Edushyster: The Education of EduShyster (a Comedy)
Can you believe I’ve been at this for three years???
Resisting Reform: Reclaiming Public Education Through Grassroots Activism. I recount my unlikely journey into the world of edu-blogging and reveal at long last what (or rather who) prompted me to come out as my self…Note: to mark the third anniversary of my blog, I’m sharing a chapter that I wrote for a book called
I can tell you exactly when Edushyster.com came into being. It was the summer of 2012 and I was deep in conversation with my husband. Well, maybe conversation isn’t quite the right word as it implies some sort of a back-and-forth. This was more of a one-way affair—a diatribe to be precise, and I was the one doing the dia-tribing. As he liked to point out, I’d been doing a lot of this lately. Our early morning newspaper reading sessions had become a launching pad for my many strong opinions.
The cause of this particular harangue was yet another column in the Boston Globe giving unquestioning support to a proposed ballot measure that would essentially eliminate tenure for teachers in Massachusetts. Authored by a writer whose beat seemed to consist alternately of teacher bashing and charter school cheerleading, the column was a familiar mélange of talking points: change-obstructing teachers union (check), overpaid teachers with guarantees of life-time employment (check), obligatory reference to the achievement gap (check).
*You know that the Globe writers have strict seniority protections,* I pronounced in the direction of my husband, who wielded a copy of the Boston Herald like a shield. *You have to admit that’s kind of a double standard.* I paused, giving him an opportunity to respond to this obvious outrage. Nothing. *At one point they had a provision in their contract that guaranteed them jobs for life.* Still nothing. *Well, don’t you think that’s outrageous?* I abandoned the Globe in order to better make my case.
*You know what I think?* he said finally, peering at me over the top of his paper. *I think maybe you need another outlet to express your opinions.*
I will spare you the remainder of the exchange as it paints me in a rather unflattering light. But suffice it to say that I knew that my husband was right: I did need some way to express my views about the education reform movement in Massachusetts that seemed to have both teachers and public schools in its sights. It had to be more than just a letter to the editor; I needed room to ramble, to build up a head of steam and to say exactly what was on my mind. I needed a blog.
OUR LITTLE HOUSE IN GLOUCESTER, MA.
An Accidental Activist
If the start of my adventure in education blogging had an accidental quality to it, the fact that I had opinions to share regarding the state of our public schools was something of a surprise too. Back in 2006 I’d taken a job with the American Federation of Teachers in Massachusetts as the part-time editor of the union’s statewide newspaper. My decision to give up the freedom of freelance journalism for an office job, complete with a boss and colleagues, had a simple reason behind it: I needed a regular paycheck. My husband and I had just bought our first house, a purchase that, unbeknownst to us, coincided with the exact moment that the overheated housing market reached its peak. Suddenly we had a monster-sized mortgage to pay, totaling more freelance assignments than I could hope to bring in.
I knew a lot about unions, having written for and about them for many years, but teachers unions were brand new to me. Save for my own years of public schooling—from elementary all the way through two master’s degrees and a PhD from state universities—I knew next to nothing about public education. As I quickly discovered, though, putting out a monthly newspaper for 25,000 teachers on your own is definitely one way to quickly master a complex subject. Within a few months I’d learned all about charter schools—an increasingly hot-button topic in Massachusetts—and even understood the basics of my adopted state’s convoluted school financing formula. My editing job also enabled me to visit schools—lots and lots of them. By the time my 54th and final issue of the AFT MA Advocate went to press, I’d passed through the metal detectors of countless urban schools, from Boston to Springfield, seeking out success stories and the teachers and school leaders who were behind them. In fact, I visited so many schools that I could usually tell the successes from the strugglers by the vibe in the building. (Hint: great leadership and a climate of trust were key.)
