Most of us have heard brief utterances on the state of America’s public education system, almost convincing on-screen speeches that everything is improving, or an irked whisper rebutting that it’s not.

It made me wonder if we’re listening to anyone who really knows what’s going on. Was there any professional who has a true investment in educational policy and anything desk-shaking to say about it? Enter Jose Vilson, a math educator serving New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood. He stepped into the roles of activist and author and has dedicated years to using his platform to communicate what’s happening in the school system, his reality.

Whether on his blog, in The New York Times, or on stages across the United States, Vilson has much to say on behalf of teachers and the children entrusted to them. In 2014, he wrote it all out to give us all a look inside the joys and frustrations of modern educators.

This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education is memoir meets education piece. It is an insider’s perspective. I could sense the author’s heartbeat for the young minds filling his classroom as I read about Vilson’s good and bad days. He is a Black-Latino man who often sees himself in his students and, with the personal background stories that graced the pages of the book, it wasn’t hard to see why. The book shows the intersection of students’ classroom lives and real lives and why it’s not so far-fetched to pair up education with social justice.

The Cultural and Class Disconnect

Reading This Is Not A Test isn’t only for those who have children in public schools. In it, I could find empathy and recognize the needs of teachers even though I’m not a part of their professional world. I could read of the children labeled unreachable and the teachers going beyond their job descriptions to reach them. I could see the struggles of my mother, an over 30-year educator herself, and finally start to wrap my head around the grievances and beauties of her profession, recognizing terms from the No Child Left Behind Act and other testing requirements I’ve heard her mention. I saw more intimately the needs that exist inside of local schools and the opportunity that Christians and our local churches have to step in.

In tackling a myriad of controversial issues such as school choice and high-stakes testing, Vilson highlighted where race and poverty come into the mix.

Perhaps Black and Latino children need to have their cultures celebrated and not challenged, embraced and not changed, and even incorporated into learning experiences when possible and appropriate. The students who are troubled or malnourished or both are more than doomed and hopeless.

Viewpoints like these suggest that Vilson believes there is a need for empathetic, compassionate, and resilient teachers of all races and a unique place for teachers of color in the eyes of students: “The cultural and class disconnect between many educators and their students is as much to blame for the countercultural movements among some kids of color as any other influences ,” he writes. “Our importance as teachers of color stems from this dire need for kids of all races and backgrounds to see people of color as multidimensional and intelligent people, different in culture but the same in capability and humanity.”

On Testing and Teacher Voice

Chapters on education reform, curriculum and testing requirements, and state standards undeniably read like a call-out. Readers who aren’t educators have a chance to see the way academic and teacher performance is often evaluated, what some teachers believe are ridiculous testing standards that set students up for failure, and who’s really calling the shots made for public education. Spoiler: it’s almost never the educators themselves.

Readers who are educators will undoubtedly let out an internal or even an audible “Amen!” while being reminded why they fight so hard for their students through low pay, low school funding, and being robbed of a voice in policy-making.

Vilson is using his “teacher voice” to reclaim “teacher voice” where he believes it matters most. “Just about everyone gets a seat at the proverbial table to design the curriculum—except the people executing that curriculum ,” he writes. “Americans would not expect to see a military general without experience in the field or a head surgeon who’s never operated on anyone. Yet we trust people with no classroom experience to tell us what and how our students should learn.” This book is a bit like eavesdropping in the teacher’s lounge on a conversation that I’m thankful Vilson lets his readers in on.

Jose Vilson has been a part of this conversation for many years and This Is Not A Test opens an important discussion by leading with his first-hand perspective on race, class, and education. Note that his work is not all-encompassing. I found myself wanting to know more at the end but coming away with more than enough knowledge to care.

The conversation on education reform is far from over and it’s one worth having to support a better future for our children and to love our neighbors, our teachers, as ourselves. To care and contribute to the needs of students and teachers is to visibly express love for God, entering into the issues they face inside and outside of the classroom and modeling the compassion of Christ.