How They Silence Us: An ABC Primer – UPDATED!

**Curiously, if you shared this blog on Facebook last night, the link no longer works. Instead you get this message:


(And yes I know I need to plug my phone in.)

Just a coincidence?  Or is this E for Erasing or maybe G for Gaslighting (i.e. messing with my head…)?  At any rate, I’ve updated the post with a new letter, and hope that if you were so inclined to share last night, that you will share again today!  


As the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act begins to take effect nationwide, the proverbial you-know-what is beginning to hit the fan.

Parents and teachers are discovering that all the talk about “returning decision making to states” was a bunch of hooey,  and that even though their state may have ditched Common Core, or replaced PARCC or SBAC with another brand-name test, profit-driven education reforms are moving forward at lightning speed.

Consultants, electronic devices, personalized learning plans, and standards-based grading software are closing in on districts everywhere, leaving many parents and teachers up in arms and eager to speak up.

Unfortunately, they are ready with an arsenal of tricks to keep us quiet.

Here are a few ways they may try to silence you as you try to take a stand, and a few ideas to help break through the barriers

1. A is for Asking for “Input”

Sure, there are some who actually want to hear what you have to say – but they are rarely those in the driver’s seat.

In order to keep you from quibbling too much with their plans, reformers (consultants, politicians, etc), will often elicit your “feedback” or “input” on their plans (which are already set in stone).

For teachers, this often means being asked to write things down on chart paper or sticky notes during meetings.


For parents, this may mean spaghetti dinners or emails from the state commissioner asking you to fill out a survey.


The idea is for them to take this information back to the boardroom and decide how best to communicate to you the plans they’ve already drawn up.

My advice: Bypass the sticky notes and surveys and contact power players directly.  Get a big group together to attend the board meeting and speak up together. Video tape it with your phone and post it online.  Repeat.

2. B is for Blaming

Don’t like the new learning management system?  Concerned about the new grading policy?  Frustrated by the new curriculum?

This is because you haven’t been implementing these things properly.

My advice: Ask to visit a district where all of the new reforms are being “fully” implemented with fidelity. Keep asking until they have to admit that there is nowhere, actually, that is successfully implementing all of the reforms they want to see.

3. C is For Calling Names

Have you been called stupid, mean, crazy, nasty, immature, foolish, etc… all because you’ve done some research on what’s happening to public schools and are worried about what is happening to your district?

Have you researched education reform for hours upon hours, and then, when you finally got the nerve to share what you’ve learned with others, got called a “conspiracy theorist”?



Yeah, me too.

My advice: Shrug it off, hug your kids or your pets, and think of it as a win.  People call names when they can’t think of a way to refute what you are telling them, so you’ve either struck a nerve or proven your point.  Well done.

4. D is for Deception

I’ll never forget the day our state commissioner sent me a letter – supposedly written by several “teachers of the year” – endorsing our state proficiency based diploma law.

“You are in the minority speaking against this,” he told me.

But when I looked more carefully at the letter, there in the top right corner was the logo of “Educate Maine” – the very organization that had lobbied (with Nellie Mae money!) for the law in the first place!

It turns out that Educate Maine had strategically taken over the State Teacher of the Year program, and used the program for their political goals.


The fact is, most of the reforms they are shoving down our throats have very little support or honest-to-goodness research to back them up, so they need to trick us into thinking people like their ideas.

My advice: Fact check everything you’re told.  If someone tells you a program is “research-based,” find out who did that research and how it was paid for.  If they tell you teachers are raving about a new program, find out who those teachers are and if (as in my case) there’s something more going on behind the curtain.  There usually is.



5. S is for Shaming

How dare you try to tear apart our community!  How dare you question what is meant only for the good of the children!  How dare you question distinguished politicians or intellectuals! That’s not just wrong – it’sstupid and selfish.

Who do you think you are, anyway?

In my mind, there isn’t a lower blow someone can commit than trying to make another feel ashamed of themselves for speaking their mind.

My advice: Keep speaking your mind.  We need more people who do.

Clearly, this is only the tip of iceberg.  Please comment with other letters as you think of them.

And remember: the revolution won’t be televised.