Who knew that teachers had so many haters? I certainly didn’t. But by 2010 Massachusetts had come down with a full-blown case of achievement gap fever, and from the Statehouse to the editorial page of the Boston Globe, everyone who was anyone agreed: teachers were the problem, particularly teachers who’d chosen to work with the poorest children. We knew this because the schools attended by these students were *low-performing,* whereas the schools in leafy suburbs and horsey towns were *high-performing.* The enormous income gaps between these communities were rarely acknowledged, especially by the legislators who hailed from the tonier side of the class divide.
This obvious problem cried out for an even more obvious solution: a law that would require teachers to transform their *low-performing* students and schools into *high-performing* students and schools—or else. The legislature passed An Act Relative to the Achievement Gap (it still hurts my fingers to type those words four years later!) by an overwhelming margin, but the reform wars were only just beginning.
The real fun started in 2012 as my tenure at the union was winding down. Stand for Children, which had been active in Massachusetts for more than a decade as an advocate for more equitable school funding, now emerged in a new guise. Flush from a successful effort to weaken teacher protections in Illinois, Stand decided to make Massachusetts its next target. The group’s campaign, called Great Teachers, Great Schools, threatened a ballot question unless lawmakers agreed to make the state’s yet-to-be-implemented teacher evaluation system the sole determinant of teacher layoffs. Within a few weeks, canvassers hired by Stand had gathered some 70,000 signatures from residents who agreed with the statement “every child deserves a great teacher.” Somehow this translated into a densely-worded, fifteen page bill that never actually mentioned children.
Live but Anonymous
Which is how I’d come to find myself on an early summer morning, holding forth about Massachusetts’ teacher wars to a captive audience of one. My *outlet,* EduShyster officially went live on June 12, 2012. The name came from my college-aged nephews and replaced the one I’d thought of—Mass. Ed Watch. The voice, meanwhile, came from two of my heroes: Diane Ravitch and gonzo journalist Matt Taibbi, whose irreverent and often profane reporting about Wall Street had made *blood sucking Vampire squid* synonymous with Goldman Sachs. What the blog didn’t have was my name on it. Knowing that my association with the union would be grounds for discrediting anything I had to say, I decided to blog anonymously.
My first post, which lampooned the head of Massachusetts Stand for Children, practically wrote itself. Called *Is Jason Williams the Best Teacher in the History of the World???,* the piece explored a claim routinely cited in media stories that Williams had been nominated for California middle school teacher of the year during his two-year stint as a Teach for America corps member. But when an enterprising Boston teacher called the California Department of Education, his query was met with laughter; the California Teacher of the Year program is only open to teachers who’ve been in the classroom for at least seven years. I have no idea if anyone actually read my inaugural post (or if Williams himself ever caught wind of it) but just the act of writing had made me feel lighter of heart than I had for months.
During those first days and weeks, I was on a tear. New stories seemed to arrive each day with the delivery of the Boston Globe; my screeds now took the form of acid retorts aimed at the paper’s education coverage. I reserved particular spleen for the
Globe’s handling of anything related to charter schools. As I’d learned during my time at AFT, the state’s education department maintained a vast trove of data that anyone could access. When, for example, theGlobe ran a story extolling the outstanding-ness of a particular charter, inevitably educating exactly the same students being failed by failing public schools, one could determine with a few clicks of the mouse whether this claim was actually true. I quickly honed a style I came to think of as data-driven snark that used humor to make serious points. When a cursory examination of state data revealed that Boston’s top-performing charter schools enrolled few if any English language learners, the result was Psssst: Los Escuelos Charteros Have a Secret. The same schools’ sky-high suspension rates became fodder for These Charter Schools Are #1.
If humor was my weapon of choice, it was also my way of staying sane. Poking fun at the ridiculous claims that were made by reform advocates on an hourly basis made me feel better, and it seemed to make my
readers feel better too—we were laughing through our tears. As I’d learned with an earlier blog, an Onion-style parody site called the Swift Report that mocked the excesses of the Bush administration, humor can be a powerful political tool. Back then I’d used made-up stories to make real points about the state of our political debate. My education writing, by contrast, relied upon a satirical tone but required no parody to speak of. I even had a favorite metaphor that I invoked regularly to convey the sheer ridiculous of reform-speak: the wine box. Why the wine box? Because the quantity of intoxicants that were required to wash down the nonsense I was now consuming on a regular basis far exceeded a standard glass.
