Thursday, June 19, 2014

Taking Policy Personally

Lower East Side in the 90s. Source: G.Alessandrini
Schools have changed since Jose Vilson was a kid, and he’s not thrilled about it. More to the point, he argues that that these changes have taken away crucial social supports for Black and Hispanic students. In the opening chapters of This Is Not A Test we get the personal stories behind his concern and their relevance for education reform. All this gives us a chance to consider the relationship between incredibly personal memoir and national policy.

Vilson grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 90s, a place where “no one wanted to live,” where “rats came as naturally as breathing and the phases of the moon.” This was a brutally unforgiving environment for a poor, Black, Hispanic kid to grow up in. You’d hope that school would help out a kid like Jose, but hey you’d hope for a lot of things. Too often, Vilson’s teachers taught him that school was a place where he was not welcome. There was (the super-heroically named) Mr. Missile, who punished young Vilson for the manner of his speech. See also: the English teacher who uttered the words “Well you don’t know anything, so I’ll move on.” See also: the guidance counselor who dismissed his grief, somehow ill-equipped to help a hurt student.

Fortunately, Vilson had help: from his mother, from his public elementary school, from Nativity Mission School, from Father Jack, Father C., Ms. Kittany and Mr. Wingate. Vilson’s schooling was a mixed bag, but he takes care to detail the kindnesses of the teachers and institutions that made him feel respectable and worthy. Ms. Kittany, for instance, dragged Vilson into the choir of his very white high school and did what the best teachers do: she patiently taught him.
During my last Mass before graduation, she just looked at me and signaled to the mic. I don’t remember much besides her crying as the bass took over my voice box…I never had her as one of my core subject teachers, but what she taught me about the power of my voice was one of the most important lessons I took away from my experience at Xavier High School.
These stories – the kindnesses and cruelties – have policy implications for Vilson. He makes the case that accountability and standards reform has reduced access to the kindnesses, offering little protection against systemic cruelty directed at Black and Hispanic children. He further argues that Black and Hispanic teachers are uniquely qualified to offer the sort of humanizing relationships that were so important in Vilson’s own childhood. He calls for the dismantling of the current high-stakes testing regime, a reinjection of the “warm-and-fuzzies” into schooling and the further recruitment of Black and Hispanic men into the teaching profession.

All these arguments hang on memoir. Are there limitations on how far the personal can take us in the realm of policy? In the early pages of Not A Test we see these limitations considered, and ultimately rejected. “I’ve been told that in order for my writing to be universal, it must turn away from things like race or nationality or the conditions of my upbringing,” he writes. “I have found that bringing my experiences into my teaching makes the lessons more profound.”

To be sure, the personal is crucial. And Vilson’s book is complex in its purposes. Fundamentally, this is a memoir, and Vilson is writing to tell stories the likes of which many in education have never heard. But he also wants to make a case about the direction of schooling in general, and here I felt myself wondering about how easily his stories generalized. To be clear, it wasn’t skepticism that I was experiencing. I found myself easily persuaded by Vilson’s stories and arguments. It’s precisely because I was so easily persuaded that I worry.

I’m left with a question: what is the proper relationship between memoir and policy?

Take, for example, Vilson’s case for the importance for increasing the number of Black and Latino male teachers. This is a position that he supports with stories, drawn both from his schooling and from his teaching. “The Black/Latino male students respond more readily to me,” he writes. “The girls in my class are more willing to share their experiences with me, and often look to me as a role model or father figure.”

Can such personal narratives serve as the bedrock of national decisions? Some will argue that they can’t. Who knows what factors are responsible for the special connection Vilson has with his students? Perhaps Vilson has such powerful relationships not because of his ancestry and gender, but because he is a remarkable and unusually empathetic teacher. There’s no way to know without expanding the survey. National decisions need to be considered from a national perspective, and this inevitably involves drifting up and away from the personal and taking in the big picture. Such a reader could glean questions for further study from This Is Not A Test, but never policy answers.

Standing on the other side are the defenders of narrative. These readers worry that the truth gets lost in national studies and large-scale surveys. Would a wider set of data discover that Black male teachers have a special role to play in the education of teens? Who cares! Vilson’s stories show and explain how Black male teachers can help, and if studies fail to capture that truth then all the worse for their rigor. Vilson’s stories show us that when a Black male student sees himself reflected in his teacher, that empowerment can carry the day. How do you propose to conduct a statistically relevant survey measuring empowerment?

These first chapters represent one end of a continuum – the intensely personal and specific – and most policy discussions represent the other. Should we read Vilson as arguing for shifting policy-talk away from abstractions towards the personal? What would such a debate look like? Are there also dangers in leaning heavily on the personal? Finally, what does the space between the abstracted and the personal in policy discussions look like?

I’m looking forward to hearing thoughts, disagreements, challenges and reflections in the comments.

This is the first entry in the Global Math Department's reading group on Jose Vilson's new book. Sharon Vestal will respond to this post with a post of her own, as will the other members of the reading group. We'll collect all the responses and put them on our reading group blog, so keep your eyes peeled for that.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. My response to this post can be found at

  3. My thoughts on Part 1 of Vilson's book are at: