completely undo the effects of poverty and socioeconomic inequity on a child. Countless evidence proves this. You can find that evidence herehereherehereherehere, and most of all, HERE. For a shortcut, just take a look at this wonderful article by Pasi Sahlberg, a world leading expert on school reform.

Salhberg is also from England and if you haven’t already heard, Finland basically kicks every country’s ass when it comes to education, and they do it without standardized testing or without tearing apart unions. Instead, they focus their attention on professionalizing the teaching profession and helping teachers improve, along with building up communities, eradicating poverty, and providing students with comprehensive social services outside of school. To sum up the article, if Finland’s highly skilled and experienced teachers taught in the US, student test scores wouldn’t change. 

It’s often said that once we solve the issue of education, most other societal problems will be solved. That’s probably because if we ever want to give students a better education, we need to also simultaneously tackle other societal problems that put pressure on our students.

I’m not saying that poor kids are incapable of learning as much as their wealthier peers. Quite the opposite actually. Poverty is not personal; it’s structural. If we really cared about our students and if we really believed in their abilities, we would invest in them fully. That means building strong communities and healthy environments along with building great schools. Both are required. If you still don’t believe me, at least listen to a fellow reformer that you might all know. Comprehensive social services and community building programs are the secret ingredient to what makes Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem’s Children Zone so successful. And if you check back at some of the links I listed above regarding studies about poverty’s effect on schools, you’ll see that countries with strong education systems focus on economic equality MOST. They understand that building strong schools starts with building stronger communities.

Ignoring poverty as a large factor in education unfairly shifts blame to teachers, and creates a gross oversimplication of the bigger issue. Now is tackling poverty the only solution needed? Of course not. My argument is that we need to properly and effectively tackle both out-of-school and in-school factors simultaneously.

Now let’s look at the in-school factors. The plaintiffs of the Vergara vs. California case argue that teacher quality needs to be looked at carefully. But I’m going to state this plain and simple, how the hell can we look at it carefully without evaluating it accurately?

Laws currently mandate that teacher effectiveness be measured with student test scores. That is a load of bullshit and any student and educator can tell you that. All that has led to is teachers being fired, teachers being forced to teach to the test, and teachers resigning because it is a completely disrespectful demeaning of their profession. If most of us can agree that a test score does not holistically and accurately capture student performance, and if we know that out-of-school factors affect student performance, why the hell would we attach such high stakes to test scores and put very skilled teachers’ jobs at risk? Learning cannot be quantified, standardized. Neither can teaching. Assessment is not a spreadsheet, it’s a conversation.

The first step is to invest in building a more equitable method of teacher evaluation. Something that is much more holistic, well-rounded. Something that encourages growth, gives constructive advice for improvement, and involves both student voice (project portfolios, class evals) and teacher collaboration (peer evals, third-party educator observations). (This email is getting long so you can look at my ideas more in-depth here and here.

Until that happens, I don’t think we can get rid of laws that protect all of our teachers. With the way teachers are being evaluated now, our schools districts will lose some very good teachers because of factors beyond their control. This is harmful to students as well and if we really want to put students first then we NEED to change the structures in which they learn and in which teachers teach. That means ending high stakes testing AND devoting more attention to bravely confronting structural issues of poverty and economic inequity.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “But this court case came about because students were abused their teachers!” I understand that. I am very glad students spoke up and that these “teachers” are being brought to light. Student voice is very important to consider and it’s something I value A LOT. I think it is a very important aspect of holistic teacher evaluation. We should trust our students to make fair judgments about their teachers.

But instead of using these incidents to shed light on the effectiveness of student voice in teacher evaluation, the court case takes it to the extreme in the wrong direction and aims to destroy due process laws for teachers that protect them against things like… oh I don’t know, terribly inaccurate methods of evaluation and attacks from people who’ve never step foot in a classroom.

Yes, I understand that while teachers’ unions do protect good teachers, we all know they protect bad ones too. I’ve had not-so-great teachers before. I get it. But this is why we need fair methods of evaluations first.

Now I’m just going to quote myself because this is a topic that I’ve written extensively on before, and I think these two paragraphs sum up the point well:

There are a few (and only a few) teachers out there who actually ineffective. Teachers who enter the field reluctantly (or with ulterior motives… cough cough Teach for America recruits) and don’t actually want to be teachers, teachers who abuse and commit unmentionable offenses against students, and teachers who engage in illegal activity with students. These teachers are a disgrace to the teaching profession and I don’t think the other dedicated and passionate teachers in a teachers’ union want to associate themselves with such “teachers”.

I think unions right now are more adamant about protecting their teachers because their profession is being completely disrespected by corporate reformers and their jobs are being threatened by very unfair and incomplete methods (if you can even call it a method) of evaluation. Once we revolutionize the system in which these teachers teach, and we actually let them teach and then evaluate them holistically (once again incorporating student voice and teacher collaboration/peer evaluation… I really cannot stress this enough), then unions can work on refusing job protection to teachers who simply are not teachers and are not willing to improve themselves. Together we can foster a force of revitalized, passionate, and committed educators.