But was anyone actually reading what I was writing? My first inkling came via an unlikely place: a meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Education. A former AFT colleague and one of the few people who knew what I was up to called me, breathless, to report that Edushyster had officially registered among what he termed the *educrat* crowd. *They all want to know who you are,* he said. Within a month of starting the blog, I was hearing regularly from teachers, first in Massachusetts, then from further afield. I could chart my progress both by the volume of email I received and from where, and from whom, it was coming. One day I recognized a familiar name in my inbox: Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. She wanted me to know that she was a fan—and, by the way, could I write something about Chicago?
My access to urban schools had taught me that teachers had more information than anyone else about what was happening in their buildings and their school districts, but the climate of fear was such that even tenured teachers were often afraid to speak up. My hope was that, if I pledged to protect their anonymity, teachers would use my blog as a place to share inside information. They didn’t disappoint. With no outlet to resist the top-down test prep mania that was increasingly the rule in urban schools, teachers quickly became and have remained my most important source of information. They also made a point of sharing my writing with one another. When I learned from a young charter school teacher that he and his fellows had been passing around and debating a post of mine about the strict disciplinary practices employed by schools like his, I felt as though I was getting somewhere.
My first big tip came via a young teacher who’d spent a year working at a Boston school that had been taken over by a charter management organization known as Unlocking Potential or UP. A favorite of the Boston Globe, UP Academy was a *miracle school,* managing to achieve miraculous results with the exact same students who’d been posting dismal test scores just the year before. Except that my tipster alleged that UP was wildly inflating the number of students who’d stayed on after the school became a charter—and he had a student roster to back up his claims. Add (or rather subtract) the students who were leaving the school at a rate of 25 percent each year, and the miracle started to look somewhat less miraculous.
With the teacher’s help, I made UP Academy a poster school for the problems that afflicted most of the city’s *high performing* charter schools: sky-high suspension rates, dramatic teacher turnover and student attrition rates that often resulted in
graduating classes in the single digits. I also made a point of passing along any information I received to the education reporter at the Boston Globe. While I initially contacted the reporter anonymously, he soon came to recognize both my *EduShyster* email address and my persistence. I like to think that these efforts eventually paid off in the form of more critical reporting on education by the reporter and the Globe more generally.
Edushyster Goes National
I’d started my blog with an explicitly Massachusetts focus, but tips soon started to come in from across the country, thanks largely to Diane Ravitch, who regularly linked to my stories on her own blog. As a result of this invaluable publicity assist, I heard from teachers in Tennessee, Minneapolis and Michigan, and parents in Douglas County, Colorado, a district I would come to know fondly as the *choiciest* in America, thanks to its determination to replace neighborhood public schools with charters and voucher-funded private schools.
While the details differed from community to community, the stories had a familiar ring. Some reform scheme (or *rephorm* as I referred to it early on) was being peddled, and schools or even whole districts were being hoovered up. An alphabet-soup’s worth of reform groups had suddenly appeared on the scene, all funded by the same choice-loving foundations. Inevitably the local media was in the tank too, turning a blind eye to what were often outrageous conflicts of interest and leaving parents and teachers who questioned the scheme without any outlet at all. Well, they had one outlet. I made my sources a deal: if they provided the research, I’d give their tales what had become my trademark Edushyster treatment. These partnerships proved surprisingly effective. Not only did the local activists feel better, but they also used my stories as an organizing tool. At times, the mere fact that an out-of-town blogger was paying attention was enough to attract the interest of local reporters.
I was astonished by the sheer volume of correspondence I received. Emails came in from across the country, and I spent an
Meanwhile, tips were arriving at all hours of the day. Many of these took the form of questions: did I know anything about [insert name of reform organization or edupreneurial entity] that had recently set up shop in [insert name of community]? I answered the queries the best I could, aided by a growing network of bloggers around the country. Readers also passed along documents that had been hiding in plain view: financial information and paper trails showing the kinds of conflicts of interest and ethical breaches that bloomed like algae wherever the reform vision took root.
