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Book Review of "This is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education"

Wednesday, April 29, 2015  
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By Jose Luis Vilson
Reviewed by Sarah Stewart

Benjamin Franklin advised the wise soul to, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” Jose Luis Vilson does both as evidenced in his latest book, This is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education.

Vilson is a well-known education blogger, speaker, and math teacher in New York City. His book tells the story of his life growing up poor, pursuing an education, and eventually becoming a teacher. Vilson shares his struggles to make sense of race, class, and education policy as he tries to help his students overcome their circumstances to have a better life.

Vilson was born to a Haitian father and Dominican mother in Miami in the late 1970s. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to the lower east side of New York City. Vilson’s early life was perilous, but he soon found a beacon of hope in a small Catholic school for underprivileged youth, Nativity Mission School. The school’s head teacher, Father Jack Podsiadlo, became a father figure, encouraging his development. He introduced his students to a world of possibilities they didn’t know existed. Every summer, he chauffeured them out of the city to a camp near Lake Placid. There he told them they could be anything they wanted and showed them the iconic movie Stand and Deliver, which tells the story of Jaime Escalante, the acclaimed math teacher in East Los Angeles who got his high school students to learn calculus.

Due to his good grades, Vilson was able to attend Xavier High School, a prestigious Jesuit college preparatory school for young men. He compares his entry into the school to the popular 1990s television show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, in which an inner city boy goes to live with his wealthy uncle. Similar to the main character, Vilson found himself in a completely new culture, surrounded by more white people and affluence than he’d ever encountered. He also discovered the divide between class and race in American society. 

After high school, Vilson pursued a computer science degree at Syracuse University. He also began to explore his background and examine racial, political, and cultural trends in society. He joined the Latino Undergraduates Creating History in America, the Student African American Society, the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Asian Students of America. 

Years later, Vilson drew on all these experiences as he encountered his first class of seventh grade students. The work was hardly easy, but he was driven by the desire to make a difference in their lives. “I was born to do this…I wanted to be a change agent, and decided the best way I could do that would be teaching the primary make-or-break subject in K-12 – math (pg.111).”

Still, there were struggles. Vilson was frustrated with the lack of respect and input he had as a teacher. He shares stories of clashing with administrators and feeling that the system was against students and teachers alike. He needed a place to vent and started blogging. In 2006, at the prompting of fellow bloggers, he launched

Vilson quickly found himself in a groundswell of teacher-activists finding a voice on social media. He became part of the growing dialogue about education reform and high stakes testing. Many saw reform movements, whether it was No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, as top-down approaches devoid of teacher input, inevitably corrupt and disconnected from the classroom.

Vilson also became a regular at events focused on the future of schools and education reform. In 2011, he joined reformers such as Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol (author of Savage Inequalities), Pedro Noguera (New York University professor), and Linda Darling-Hammond (Standford University education professor) at the Save Our Schools March in Washington D.C. A year later, he was invited to give his first TED Talk.

At TEDxNYED in 2012 he discussed the topic of teacher voice (Listen to the full TED talk here). He asked, "How can we as teachers and educators in general use our voices to elevate the profession (pg.169)?" Vilson understood the power of voice. He had been forced to develop his own through his struggles. “I want to see the teaching profession transform to not only become less frustrating and more attuned to our ever-changing student body, but to rely on teachers in the classroom to make decisions (pg.170)." 

Vilson devotes a number of chapters throughout the book to race and class. He discusses students who had been killed by gangs and others who were bullied for identifying as homosexuals or bisexuals. He knew students who slept through his class because they were locked out of their home the night before. He offers many poetic and vivid examples about the disconnect and inability of administrators, politicians, and businessmen miles away to know what his students need to succeed.

“The most important reason to listen to teachers is that we see our students more than anyone else. We are their most powerful agents; we know what is in their best interests in ways that those outside the classroom do not. Anyone who claims to represent us should either come from our ranks or keep their fingers on the pulse of what teachers think and experience in schools every day (pg.176).”  

This Is Not a Test is a powerful read with many insightful points about what students need, what society needs, and what teachers need. Vilson is unsatisfied with complaining about the status quo, but interested in courageously pursing solutions. In the complex and ever-changing landscape of American society and education, he offers an important perspective and a passion for the role of teachers in shaping young lives.

He sums up the power of teachers in this passage: "I remember my teachers’ ability to make me feel like everything I had to say was important; my thoughts mattered in and out of the classroom to them. It didn’t matter if my voice broke through puberty, if I stuttered through a speech or if I just needed to speak as a distraction from my home situation. For someone who didn’t understand yet the power of voice, it meant a lot (pg.214)."

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