Education Opinion

Here Comes Nobody

By Nancy Flanagan — May 28, 2010 3 min read
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In Clay Shirkey’s terrific book, Here Comes Everybody, he leads off --like a good teacher--with a fascinating story about a young woman named Ivanna who leaves her cell phone in a taxi. This ordinary event turns into a virtual showdown; getting her phone back quickly involves a network of thousands of people, as message-sharers, amateur detectives and commenters, and eventually, the criminal justice system. The information in Ivanna’s phone was very important to her, and the loyal friends who wanted her to retrieve it were not only tech-savvy, but exasperated with laissez-faire morality around “finders keepers.” Social media fireworks ensued.

Shirkey uses the story as a parable about the democratization of information, influence and action. Subtitle of the book: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.

With the US Department of Education’s media campaign to drum up support for their proposed changes to ESEA--the “Blueprint”-- Teachers’ Letters to Obama has widened the discourse beyond the usual suspects. Organizing without organizations.

Education policy is traditionally subject to considerable critique: the unions weigh in, grant-funded non-profits have a say, the mainstream media editorializes. Higher education watches carefully--Is there research to support this idea? Is there a grant in it for us? Add bloggers to the mix, and it becomes very difficult, even for a federal institution, to control the message. Now new social networking tools have also opened the door to allow the very people who will be compelled to enact policy changes--free-range teachers-- to spout off in public.

Whether you consider that brave new 21st century representative journalism, or just more low-information blather squeezing the policy window, depends on where you stand--but the Obama Education Department ought to understand the power of virtual communities to organize and achieve political goals. It’s how they put their boss in office.

In the past, teachers were considered adequately represented when someone from their labor union was at the table. Critical issues around teachers’ work were determined locally, or perhaps at the state level. Federal policy stopped being remote in the past decade, however, and is now claiming a growing swath of control over daily classroom decisions. Teachers are increasingly disenfranchised, considered interchangeable targets of reform. The likely impact of a teacher earnestly writing a letter to her Senator: Here Comes Nobody.

In the era of Moveon.org, might we hope the re-authorization of ESEA could play out like what happened to Ivanna, the ordinary woman who lost her phone? Might teachers be able to prevent some colossal mistakes by quickly building ad hoc communication networks to advocate for a handful of critical changes? Might they be driven, like Ivanna’s friends, by strong moral purpose on behalf of the students they teach? Could a mere Facebook group (insert inside-the-Beltway sneer), have viable ideas, grounded in experience, to offer professional policy creators? You decide. Then Tweet your thoughts to 100 teachers you know. See what happens.

Yesterday, I worked with a group of Detroit Public Schools teachers on a teacher-instigated, after-school project--the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ Take One! professional development initiative. It was 94 degrees in the library and you had to tie the window shades to metal bookends to make them stay down. The LCD projector was bolted to the ceiling--turning it on involved standing on a shaky library table with a broomstick. There hadn’t been a librarian for years, so books were piled randomly on shelves.

But the teachers were amazing. They all showed up, as well as several teacher aides, and worked hard for two hours in a sweltering room. They had great ideas about teaching and learning. They were absolutely committed to the kids. They’re hoping to show the CEO that their staff deserves to stay together, even though the building is closing. They’ll be working together through the next school year, no matter where they’re sent, using electronic tools to stay connected. I suggested we start a Facebook group. Oooo, Facebook, they said. We could do that.

The teacher who contacted me to lead the project told them I was part of a group invited to chat with Arne Duncan on Monday. They all knew who Arne Duncan was: the man who called Detroit Public Schools “Katrina without the hurricane.” A couple of them had written Secretary Duncan letters themselves, in anger and shame, over that incident.

It was humbling. Who speaks for those teachers in the national conversation about fixing struggling schools? If their organizations aren’t doing the job, can they network to organize their own voices? Power to the teachers, right on.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.