My biggest tip arrived soon after Edushyster’s first birthday: an internal TFA document from Chicago purporting to show that, in the wake of massive public school closures, the organization was actively facilitating the growth of privately-run charter schools
in the Windy City. The source and I went back and forth for weeks about how best to document the authenticity of the document, an exchange made comically torturous by the fact that we were both anonymous. In the end I simply wrote to the head of Chicago TFA and asked him. *Thanks for reaching out,* he responded, then acknowledged that the document, which forecast the opening of 50 charters, almost exactly the number of shuttered neighborhood schools, was for real. The story, entitled Is TFA Undermining the Chicago Public Schools? would reach the biggest audience I’d seen so far.
The Limits of Anonymity
Of course life as an edu-blogger did not consist entirely of *likes.* Anonymity, which had seemed so necessary when I’d launched the blog, was beginning to chafe. Not being able to use my own name made even small transactions—filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, for example, or talking to a potential source on the phone—seem impossibly complicated. I was also uncomfortably aware that my anonymous, virtual existence was now considerably more interesting than my real life. I was corresponding with hundreds of readers across the country, a great many of whom now felt like real friends—even if they did insist upon calling me *Ed.* Meanwhile, my off-line companions (and one in particular) were quickly tiring of hearing about my latest Twitter triumph.
My teetering business was a more serious concern. I’d left AFT to start a consulting company to help unions and nonprofit organization with the same sort of internal communications work that I’d done for the teachers union. In retrospect, launching the business and the blog simultaneously was not the wisest move. For one thing, as I spent more and more time on blog-related activities that paid nothing, my paying clients were growing restive. I’d also taken several education-related projects with me as clients when I left AFT, but sensed that it was only a matter of time before my rising profile required me to give these up. When I met with a state official whom my online persona had insulted, albeit whimsically, just days before, I knew that my days of anonymity were numbered.
In the end, it was a prominent education reform advocate who *encouraged* me to take off my mask. Joe Williams, the head of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a group that I’d gone after repeatedly on my blog, wrote his own blog post about me.
I wrote to Williams in hopes of buying myself a little time, if nothing else. I told him that like him I was a journalist and that I blogged anonymously out of concern for my livelihood. I even dropped the names of some other education reformers whom I’d befriended on Twitter. His response addressed me by name and said that DFER had known who I was all along. A week later I came out as myself, an experience that was both terrifying and exhilarating. My unmasking post was more serious than most of the writing I’d been doing. I acknowledged, among other things, that I could no longer justify my own anonymity when all around me were bloggers, teachers and parents who were bravely speaking out. And I confessed to feeling constrained by my own persona. I’d started Edushyster in part to counter the media narrative regarding our failed and failing public schools, and yet somehow I never seemed to get around to showcasing success stories.
I was amazed at how different it felt to write under my own name. In the months prior to my coming out, I often felt as though I was on the verge of running out of things to say. Now that Edushyster and I were one and the same, I could move onto the big picture topics, like income inequality and urban gentrification, that had fascinated me for so long. There were a fair number of posts that ended up in the trash—especially stories that targeted individuals—because they felt inappropriately personal, and I knew now that I would never have written them under my own name. I also felt that there were a few topics that I’d simply written enough about. I’d made my point, for example, about the students served by charter schools vs. district schools in Massachusetts. And when a link to a story about a couple of cartoonishly well-connected TFA newlyweds appeared in my inbox, I took a pass. I’d been there and done that.
I finally did get around to writing a good news story for my blog, about a school in Lowell, MA that I’d visited many times while working for AFT and whose turnaround was completely at odds with the remedies being pushed on struggling schools by reform advocates. Called ¡Turn it Around!, the piece laid out all of the ingredients responsible for the school’s success, including a superintendent who believed deeply in collaboration and in giving teachers the support and the freedom they needed to take risks in their teaching. While I was proud of the story, though, I could already sense that my writing life was about to become more challenging. For one thing it was much harder to be funny and positive than it was to mock the latest edupreneurial *solution* to come down the pike. There was another problem too. As I quickly discovered, the same readers who were so devoted to my exposes of *the civil right$ i$$ue of our time* didn’t necessarily want to read about school success stories.
Mostly, though, the world suddenly felt larger to me. My unmasking meant that I could finally accept some of the speaking engagements that had begun to come my way (not an easy thing to pull off when one is anonymous). I visited Douglas County, Colorado on the eve of a heated school board election, Chicago, New Orleans, New York and New Jersey, meeting the parents, teachers and other local activists with whom I’d been corresponding all of these months. While the settings differed, the gatherings felt reassuringly familiar. We were the resistance, and hearing from people that my writing was helping them push back against a damaging reform agenda in their communities was one of the most rewarding experiences I’d ever had. Each trip produced new friends and co-conspirators who took me into their schools and neighborhoods and welcomed me into their lives. Whenever possible, I then shared their stories on my blog: the New Orleans charter school teacherwho fled her *no excuses* school and its militaristic approach to discipline; the New Orleans parent who wrote about what the city’s experiment with charter schools and choice actually means; the Camden teacher who was eager to tell the world about the link between education reform and gentrification in his city.
Then there were the activists with whom I’d already struck up what felt to me like real online friendships. There was Darcie Cimarusti, a New Jersey parent-turned-activist as a result of a local charter school battle, who discovered her inner Nancy Drew along the way. And former Washington DC principal Adelle Cothorn, who’d blown the whistle on a cheating scandal in the district then led by Michelle Rhee, and lost the job she loved as a result. Teacher and statistician Mercedes Schneider, meanwhile, was blogging up a storm from the northern banks of Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain, and quickly becoming a serious thorn in the side of Education Reform, Inc. When the four of us met up in person for the first time at the very first Network for Public Education conference in Austin, TX in the spring of 2014 it felt as though we’d known each other for years. Coming from such completely different backgrounds, we would likely never have come together had it not been for the wars over public education, yet here we were—a middle-aged girl gang, bound by a shared knowledge of all things reform-related and a passion for fighting back.
Across the Divide
I also began to meet more people on the other side of the reform divide. My debut event was the EdReformies, a benefit for the Center for Education Reform complete with a house band called the Reformers, an attraction I found irresistible. I arrived at the ballroom of the Washington DC Hilton in a state of mild terror (What was I doing here? Where was the bar?) The first person I met
turned out to be a young advocate for school choice whom I’d once poked fun at on my blog. To my surprise, he pronounced himself thrilled that I’d written about him, and said that he’d even shared the post with his parents. But it was the story he told me about his own political trajectory that proved to be the biggest surprise. When he described how he’d taken on a powerful education bureaucracy in his hometown, he sounded just like so many of the teachers I knew, who were often forced to go to unbelievable lengths in order to get their students the help they needed. And yet we’d arrived at completely different analyses of both the problem and the solution.
My first up-close look at the education reform movement left me eager to see more. In the following months I would attend the national summit of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Educational Excellence and the National Charter Schools Conference, writing about them for my blog as well as other publications and talking to as many people as were willing to talk to me. I also sought out reform advocates in my travels, which allowed me to meet people with whom I’d often had fierce disagreements online. These experiences were as eye opening as they were disconcerting. When sitting down with education reformers I challenged myself to try to find some small bit of common ground between us, and was surprised again and again at how easy this proved to be. Another unexpected lesson: how many of these people I actually liked when we were sitting across a table from one another as opposed to staking out familiar ground from behind our respective Twitter handles. Much like my activist friends with whom I had a sense of immediate and powerful friendship, I felt an odd bond with many of the reformers. We were on opposite sides of an intense battle and yet we shared an understanding of what it felt like to be consumed by a cause.