Author: Emily Talmage

My name is Emily Talmage and I teach fourth grade at Montello Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine. In addition to teaching in Lewiston, I have also taught special education and general education in New York City, including one year at a “high-performing” charter school in Brooklyn. I also have two master’s degrees; one in Urban Education from Mercy College, and another in Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. I have also worked as a research analyst and assistant at the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia and Oldham Innovative Research in Portland.

4 thoughts on “How They Silence Us: An ABC Primer – UPDATED!”

  1. Thanks for this painfully accurate description. I remember figuring out that “wanting your input” didn’t mean a thing. Here, it’s sad b/c I think they believe they’re “listening.” THey’re just dismissing everything they hear.


  2. Very good. We’ve encountered all of the above. We’re not a parent group but an advocacy group about math education consisting of university math professors (professional mathematicians) who share many of the same concerns as parents. They routinely use all of the above. Sometimes more shrilly even, because we’re “dangerous” because of our expertise.

    So we get put on “consultation” groups that pretend to take input from “experts”. But they carefully balance these to ensure that we are a minority voice. More ministry people than mathematicians, for one. But then there is “equal representation” from the teacher’s union. And also the math education professors (the folks driving this fuzzy math agenda). And also the “teachers” (I scare-quote because these are not representative teachers from the rank-and-file but hand-picked “activists”. And also the consultants. And the Principals’ Association. Also Aboriginal education. And a single rep from the Parent Association. Now the latter is a sorta ally, except that she scrupulously maintained a separation from all other groups — which is probably a good thing. She was a little too easy, unfortunately, to convince of someone’s position … be that ours or “theirs”. And since we were a minority voice … Anyway, after a year of that, she was replaced by another rep, who proved immediately to be sympathetic with the fuzzy agenda. Gone one ally.

    If it were just being a minority voice on that consultancy group we’d have been fine with it, because we are articulate, carry some authority in the subject and have some genuine expertise in some aspects of the discussion. So they arranged the way the consultation meetings ran in a way I describe as “erasing expertise”. Since it was our expertise that made us stand out with a distinct voice, our meetings were run in a manner that erased the value of that expertise — and for that matter the specific expertise of every other represented group.

    The ministry would select the content of each meeting. If you had something to present it was pulling teeth to get them to agree to give you some time (“But we have such a full meeting next week! There’s no room for you to summarize your findings about assessment trends over the last two decades — we have more important things to do such as whether the ministry should invest more man-hours in making public information pamphlets about math education”)

    They composed a list of generic, completely inconsequential questions. Then they split everyone up into small groups to “discuss” these questions. We hashed out these questions week after week, reporting back to the group our generic, nondescript answers. All were summarized on sheets taped to the wall. In the final meeting, each group was given a small number — 3 or 4 — stickers to put by statements on those sheets we thought “most important”. Yep. Our “expertise” was gelled down to the placement of a handful of stickers … in a big crowd of identical-looking stickers by other “representatives” present, about questions that largely missed all the important issues and consisted of compromise statements weathered by weeks of wrangling in small groups with people you disagreed with.

    Where was the expertise? It was gone. Not just for us, but for all groups present. What did those stickers care that we were professionals in the domain being taught? How did the principle’s association members’ intimate knowledge of administrative and implementation issued come to the fore? Not at all. The predetermined agenda dominated.

    If that erasure of expertise were not enough, the ministry then said they would “summarize the findings” of the consultation. And sure enough, a month later a report came out that covered some of the WORDS in the original QUESTIONS, but what appeared from those actual “prioritized findings” on those sheets of paper with stickers by them … was a selected, and edited-down set from which one could hardly infer any of the actual discussions that took place. In fact you’d hardly recognize those months of work from anything in the report. They wrote what they wanted.

    But they made great use of our professional qualifications. There we were in a prominent place alongside all the other “experts” — professional mathematicians were consulted and this is the document that resulted!

    The process you describe (and I lay out in a bit more detail here), by the way, is called the Delphi Method. Designed originally in the 1960s by the Rand Corporation as a way to reach consensus on matters by experts whose expertise did not provide sufficient information to make serious decisions. It was thought at the time this might magically produce correct answers where the expertise did not exist to find those answers (such as how to prepare for nuclear war). Turns out it was useless for that purpose.

    But the Delphi Method turned out to be very useful for one thing: erasing expertise and dissenting opinions when you’re trying to push an agenda forward. It has therefore become a favourite tool of policy makers.


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