One last word: Getting rid of laws that protect all teachers de-professionalizes the teaching profession. Quantifying teaching, which is an art as much as it is a science, disrespectfully demeans the profession. Implementing robust and fair evaluation systems that foster a strong force of highly skilled, professionally trained teachers brings prestige to the profession.

Thank you for reading 🙂 I hope I’ve offered an enlightening alternative to lobbying for this lawsuit and that some of you will consider looking at the other side of education reform. I encourage you to continue your learning journeys through the field of education. Your passion and commitment to American education is something very beautiful and powerful; please do not allow anyone to use your passion and drive for their corporate agenda. Please continue to learn more and become informed activists!

Miledy, as you know I cannot make it to the meeting. I hope my words reach the discussion somehow, or that some members will consider these points of view in their educational policy learning journeys.

Love and solidarity,

Hannah Nguyen

Questions, comments, and concerns are always welcome!

Nikhil Goyal Advocates for an Education Revolution in America

Well said, Mr. Goyal. I’m also very excited to begin your book.

This about sums up my stance on standardized testing, while also giving a great solution that I shoot back at anyone who asks me,

“What’s going to happen when we cut down on standardized tests? How are we going to hold students and teachers accountable?”

Portfolios are a GREAT way to start. It not only gives more meaningful, holistic, and accurate “data” on the growth of a student, but it sends a positive message to students, one that says,

“You are more than a number. You are more than a letter. You are capable of accomplishing so much. Your work is valuable and important.”

Take a look! It’s a short but worthwhile watch.

Further suggested readings by Nikhil Goyal, an 18-year old author, speaker recognized by Forbes 30 under 30:

Where I Stand – Standardized Testing, Civic Education, and the Bottom-Up Approach to Educational Justice

I think it’s important, before I embark on this journey of educating myself, to elaborate on my 3 biggest philosophies on education and educational activism.

—1—

The high emphasis on standardized testing is destroying real education.

Seriously, high stakes testing needs to leave, like, yesterday. I wrote a 10-paged paper on this my sophomore year of high school, and I can still go on and on about it. Simply put, students are more than test scores. There are numerous dimensions to learning and education, and the standards don’t even begin to capture most of them. Test scores simply cannot objectively capture true learning, because education can’t be standardized or forced into a single definition.

These tests, which claim to measure student performance, are destroying our schools, turning them into factories where anything but reading, math, and writing is pushed to the bottom of the priority list. Now don’t get me wrong, math, reading, and writing are important and valuable skills but would you really consider someone educated if all they knew how to do was answer multiple choice questions about those 3 subjects?

  • What about looking at the past and understanding the present?
  • What about understanding society?
  • What about global perspective?
  • What about diversity?
  • What about civic education?
  • What about appreciation for the arts and music?
  • What about exploration and discovery of exciting ideas and topics?
  • What about intellectual freedom?
  • What about critical analysis?
  • What about applying concepts across disciplines?
  • What about problem solving?
  • What about creativity and innovation?
  • What about lively discussion and collaboration?
  • What about experiential learning?

Are any of these questions ever asked? Not on a standardized test, that’s for sure. The machines that grade these tests don’t care about how students came to their answer, if they used critical thinking, or if they can apply their knowledge in practical settings. All it wants is that one right answer. And how many times in life is there only one right answer?

Because of standardized tests, enthusiastic, creative, and dedicated teachers are placed in an impossible paradox where their job is to educate their students, but they have to make sure that their students’ scores are high so that the school can appear “accountable” and they can continue teaching. This leads to teaching to the test, which deprives students of the well-rounded and real education that they deserve. Testing should be used as a tool to support learning, perhaps for diagnostic purposes from some subjects, but unfortunately it has become the core of educational culture (thanks a lot, NCLB and RTTT). It has gotten to the point where learning has been obstructed in classrooms because of the very high emphasis on test scores.

Students deserve better. They deserve an education that fosters creativity, curiosity, critical thinking, an education that civically engages and empowers, an education that says a great big, “YES!” to all those questions above, and most of all, an education that celebrates rather than excludes all kinds of students and styles of learning, whether or not they align with the so-called “standards.”

—2—

Social justice and youth civic engagement are incredibly important components of education.

Students should not only be taught how to become good students, but also good people. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best when he said, “The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

Education should foster open-minded, civically aware, and caring members of society, not create robots that know how to regurgitate facts. Every aspect of a person’s education needs to be paid attention to, and currently civic education is simply not given enough weight. Civic education is not simply just important anymore, it’s absolutely necessary. The issues of inequality and injustice in our world will only continue to remain unresolved if we don’t have socially and politically conscious people who are equipped with the tools to stand up for themselves and the oppressed in their communities. Students need to understand what happened in the past, how that has affected the present, and how they can contribute to a brighter future for all. Civic education not only builds respect, consideration, and character in students, but it also builds their analytical and problem solving skills.

