Sabrina Joy Stevens

teacher-turned-writer, advocate & occasional troublemaker.

Let's connect



Previous Next

We ARE society.

Two parallel observations made me feel like this was an important reminder to start the week with:

  1. The number of people I routinely hear say things like, “Well, society has always had problems with [x huge thing, usually racism, sexism or some other ugly form of oppression]” or “[blah blah blah problem] is the result of Huge Societal Forces”
  2. A deep discussion last week around issues of race and other -isms within the grassroots education movement*, that resulted in some people getting really freaked out by the suggestion that they personally have work to do to overcome (their own) racism, etc.

"Society" isn’t some distant, invisible phenomenon like the weather, over which we exercise little to no control. Society is just us: the sum total of our decisions, influenced by the past decisions of past groups of people.

So it shouldn’t be at all surprising if, for example, society has “a long way to go” to solve issues of race, that you or I as individuals have a lot of work to do on ourselves. We are society; therefore, it is our thoughts, actions and decisions that must be reckoned with.

Similarly, we shouldn’t be shocked if, living in a society plagued by violence of so many kinds, that we as individuals may need to think differently about how we speak and relate to one another. If you’re one of many parents chanting “CRUSH ‘EM!!” at a youth sporting event, will that help or hurt the players’ chances of resolving disputes amicably on the field? If you demand that your daughters and sons give Uncle Jim a hug and kiss even when they really don’t want to, will that make it easier or harder for them to respect boundaries and seek consent as they start exploring their sexuality?

If our planet is in peril, it shouldn’t surprise us that we as individuals (especially if we are Americans) have a lot more responsibility-taking to do in order to fix that. Big Oil couldn’t make all that money and sell all that toxic sh*t if we weren’t out there buying it. We are the society choosing to be complicit in the destructive choices they have made. And we can choose differently.

Yep, a lot of these everyday choices seem really small. But honestly, that is all society is: Lots of people making choices, with small ones adding up to big realities. We will continue to experience a destructive status quo if we continue make those choices the same way previous groups of people made those choices.

That’s what should offer us a glimmer of hope: in choosing to do those small things differently, we can actually make really HUGE changes. It just requires us to educate ourselves and be more mindful about how we conduct our lives.

And yeah, that can be scary— few people want to be That Person who “makes a big deal out of nothing.” But if everyone was That Person, a lot of our issues would cease to be, because it’s usually not nothing they’re making a big deal of, at least not where issues like race, gender, class, etc. are concerned. It’s usually one of those decision points that offers a glimpse of a better path forward.

Some people, apparently, find the suggestion that they have work to do offensive or threatening. But I find it incredibly exciting. After all, if Society was this untouchable, immutable force, then we’d be totally doomed. But if WE are society, then that puts a lot more things under our direct control. How cool is that?

In some ways, it’s really this simple.

We got this.

*Check out some great thoughts on the matter by Rachel Levy and Jose Vilson.

Some folks think innovation in education revolves around flashy gadgets and the latest technology.

I like those things. (I also like sandwiches, as you can unfortunately see around minute 5:36…)

But I think the bigger innovations in education revolve around tying what we know about how people learn, to new understandings about identity, power and privilege, in order to create learning environments in which each learner can do their most powerful thinking.

Watch the video to see what I and other #EduCon attendees had to say about what innovation in education really looks like!

Why I chose to #ResistTFA

Back when I was a junior in college, I was invited to an information session about Teach For America. Though I was still a history major at the time, I had discovered a serious passion for public education after observing in classrooms as part of several sociology of education and education policy courses, as well as during my experiences tutoring and mentoring students.

It was those experiences, the recruiter told me, that could make me an especially attractive candidate for TFA if I applied in the coming year. I was told that additional experience working with students could give me an edge over other applicants.

I thought about it a bit. I really enjoyed working with students, and I learned that I was actually kinda good at designing lessons that engaged students. It seemed like a pretty good deal: if I got accepted, I could become a classroom teacher more quickly and cheaply than I otherwise could.

But thinking about it a little further, I realized it really didn’t make sense. I knew I wanted to work with students in low-income communities, students who I knew needed more from their teachers than what I could offer with only my current level of knowledge plus five more weeks of training. I decided to pass on the information session, and over the next few weeks, I switched majors so that my degree would match my course load and my true passion: education.

A few years later, I was a classroom teacher trying to stave off burnout a mere year and change after starting to work in a low-scoring, low-income school. Despite having the benefit of an in-depth pre-service teaching program and over a year of practical teaching experiences prior to accepting the position, I felt completely unprepared to deal with the dizzying, stressful and occasionally bizarre working conditions I faced on a daily basis. That school was the first place where I had ever seen adults cry in public, and the first place I ever did so myself. And it was the first time that, after a lifetime of being rewarded for being knowledgeable and creative, that I found myself being punished for it instead.

As I’ve written before, I often found myself at odds with my school’s leadership because I wasn’t ok with being asked to shelve what I knew about my students, or about teaching and learning more generally, in favor of scripted programs and seemingly interminable testing and test preparation. Fighting that battle every day came at the cost of my physical and mental health, and eventually led to professional retaliation.

I’ve been speaking out against the political forces that enabled that abusive situation to exist ever since. I realized that unless we end the policies that stress teachers to their limits and the problems that contribute to high teacher turnover— including inadequate support for new teachers, unsustainable working conditions as a result of large class sizes, poor school and district leadership, and attacks on due process that leave teachers vulnerable to the kind of retaliation I experienced— teaching will become a short-term job, even for those of us who want to spend our careers in the classroom.

I’ve also come to believe that resisting these bad policies and practices requires resisting organizations like Teach For America. TFA serves a key role in the deprofessionalization of teaching, which is itself a key part of the broader movement to undermine and privatize public education. Our neediest students and schools have long suffered with high teacher turnover, yet TFA actually helps to institutionalize the instability we should be working to eliminate.

Further, TFA harms public education by taking well-intentioned, well-schooled individuals and deploying them into schools and prominent leadership positions, often before they know enough about their craft to recognize that the script they’ve been led to follow will hurt needy students instead of helping them. Despite what may be good intentions, TFA’s leaders deceive the public in a number of ways, most egregiously when they lower standards for entry into the teaching profession by fighting to reclassify teachers-in-training as “highly qualified,” and when they claim precious public funds in addition to private donations— little of which benefits students or corps members— by presenting themselves as a charity instead of a political organization.

If our schools are to be sites of social mobility and possibility, rather than places that further entrench social inequality, then the schools serving our neediest students must be staffed by people are ready, on Day One, to help them become powerful problem-solvers, not docile test-takers. For this and future generations, the stakes are simply too high to do otherwise.

Part 2 of the segment can be viewed here.

Last night I had the privilege to talk about the latest PISA results on All In with Chris Hayes, along with AFT President Randi Weingarten and school privatization advocate Derrell Bradford. Though we had a really great, lively discussion, I do wish we’d had a chance to discuss two more facets of this story in greater depth:

1. The way this news was released reflects some deeply disturbing truths about the state of education policy making in this country. As scholars like Richard Rothstein and Martin Carnoy have pointed out, rather than letting independent researchers examine the report first and then offer reasoned guidance to educators and the rest of the public, the federal Dept. of Ed decided to give privileged access to groups they felt they could trust not to challenge their agenda.

Now, if there really are lessons to be learned and applied from this exercise, we would need to first sort out what the information means, and which comparisons even make sense. (Most of the ones frequently being made, like comparing Shanghai to entire countries, don’t.)

But in choosing not to do that, our top policymakers have demonstrated that they don’t see this as a learning opportunity. They see this as a PR opportunity.This is yet another troubling example of the way our public officials have committed themselves to one narrow agenda no matter what, instead of thoughtfully considering the best available evidence and crafting policy in the best interests of our children and communities.
2. The focus on international rankings shows how far we’ve strayed from our values. Why should we worry about how we stack up against other countries before figuring out what we, as Americans, actually want from our schools? We are supposed to be a nation committed to freedom and justice for all, yet we tolerate scandalous levels of inequality and oppression. I can think of dozens of things we should be doing differently in schools in order to make that a reality. Why encourage the public to pay attention to international rankings rather than consider these bigger issues? So we can someday brag that our 15-year-olds are the best test takers in the world? Really?

Who’s “coddled”?

…The drag about watching figure skating, though, is you gotta listen to Dick Button announce it. For you guys who don’t watch figure skating, I’ll catch you up real quick: Dick Button won a gold medal in figure skating in 1884, ok? And he’s hyper-condescending and he’s mean! It’s like, these people’s families are watching. And when they suck, I think we know they just skidded into a wall and they’re bleeding. I don’t think there’s any reason to keep going on about it.

Oh, he’s relentless. ‘Well, it’s obvious these two have no grace, athletic talent and/or ability and shouldn’t even be in the rink.” (scoffs) Swear to God, you know what, Dick? I would like to see your fat, bald ass out there doin’ a triple lutz. ‘Cause when you won the gold medal, what was required to win gold? You had to be able to, like, skate backwards and wave.”

THIS. THIS is how I feel every time some public official or writer or whoever starts bleating about how “kids these days are so coddled” and blah blah blah. From everyone whining about the “trouble” with us couch-dwelling Millennials (how many tens of thousands of dollars of debt were you forced to incur for your education, again? Oh, and thanks for the peachy economy, too.) to the people beating up on “kids these days” and their mollycoddling parents and teachers, I’m so over this trope.

Ed reform chatterers know the latest example I’m thinking of: New York Times food critic Frank Bruni’s column defending Arne Duncan’s recent insult aimed at people who disagree with him over national standards. Joining the list of prominent people failing to question whether Duncan’s criticisms were even accurate (they weren’t), Bruni agreed with Duncan’s central assumption: kids are being too coddled, and their parents are fighting those who want to give them a reality check.

But in addition to this weird assumption that we have to make kids suffer in order to prepare them for life, I have two major issues with his piece.

One: his examples are drawn pretty exclusively from affluent communities. He focuses on the upper-class party-goers whose parents supposedly try to shield them from every disappointment (yet who, despite this alleged coddling, are still outperforming the rest of the world on the international measures everyone claims to care so much about! What will it take to get them acknowledge this?!).

In reality, most public school students are children living through one of the harshest, most unequal socioeconomic environments since the Gilded Age. Collectively, “kids these days” are among the first generations who are not expected to have even the same quality of life as their parents, let alone a better one. Those words don’t even begin to capture what daily life is like for too many of these children. Seriously, to those complaining that “kids these days” have it so easy: How many of you, as children, legitimately feared that you might get shot to death while walking home from the corner store?

Two: He, and everyone else repeating this tired “coddled kids” line, sound a lot like Dick Button (in Kathleen Madigan’s rendering, anyway). Kids these days have been so coddled? Really?

Reality check: unlike today’s students, most of these people were not required to be functionally literate—by today’s standards, mind you— by the end of third grade, otherwise known as the ripe old age of eight. (Neither, for that matter, are more recent generations of Finnish students, whose overall performance still tops the world even though they don’t start formal schooling until age seven.) They weren’t expected to begin developing algebraic thinking in elementary school, like my students had to. Who are they to judge these kids or the adults supporting them, and so harshly at that?

To be clear: children can absolutely be challenged and pushed to excel, and they’re doing that every day. That’s why, despite the hardships many face, each generation of American students has outperformed the last, though we as adults still have much to do to ensure that all students have equal opportunities to succeed. (We also need to create opportunities for them to show what they can do on less biased, more meaningful measures.)

But challenging students doesn’t require “raising standards” if what’s meant by that is “making students do the same thing as previous generations, but at younger ages.” It requires aligning what we know about learning with what we do in school, and aligning what we do in school with what’s necessary to be a thoughtful, contributing member of a democratic society. That’s what many skeptics of current education policy really want: the opportunity to help shape a better vision for education, not to coddle children.

Although their intentions don’t always match the outcome, what is too often maligned as “coddling” is actually well-meaning adults attempting to teach compassion, and to show compassion and respect for youth, many of whom are shouldering heavier burdens at younger ages than many of their elders ever had to. Instead of criticizing each other for that, we should be finding ways to help each other improve, so we can do our best for the children who depend on us.

And let’s be real: if anyone is being regularly “coddled,” I’d say it’s policymakers who can’t be bothered to do the tough work of actually learning about learning and observing classrooms before judging students, teachers and schools. It’s opinion leaders like Bruni, who are allowed to get away with relying on simplistic measures like rankings and test scores, and a handful of anecdotes here and there, to make sweeping generalizations about an entire generation of children and their caregivers. And it’s Secretary Duncan, who gets a pass every time he misrepresents data and insults the public.

Students who did this kind of sloppy work would risk bad grades, being held back or not graduating. Yet these adults get public recognition and handsome salaries.

Who gets to raise standards for them?

Quick update!

Hey, friends :) Happy Friday!

So I was minding my own business earlier today, when I discovered that some right wing hacks published a random attack on me and my friends for trying to get our favorite local bar to stop opposing a fair pay initiative here in DC. (I guess wanting everyone to be paid fairly makes us a total drag. “Scolds,” even. Whatevs.)

In the piece, I was personally identified as a “big labor employee” which, while always a fairly silly thing to say, is also no longer true. And that made me realize that, aside from a few close friends and colleagues, I haven’t been keeping folks up to date on where I am and what I’m up to. My bad!

Anyway, I recently left the American Federation of Teachers for a leadership role in a new ed advocacy project! Though I learned a lot during my time at AFT, and will always love my sisters and brothers in the labor movement, I’m very much looking forward to this next phase in my life as an advocate.

I’ll have more specific things to say once we launch in a few weeks (!). For right now, though, I’ll just say this: I’m incredibly excited, especially since I’ll have more time to do what I do best: write, speak and cause righteous, creative hell for the people threatening the two issues I care most about: public education and democracy.

I look forward to sharing more with you in the not-so-distant future!

Arne Duncan isn’t just mean. He’s wrong.

People of all colors and parental statuses are right to be offended by Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s recent comments about “white suburban moms”. But beyond the sexist and racial (note that I didn’t say racist) implications of what he said, there’s another important point to be made that isn’t getting nearly enough airtime: Duncan’s words weren’t just offensive, they were wrong.

To recap: last Friday during a meeting of state superintendents, Duncan claimed that some of the resistance to the Common Core Standards was coming from “white suburban moms” discovering that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t as good as they thought they were.” His proposal to quell that resistance was to mansplain remind those moms that their children are now “competing globally and need higher standards.”

Yet the very international comparisons he says illustrate the need for Common Core, actually show that American students in our low-poverty schools—namely, many of the children of those “suburban moms”—are already performing at or near the top of the rankings on international exams*. Texas superintendent John Kuhn tweeted as much, as did Rutgers professor Dr. Bruce Baker, and reporter Stephanie Simon mentioned it in passing in her POLITICO story on the controversy.

But so far, neither Duncan nor anyone else giving him cover has had anything to say in response to that, likely because people have been so focused on their (justified) offense over the language he chose that he hasn’t been required to do much more than apologize for being mean.

That worries me, as does the impulse to simply point out that Duncan and his ilk have been treating public school families of color, and folks in low-income communities like this forever, without using this as a moment to build solidarity and understanding between these two communities.

Beneath the clumsiness of Duncan’s remark lies a much bigger problem: certain officials’ well-established practice of using standardized tests not as a diagnostic tool to improve teaching and learning, but as a political tool to justify a predetermined policy decision.

As Rick Hess pointed out almost a year ago, many (though not all) Common Core supporters are hoping that as suburban parents see scores plummet on these new tests, the shock will be enough to scare them into supporting the rest of those advocates’ education policy agenda.

Think about that. Rather than listening to what parents want for their children, or considering what the evidence says kids do or don’t need, they’ve decided that they want to pursue a certain course no matter what. And rather than ask themselves whether the backlash they’ve encountered is an indication that they should rethink their position, they have decided to artificially raise the bar for proficiency and hope the score drop changes people’s minds. (That this will require people to doubt the evidence of their own eyes, as well as other tests and indicators they’ve been told to believe in for years, doesn’t seem to trouble them at all.)

Though slightly different in style, substantively this isn’t very different from what corporate ed policy advocates have been doing to communities of color all along: using flawed tests, inappropriately, to justify destructive policy changes they have already decided to pursue no matter what, including school closures, state and/or private takeovers, mass firings and so forth.

