Book Review: This is Not a Test by José Vilson

My family is privileged, especially in terms of education. We live in Chicago, home to the much-maligned Chicago Public School system. She has caring teachers who push her to be her best, encourage her when she is still learning a skill and remember us by name (at least first, some still fail to remember my daughter & I don’t share a last name). Outside of the weight of her backpack, we have little to complain about. For her.

Yet we understand that where we are privileged, we know it is not an even distribution across the city.

When I was pregnant and even throughout the first years of Ella’s life, we would field the question, “So you’re going to move to the suburbs right?” No. As a kid who grew up in the suburbs, I dreamt of moving to “the big city” of Chicago when I was old enough. And I did. I love Chicago and the fact that despite the economic segregation we live under, we still manage to have a diverse group of people in our lives. My husband and I are also committed to public education. For me it is an easy commitment. I went to a good elementary school that funneled us into a college prep public high school. Throughout my 13 years in public school, I found mostly supportive teachers who went out of their way to get to know me, push me, and support my dreams. My husband was not as lucky as I was, but we agreed that Ella would go to public school. We would fully invest in the system. We simply lucked out that Ella scored well enough on her entrance exam, at the age of 4, to earn a spot in the selective enrollment arm of CPS.

Teachers have always been my champions and that is why I requested a copy of “This is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education” by José Vilson for review. I have followed José’s banter on Twitter for some years now. He has said things that I have agreed with and other things that challenged how I view our education system. The same thing happened as I read his edu-memoir.

Clearly something is wrong with our collective public education system. Rather, as Vilson points out, the way we manage our public education system is deeply flawed. Like an onion, there are many layers to “the problem.” Where Vilson shines is, obviously by the subtitle of the book, peeling back the layers to the race and class challenges our public school system faces.

Far too many people still believe that the biggest problem with inner city students of color is that they are headed by a single mother and/or parents are not engaged. Vilson deftly points out that by seeing these as challenges, we are imposing middle-class values on working class or poor families. And the problem with this is that we then ignore the values the students and families bring to the classroom. “When we assume poor kids behave as they do just because of their poverty and not as a manifestation of their frustration with poverty, we do an injustice to their humanity (p 86).” Ever been grouchy when you have to skip breakfast? Imagine if you had little to eat for dinner and then breakfast? No wonder some of our kids are hellions by the time they get to their desks.

Now don't take that analysis as an excuse, because Vilson does not. He wants every child to excel in school and do their best. But he challenges us to look beyond the acting out to dive into the why a child acts out. Our current policies are set up in a manner that punishes and attempts to put the child "back in line" versus getting to know them and why they are acting out. Vilson shows us that sometimes acting out truly is a cry for help.

And this is where Vilson struggles. He knows so many of the kids that come into his life, especially those who are “bad kids” just need more attention, love and support, but he can’t save them all. There is a touching chapter where he discusses the 10% who will always fall through the cracks despite his attempt to catch them all.

Vilson's grasp of the racism that is inherent in our public school policy may blow your mind - especially his discussion of microaggressions. Microaggressions are those tiny everyday things that happen that are racist or classist, but because they are so small, some people will ignore them, shrug them off, or be told "it's just a joke!" They happen not just our every day encounters with people, but also then written into laws and policies. CPS has a policy that parents must pick up report cards twice a year. The hours for this are about 12 pm - 6 pm. One would think that parents can plan well ahead to be there, but one neglects the fact that some parents work in jobs where they may not be in control of their schedule or know it until the week before. Our daughter attends school 45 minutes away from home, what if we relied on public transportation to get us there and back? I am sure the policy is in place to "ensure that parents are engaged" with their children's education and to see their teachers twice a year. But I know parents, mostly parents of color, who are racing around the city during those 6 hours because there is no guarantee that all of your kids are in one school. Some schools hold back up to one full classroom to accommodate sibling requests.

But "This is Not a Test" is not just a book about our broken public school policy, but also a tale of his journey from a young person who allowed doubt to stand in the way of his innovative thinking to a veteran teacher who will not be silenced. Vilson's self-discovery should be inspiration to any of us who struggle to meet our expectations. Social media is flooded with "no excuses" memes as inspiration to run a marathon or finally start that small business, Vilson's tale explains how challenges are real and our struggle to overcome them are not excuses, but our reality.

If you have ever doubted the commitment of teachers or taken as evidence of the many, a story of a teacher who can't do simple math, but because of the unions cannot be fired, this book is for you. A simple tale of one man who gets up every day to teach our youth, but also fight for a system that does not test them to boredom, values them as humans, respects their heritage instead of stripping it from the history books, and above all wants every child to not just race to the top, but grasp their dreams and be happy.

As Vilson points out time and again, teachers are not simply complaining, they are not complaining that they have to do something new, rather most teachers complain when they feel their voices are not valued in a national debate over education. They are the ones with education degrees and we continue to ignore them. What other career do you here that as a solution to a problem? Instead of shutting teachers out, we should be listening to them as they implement innovative education policy. They are the ones implementing and witnessing how well it is or is not going. Why not listen to them?

And that is the question you will want answered when you are done with this book. So grab your favorite micro brew and dive in.

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Disclaimer: I requested a copy of the book from the publisher.