And it’s not hard! The essence of civic education is all about relating to students, engaging students in dialogue, tapping into what makes them sad, angry, happy, human.  It’s a great tool for motivating students to learn because it reawakens what is natural to them: emotion, experience, creativity. It enriches learning by weaving passion, discovery, critical thinking, and compassion in their education, and tells them, “you have the power to make a difference.” Wouldn’t you care more about your education if you could relate to it? If it was engaging? If you believed in yourself and your own potential? If you knew it could help you do things or act on issues you were passionate about?

Once we realize the importance of social justice education for our students, then our students’ education will become more exciting, applicable, and real for them, and they will be able to learn more than they ever did before.

—3—

Stephanie Rivera (a great advocate for student voice) and other students protesting the Chicago school closings.

Any approach that aims to achieve educational justice must take students’ voices into account.

Okay. Pause. For those of you who don’t know Stephanie Rivera, go look at her blog right now. She is an advocate for student voice and educational equity, and one of my newly discovered heroes. She’s absolutely amazing, courageous, full of passion and drive, and definitely a force to be reckoned with. I hope we get to talk soon because that would be a complete honor.
The reason I’m bringing her up as I discuss my 3rd philosophy, is because she wrote this brave and controversial (but hey, what can you expect when you voice a unpopular opinion) post about how she stands against Students for Education Reform (SFER), a group that I was a member of. Was. As in past tense… I left before I found Stephanie’s post, but reading her post now definitely helped me put words to the discomfort I felt with the group. Basically, my experiences with SFER reinforced my passion for elevating student voice and involvement in the education revolution.
During my freshman year of college, I was definitely that starry-eyed aspiring educator, eager to join any movement I could that had to do with education. When I found out that USC had a club called “Students for Education Reform”, I was ecstatic. I was so excited. At the USC EdMonth conference, I went to the workshop led by SFER and got to talk to the president. He was explaining SFER, basically making a case about why I should join. I didn’t think I need to be persuaded, as I was really eager about education reform, but let’s just say… I didn’t expect to be dissuaded.
After explaining that I wanted to be a teacher and that I believed in a bottom-up approach to education “reform” (because “I don’t think you can truly fight for people unless you know them and fight with them”), he basically didn’t treat me seriously. He said that at SFER, they were taking more of a top-down approach, and while the girls at Whittier College focused on “babies” (yes, he referred to students as “babies”), USC SFER was all about “real policy work” and working with adults to make policy changes that will affect the “babies.” He then turned his attention to the political science major at the table, who he probably felt would not be so typical female aspiring teacher obsessed with “babies.”
Still, he wasn’t able to stamp out my eagerness. I came to a meeting, hoping that maybe after some stimulating discussion my faith would be restored, but lo and behold, teachers and teacher unions were bashed and once again I was made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and excluded because I just didn’t agree with the top-down approach. The whole atmosphere of the conversation was all so condescending towards the students, and so counterproductive to the change that needs to happen. So I decided to stand by my opinion and leave the group. I said it once above and I will say it again: Any approach that aims to achieve educational justice must take students’ voices into account.
Stephanie Rivera brings to light a lot of issues about SFER (I will link it here again because I urge you to look at her thoroughly researched and very well-articulated post), but one that I will emphasize here is that there is no room for working with and mobilizing high school and middle school students in the fight for their rights. Their stories are ignored and their voices are silenced. Sure, it will be mentioned that hm, maybe we should talk to the students we are essentially fighting for… but no… they’re too young and busy with a school system that fails them to understand or even care about the complex, “big kid” policies at hand. And this is exactly the attitude that makes students never want to speak up in the first place. 
We cannot simply fight for students from the top down. We cannot ignore their experiences. We cannot claim to fight for education and then simultaneously exclude students in a fight for their rights. We must make the effort to involve students in the process. We must collaborate with them, shed light on their experiences, and help them realize their power in the movement. We need to fight with them.
The students have a story to tell. The injustice in the education system is not something they just read about in news articles; it is their every day reality. These issues affect them directlyAny large social or political change movement in this country started when the oppressed spoke up about what they were upset about. It all starts with a voice, a story, a cry for help. Real change begins when the oppressed realize their power and use it to end their oppression.
Yes, education is a very complicated issue, but then why don’t we simplify it for students? Why don’t we equip them with the knowledge they need to fight for what they believe in? Why don’t we at least change our mindset and start believing in students? Why don’t we give them a chance to care about this issue and to take appropriate action?
Believe in the power of student voice and invest in that power. You may will be surprised.
Thank you for reading! I can’t wait to continue writing about what I care about and sharing my thoughts on such an important issue.
Blessings,
Hannah