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Noguera: The Origins of My Views on Education

Dear Deborah,

As I join you in blogging on Bridging Differences, allow me to step back and tell readers a little bit about myself to get things started.

I have been in the field of education for almost 30 years. I have been a public school teacher in Providence, R.I., and Oakland, Calif.; an elected school board member in Berkeley, Calif. (1990-1994); a professor and researcher at the University of California, Berkeley; Harvard; and now, New York University. I am also the parent of four children who have attended public schools in Berkeley, Cambridge, and New York City. (I now have a fifth child, but she's still too young to go to school.)

In each of these roles, I've learned new and important lessons about the way education in American society works. I've also learned that the position you occupy often influences how you see the issues.

As a teacher, I learned how hard it was to be effective and to make a difference for kids who came to me unprepared, with basic needs unmet, attending schools that were essentially "designed to fail." I phrase it this way because many of the schools where I have taught were places where disorder, dysfunction, and disrespect characterized our day-to-day existence, and the loftier purposes of education—preparing students for college, careers, to participate in democracy, were far removed from what we were doing. Even in these schools I learned that there were great teachers who are indeed making a difference; teachers who work hard and give their all not because they have to, but because they genuinely desire to make things better, and they do so through demanding but loving relationships they establish with students. I learned that once my classroom door was shut, I, too, had the freedom to be one of those teachers, if I could muster the creativity and willpower to not allow my circumstances to undermine me.

As an elected school board member, I learned first and foremost that I had no desire to be in politics because I had no interest in saying things I thought people wanted to hear or in spending my life raising money for the next campaign. I also learned how difficult it was to do the right thing when under tremendous fiscal constraints. During the four years of my term on the Berkeley school board, California was in the midst of yet another fiscal crisis (California has been in a state of fiscal crisis ever since the adoption of Proposition 13 in 1976), and we were being asked to make impossibly tough choices: cut classroom aides or the music program, lay off teachers or eliminate another guidance counselor. I had no idea when I was convinced to run for the board that I would be spending most of my time managing what I came to regard as the "dismal and totally inadequate status quo." I had been under the illusion that I would be able to use my position to fight for the rights of the children who were poorly served and push for changes that were needed to make schools more just and equitable. It took only a few months for me to realize that making a difference from the school board would be much harder than I had imagined.

As a professor and researcher, I have had greater freedom and I have enjoyed being able to use the security offered to me by my tenured position in the Ivory Tower to remain involved in education in different ways. I have used research to study social phenomena that perplex policymakers (the so-called achievement gap), frighten educators (school violence), and polarize the public (choice). I have also been an advocate for vulnerable children—immigrants (documented and undocumented), those with special needs, black and Latino males, the poor, the underachieving, and the troubled.

Knowing that most educators are too vulnerable to speak out against the unjust and ill-conceived reform policies that have been pursued over the last decade I have used my research, my writing, and my voice to take on mayors, chancellors, governors, and even presidents when I have regarded the policies they have espoused as injurious to children and public education. Having written off the possibility and desire to pursue a career in politics, I have been free to piss off the powerful, even though my aspirations have generally been far more ambitious than that.

Finally, as a parent, I have struggled with my commitment to public education. I have struggled because my children have not always been well served, even though I have always been able to get them into "good" schools. I have struggled with indifference and unresponsiveness from teachers and administrators, and I have used the challenges confronting my own children as a starting point for speaking out for the rights of other children who were not well served. I have also been grateful for the thoughtful and caring teachers my children have had along the way, and I have used their experiences to provide me with new insights into how schools work. Of all the roles I have occupied in education over the years, being a parent has by far been the most challenging and humbling. Despite how much I know about education, I have had no way of guaranteeing that my children would be successful, that they would be motivated and intellectually curious, and that they would receive an education that would leave them better prepared for life.

I have taken time and space to share my background in my first entry to Bridging Differences for two reasons: 1) I am replacing Diane Ravitch, an individual who has had enormous influence in challenging the current politics of reform and whose voice has rightfully garnered more attention (and anger from her opponents) than any other individual I know. While I don't always agree with her, I have enormous respect for the stands she has taken in recent years. I know that I have large shoes to fill and I think Ed Week readers who don't know me deserve to know something about who I am, and from where I draw the perspectives I will share. 2) The roles I have occupied in the field of education have profoundly shaped my outlook and led me to adopt positions that are often less partisan or ideological than those typically espoused on either side of the highly contentious debates that characterize education today. For example, although I am an avid supporter and defender of public education, I do not condemn those who choose to send their children to private or charter schools. I know that all parents want the best for their children, and that many are not willing to place their children in schools they believe they are entitled to. I also know that those personal choices pose a threat to public education because increasingly, those with resources and privilege are opting out of public education (at least in our cities), and as they do, they leave the system more segregated and bereft of those who have the wherewithal to insist upon quality.

I welcome the opportunity to use Bridging Differences to engage you, Deborah, my friend and colleague, whose work I have admired for years. More often than not, you and I have found ourselves on the same side of the major debates, but that doesn't mean that we see things in the same ways. Our life experience and the sheer complexity of the issues themselves leave lots of room for healthy debate and disagreement. I don't shy away from controversy, and neither do you, Deborah. Neither of us likes to argue for the sake of winning points, but we write, we speak, and we take part in collective action because we realize that at the heart of the struggle for the future of American education is a struggle for the kind of society we will have in the future.

Last week I published an article in The Nation about education and the presidential campaign. I also made some remarks about the Chicago teachers' strike that Diane Ravitch took issue with.

Specifically, it appears that the following quote irritated her: "The teachers have been bold in their denunciation of the high-stakes testing that has been used to rank students, schools and now teachers. But they have been less clear about what should be done to promote change and improvement. The union has raised the critical issue of student poverty by calling for more social workers and school-based clinics, but it has not acknowledged that more learning time and a clear and fair basis for judging teacher effectiveness are issues that must be addressed."

Perhaps, Deborah, you might like to start our dialogue with a response to my article.

Best,
Pedro

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