Most outside observers, in the suburbs and elsewhere, have unwittingly been complicit in that destruction because they assumed that low test scores were revealing something true and meaningful about these students, their teachers and their schools. After all, they know their communities have good schools, and they tend to have good test scores, so it seemed reasonable to assume that if the scores rang true for them, they were true for others.

In reality, tests scores have never exclusively reflected a child’s knowledge or skills. They reflect what a given set of test-makers and a given set of public officials decide should count as having knowledge and skills. They can’t possibly capture all of the different ways different people display their skills and knowledge, and that’s to say nothing of the many ways in which test-makers unintentionally create test items that reflect cultural and other forms of bias (hence the tight correlation with family background and income). Likewise, public officials can and do raise and lower passing scores as needed to satisfy different goals, including political ones.

The difference now is that, while the old tests used to align fairly closely with what middle- and upper-class students and schools do, the new tests subject these students and schools to a kind of mismatch similar to what low-income students and schools have always dealt with.

This should be an important “aha!” moment for parents who used to take these test scores at face value, and who never before questioned officials’ claims for why certain policies are needed. If Duncan and his allies can use flawed tests to make unfair claims about your child and your school, they can do that to other children and other schools, too. And they have been, for years.

As the initial furor over Duncan’s language dies down, I hope people continue to talk about this bigger issue. Instead of saying, “Meh, he’s been dissing brown urban moms for years,” I hope more of us start reaching out across communities and making common cause. It’s clear that the current powers-that-be are not interested in letting the rest of us participate in an honest, meaningful conversation about the direction of our public school system. It’s also clear that this won’t change until folks of all colors and classes come together and demand otherwise.

*As should be obvious, I personally do not believe that test scores are the best measure of student, teacher or school success. But I do think that if someone is going to make a claim, it should at least be internally consistent.

Would there ever be a Trayvon’s Law?

Back when I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, I remember picking up a women’s magazine and reading one of the token “substance stories”— about health care horror stories—included amongst the articles and ads about fashion and cosmetics. In one of the stories, a Black woman described an outrageous experience of going to the hospital with a serious medical problem, yet being left to wait, unexamined and untreated, for hours. Later, when asked to explain why that happened, a hospital employee involved in the receiving process said something along the lines of, “Well, I just assumed that she was some welfare person who didn’t have insurance,” and so he just left her.

By then, I had some understanding that things had historically been unfair to people who looked like me. But until that moment, I hadn’t really understood what my parents meant when they said that, even in the present day, the world was different for me because I was Black. Until then, it hadn’t fully occurred to me that other people’s snap judgments about me, based solely on my appearance, could literally have life or death consequences for me. Their perception of what kind of person I was, of whether they thought I looked “worthy” (as opposed to “some welfare person”…) could affect their decision to help me if I seriously needed it, like that woman did.

Though I couldn’t have articulated it at the moment, I remember learning a devastating lesson about what this country thinks “worthy” people look like—the White models in the articles and the ads in the rest of the magazine.

And I remember all of a sudden being far more concerned than I ever had been about what kind of message my looks sent to the world. Before I had any real sense of style, before I had any interest in dating, despite never caring where I fell in the school social hierarchy, I now had a very specific interest in how I looked, and it revolved around my own sense of safety. I wanted to make sure that strangers could understand as quickly as possible that, if something happened to me, I was a good kid—the sort of person who was worth caring about.

And I remember knowing that I couldn’t rely on my skin to send that message.

After that, it was hard not to notice how different shades of victims were treated and valued. I remember feeling uncomfortable every summer in particular, when I had more time to watch the news. There always seemed to be a young White female crime victim, and the whole media would be consumed with worry about her. The “news” networks, papers and magazines would transform into a kind of mass media AMBER Alert, as everyone waited with bated breath for her to be returned, or her body found, or her assailants brought to justice.

Yet I would hear about Black and Brown boys and girls being hurt and killed all the time, and aside from informal memorials within their communities—teddy bears and candles surrounding their photos at the crime scene, or the occasional mural—there was almost no public acknowledgment of those kids at all. Though I didn’t even know how to voice such fears out loud, I often wondered, “If something terrible happened to me, would anyone but my family care? Would anything be done about it?”