These conversations also helped me better understand the fissures and tensions within the education reform movement. My view of the movement as a solid, well-funded monolith was rapidly evolving thanks largely to the willingness of reform advocates to
talk to me about their concerns. Prominent charter advocates confessed to being worried about the corruption scandals plaguing charter schools. The heads of reform organizations expressed concerns about the whiteness of their movement or that theirs was an outsider-led and funded cause, imposing its goals upon communities of color that had no say in the future of their schools. Ironically, the same insight I was gaining was also making my writing more difficult. In my first days of blogging, I was convinced that every reform advocate was *in it for the money.* I painted with a broad brush and wrote with a kind of gleeful rage because that’s how the world looked to me. These days I look back upon some of those stories with something akin to envy. Who was that woman? And where is she now?
In this era of accountability, I’d be remiss if I didn’t attempt to measure my impact in some way. Alas, I have to skip right over the most obvious choice: page visits—I decided early on that I would pay absolutely no attention to the number of visitors my
website received. Nor could I tell you what my Klout score is. As for Facebook *likes,* they provide a rough estimate of whether I’ve produced a hit or a dud, except that much of what I write is, frankly, unlikeable. And yet I’m convinced that my blog has influenced the debate about public education, especially in Massachusetts. Edushyster was cited twice last year by the Boston Globe, including by the very columnist who inspired the blog’s creation. By far my proudest moment, though, was a front page exposé of questionable labor practices by a Boston charter school that was prompted by a guest post on my blog. The Globe’s coverage of the education reform movement more generally has also grown increasingly skeptical and now regularly mentions the funding sources of advocacy organizations.
When legislators in Massachusetts voted against a measure that would have raised the cap on the number of charter schools here, outside observers were stunned, as Boston’s charter schools in particular are regarded as the cream of the high-performing crop by charter advocates. But I knew from my interactions with parent activists, teachers and legislators themselves that the conversation around charter schools had grown more complicated—and that my blog was at least part of the reason why. When I wrote a piece in the spring showing that Boston’s top charter high schools were managing to graduate just a handful of boys each year, the post made its way to the Senate Education Committee, something I couldn’t have imagined when I first started writing.
Edushyster’s biggest impact, though, has been on me. In order to play an expert on the Internet, I’ve had to become one. The blog has made me sharper, quicker and more confident in my opinions. Because I play a character who is braver than I am, I’ve had to become braver too.
There are other less positive metrics to mention, of course. While I don’t actually consume wine by the box, I will concede that the education reform beat isn’t exactly conducive to clean living. The newspaper reading sessions that are a staple of our
household never did recover from my love of expressing strong opinions in the morning. In fact, one of us who is not me recently imposed a strict ban on what he likes to call *edu-talk* prior to 8:00 AM. As for that teetering livelihood? In the battle of non-paying blog vs. struggling small business, the blog has won hands down—and my bank account has been the loser.
I tweeted recently that while I keep thinking of blogging as my job, the bartender seemed surprised when I tried to pay him in *likes.* But the truth is that I’ve come to think of my blog—and the strange combination of journalism, humor and performance art that has emerged around it—as my life. This year I’m planning my most ambitious travel adventures so far: lengthy, and hopefully crowd-funded trips to Chicago, to look at the intersections of education reform and gentrification, and New Orleans, for a close-up look at a reform experiment that is increasingly touted as a model for other cities around the country. I also plan to embrace the editing role that I grew to love so much while working for AFT. At last count, Edushyster has racked up more 300 posts, thanks in no small part to my growing roster of guest writers. I also want to use the platform I’ve acquired to highlight the voices of grassroots activists and journalists who are digging deep into the muck and murk of education reform.
In June of 2014, Edushyster turned two years old, an occasion I marked by interviewing myself. I reflected on some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way: that if you establish yourself as an obnoxious online presence,you go over surprisingly well when
people meet you in person. And that if you use a combination of facts and whimsy and make the same points again and again, every once in a while people actually pay attention. I wrapped up my mock interview by asking myself just how long I’m planning on keeping this thing going. My answer: *Till I run out of things to say or go broke—which ever happens first.* As my husband can attest, at least the first condition is unlikely to happen any time soon.
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