Conor’s writing is so interesting to read because his reflections exist at the intersection of education journalism, research, and social commentary. He is a senior researcher at the New America Foundation, but he’s also a regular columnist for Talking Points Memo. He writes policy papers about early education and gets riled up about police brutality on Twitter.
But how did Conor get here? I asked him about his trajectory to this point, his experience with trolls, opting out, and more. Read our conversation below.
Most teachers leave the classroom carrying “ghosts.” I definitely took some with me. I was a relatively strong teacher as far as my students' academic progress was concerned, but there were a few kids whom I didn't reach the way I'd hoped. And I felt terrible about that. Scratch that. I still feel terrible about it. I think about my failures as a teacher on a regular basis.
Which is to say that I tried to put education away, only to find that teaching was my favorite part of my PhD program at Georgetown, that education was my favorite topic as a columnist, and so forth. So I decided to stop fighting it and write about education full-time. Also: I'm increasingly sure that I'd like to return to the classroom someday.
You consistently write about some of the more sticky education and social issues, and you don't mince words. You told me earlier that your "default is polemic." Why?
Because polemics attract abuse and I get a dollar from various corporations for every piece of hate mail I get. Ad hominem Twitter attacks are worth 50 cents. And college for my two kids looks to be pretty expensive someday. So I write every column with my hard hat on.
But seriously, I don't have a single, unifying reason. I have a few thoughts, though. I guess I'm a polemicist because—like most people—I think about educational equity through a personal lens. I attended generally average or below-average public schools for most of my life. I spent enormous amounts of time across those 13 years just sitting around, doing nothing. For every great teacher I had, there were three or four benignly ineffective ones—and one or two who were truly awful.
One elementary school teacher in particular has stayed with me. Not only was he a terrible instructor, but he was physically abusive. He put his hands on students—aggressively with special needs children and occasionally inappropriately with some of the girls in the class. I complained about him to my parents every night, and they spent the year badgering the school and district administration. Nothing happened. At the end of the year, my parents insisted that the school at least put a letter in his personnel file about their concerns. He stayed on for a while, received occasional local teaching awards, and eventually received a transfer to the middle school. His style and behavior never changed. But it didn't matter.
Awful as “educators” like him were, the handful of great teachers I had are the ones that inspire me to write about education. They showed me that school didn't have to be deadening. And when I taught in Brooklyn, I realized how lucky I'd been to have even a few strong teachers. What I saw there made my own educational war stories seem petty. I saw so many classrooms that were as bad or worse than the worst I'd experienced as a student.
So when I write about opportunity, I'm thinking about this stuff. I'm thinking about the difference between the schools I attended and the highly-privileged ones in the wealthy community next door. I'm thinking about the kids in Brooklyn stuck in schools scraping the nadir of American education. So I'm not inclined to write gently, especially when it’s about the privileged seeking ways to shore up their advantages.
Also, I'm a pretty earnest guy from the Midwest. I think that this makes me a bit politically naïve. I don't have a good sense of how to navigate injustice in a cautious way. I’m impatient with political niceties. So when I write about educational equity, I usually go straight at it. And when I'm writing about other thorny issues—the recent controversies about Teach For America, for instance—I get unduly ticked off by some of the ideologically-driven misrepresentation that goes on.
Finally, and importantly, I have a son in public school. My daughter will join him in a few years. I’m not a casual, dilettantish observer of education policy.
The topics you write about open you up to a fair amount of trolling - where people attack you as a person or your perceived motives rather than the content of your writing. This interaction is particularly troll-like. What's the story behind your most memorable comment? How have your reactions to comments evolved since you first started writing?
You know, I have come to cherish my trolls. These folks appear to believe that I am some sort of rich elite backstopped by tremendously wealthy plutocrats who have a secret scheme to subvert American public education and use the ill-gotten gains to build a diamond fortress in the Alps. So I sort of appreciate the prestige and influence they assign me. The reality, of course, is relatively drab and undramatic: I’m a guy who shares an office at work, struggles to save for his kids’ college tuitions and a down payment on a house, and bikes or jogs to work to save on public transit costs. I do most of my shopping at Costco. My wife and I are still paying off undergraduate loans.
I don’t know if I have a single most memorable comment. This one, sent to me, but aimed at Campbell Brown, is probably the most scathing I’ve ever seen. Ironically, it was in response to a piece I wrote for TPM about how opponents of education reform often resort to ad hominem attacks.
How do I respond to this stuff? As a general principle, my willingness to engage increases as my interlocutors’ anonymity decreases. So I don’t read comments sections. I engage on Twitter, but have recently started muting people who are particularly abusive. Finally, I respond to most of the constructive emails that I receive. I usually ignore the ad hominem ones.
At the end of the day, I’m a grown adult. I recognize that trolling comes from a place of weakness, not strength. People who are winning an argument on the merits don’t bother with this stuff. So if it makes trolls feel better to take potshots at me instead of my argument, that’s fine. I’m not losing any sleep over that sort of rearguard nonsense.
Tell me about your current research. You said you’re going to focus more on dual language learners. Who are dual language learners? Why are they so important?
Dual language learners (DLLs) are students who begin learning English even as they are still learning a non-English language that they speak at home. In less technical terms, they're English language learners who are approximately eight years old or younger, though that line is blurry.
Why do they matter? I was just writing about this for TPM. Obviously, they matter because they are kids, and all kids ought to get a reasonable chance at learning and developing to their maximum capacities. And DLLs’ linguistic assets, needs, and development are different from those of monolingual English speakers, so we should design schools to support them and their bilingualism.
But that's a tough political sell, since there are many other things demanding educators’ attention. So I also remind people that around one-third of Head Start students are dual language learners. One-third! That’s a sign that the number and the percentage of these students in American schools are both growing. The American student body is going to look very different in coming years, and everyone in education needs to be thinking about how they’re going to change their practice.
There’s a demographic and economic angle also. Why are there more DLLs now than before? Simple: native-born Americans aren't having very many kids—especially relative to immigrants. And insofar as there is population growth from native-born American families, it’s mostly from Hispanic families, many of whom speak Spanish at home.
We need to educate these kids as well as possible, not only because it's the right thing to do, not only because it's what public education is for, but also because we need them to be productive members of our workforce someday. If today’s adults want to be able to retire and count on various public programs for seniors, we'll need a robust tax base in the future, and that partly depends on educating this growing group of students as well as possible.
On top of everything you do professionally, you're married and have two young kids. Was "opting out” ever an option for you?
Yes! I was the primary caretaker for my kids for almost two and a half years (and a full-time caretaker for two) while writing my dissertation at night. I loved it. I regret leaving them on a daily basis. But—and this is painful to talk about, so I'll just be blunt—it is really expensive to have children in D.C., and my graduate degrees meant that I had higher earning potential than my wife. So I went to work and she got to be with the kids. We couldn’t afford to have me stay at home.
Don't get me wrong: I like my work. But even peak professional fulfillment is a pale, pale imitation of parental fulfillment. And because I used to spend 40 to 50 hours a week as a dad, I know what I'm missing. Breakfast, bedtime, and weekend parenting isn't the same.
If you couldn't work in education any longer, what would you do?
I'd hang out with my kids, obviously.
But if I had to do something else to earn money, I suppose I'd find another way to write for a living. It's sort of a compulsion. I can't not write. So perhaps I'd try to get paid to write mazy, esoteric pieces about sports? Or about politics? I like the idea of reviewing books for a living—seems like a sneaky way to get paid to read.
Ashley Mitchel is an analyst with Bellwether Education Partners, and her Q&As with local education leaders are a regular Recess feature. Reach her via email or Twitter.