As someone who was raised right, I know that all people have value, regardless of any facet of their appearance or class status or anything else. And especially now, as a grown woman who understands and appreciates her own inherent value, I understand that I am worthy no matter what I look like, and that my looks are not responsible for other people’s behavior.

Yet it’s nevertheless a fact of my life that the way I look will have an impact on how I’m treated. I’ve seen the difference in how people address me based on the choices I make about my hair, or based on whether or not I’ve chosen to wear make up, or what I decide to wear—to say nothing about how I am perceived based solely on my skin tone itself, or how radically differently I would be perceived if I’d been born a Black boy instead of a Black girl. And unlike people who appear White, I know that if someone decides to treat me unfairly, even to the grave point of endangering or ending my life, they are far less likely to be held accountable for that. That’s a lesson our society teaches dark-skinned youth from a very early age.

Looking back, I realize that wasn’t just the way the media decided who qualified as a sympathetic victim versus who is considered expendable that sent a message about the color of human worth in our society. It was—and is—the differing expectation for what was supposed to happen next after the crime was committed. The vile rape and murder of seven-year-old Megan Kanka led to the passage of “Megan’s Laws” around the country, to help prevent such grisly crimes from happening again. When nine-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted and murdered, the subsequent outpouring of concern led to the creation of the AMBER Alert system that helps law enforcement track down kidnapped children.

By contrast, after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, it took a major outcry just to get the Sanford Police Department to even examine why and how a kid who’s just walking home with candy and iced tea ends up dead. Never mind a new law to stop such situations from happening again—Trayvon’s family and the broader civil rights community had to wage a massive campaign just to activate the existing legal system on his behalf. And even then, the subsequent media coverage and criminal trial focused as much if not more attention on Trayvon’s perceived guilt, rather than on the well-established guilt of the man who unjustifiably stalked and then killed him.

I believe all people, especially children, deserve to live free of the kind of harassment and fear that turned what should have been an ordinary walk home into a fatal conflict. We should never accept it as normal or natural that some children should just have to live with a deflated sense of worth and a heightened sense of fear, just because of where or what color they were born.

So here’s a question: would our society ever seriously consider passing a Trayvon’s Law, that would clarify when deadly force is and isn’t justifiable as self-defense, and require all would-be licensed gun owners to take a course on how to recognize the difference between “standing your ground” and instigating a needlessly deadly conflict? How about a Hadiya’s Law, that would address how easily criminals can obtain guns, which they then use to terrorize urban communities? Or an Amadou’s Law, that would require law enforcement officials to learn about the inaccurate snap judgments that disproportionately lead to the shooting and killing unarmed men of color, and require them demonstrate their ability to quickly distinguish between a real versus an imaginary threat?

I hope someday to be proven wrong, but I’m not sure America would ever pass laws like these. And that, once again, sends a clear message about who matters and who doesn’t in our society.

On love, democracy and public schools — Me at TEDxNYED, April 2013.

A few quick thoughts:

1. Though I was already sensitive to this, my first TED experience made me all the more sympathetic to students who have a tough time right before a high-stakes test or event. A couple of days before I gave this talk, my apartment was burglarized and I moved to a new place in a hurry. Though I’m mostly pleased with how it all came together, there are a few moments a less-tired me would have really nailed. I was really looking forward to this event, and it was optional. I can’t imagine having to take a high-stakes, involuntary test under these (or even more traumatic) circumstances.

2. I’m really looking forward to digging into some of these themes more deeply over the coming weeks. 15 minutes flies when you’re talking about things you love!


  • ~Minute 3:00: “Somebody” isn’t coming to save us and fix everything that worries us about schools or society. (But there are plenty of people waiting to prey on us when we cede responsibility for our common fate…)
  • ~Minute 5:50/6:00: Calls to reform schools often have more to do with adult anxieties than kids’ true needs.
  • ~Minute 14:50: Play provides important practice as children develop democratic habits of mind.

Main takeaways, applicable well beyond the ed policy debate:

  • Disempowerment is a cooperative act.
  • Empowerment is an act of love.
  • There is more to love than to hate or fear.
  • In troubled times, acts of love and joy are the most powerful form of protest.
Back to Top


Previous Next
Back to Top


Previous Next
Load More Photos
Back to Top

Vanity by Pixel Union