Saturday, August 16, 2014

Can We Enter Phase Three?

    Reading Paul Thomas always makes me feel smarter (and yet we have also shared some great cyber-conversation about comics). A recent post on his blog is both smart and challenging. In it, he addresses the phases of the current education debates.

Phase I goes back to the accountability fever of the 1980s and takes us right up through NCLB and its steroidified sibling, Race to the Top (and waiver-driven Race to the Top Lite).

Most of those accountability years, I would classify as Phase 1, a period characterized by a political monopoly on both public discourse and policy addressing primarily public K-12 education.

We are now in Phase 2, a time in which (in many ways aided by the rise in social media—Twitter, blogging, Facebook—and the alternative press—AlterNet and Truthout) teachers, professors, and educational scholars have begun to create a resistance to the political, media, and public commitments to recycling false charges of educational failure in order to continue the same failed approaches to education reform again and again.
Thomas argues that while we are still in Phase 2, it's time to start on Phase 3, moving (as he puts it) from adolescence to adulthood. And he proposes some changes in strategy.

First, we need to consider our tone. As we expand our audience, we need adopt a tone that does not undermine our mission (Thomas allows that tone-based attacks from reformsters are still not legit-- I'm foreshortening his arguments considerably).

Believe it or not, I do think about tone when I write. Earlier in my blogging career, I was a lot more passed off, and that clearly copies through. Still, I have generally avoided personal attacks (I kn ow the difference between "Chris is stupid" and "Chris just said a stupid thing" or "Chris is promoting a stupid policy." But my goal has always been to speak plainly, and sometimes that creates a bluntness in tone that some people find off-putting.

There's a real challenge in engaging someone who is being condescending and dismissive, and an even larger challenge when engaging someone who is actually attacking you. This is further complicated when the person sincerely fails to grasp that they are attacking. I think there are many reformsters who really don't understand just how seriously they are attacking public school teachers and are genuinely surprised at some of the pushback they get.

The other problem is the problem of being "uppity." As Thomas (and many others) note, teachers are traditionally good team players. We keep quiet, stay in place, follow orders, and never rock the boat. With that background, even a simple, "Excuse me, sir, but I'd rather not" is perceived, by both listener and speaker, as pretty feisty and uppity.

That said, I've always argued that screaming at people and venting the rage-fueled assumption that all who disagree with us must be either stupid or evil is just plain ineffective. Leading reformsters actually corrected themselves on that score.

Also, when considering tone, context matters. I don't just mean the context of content, but the location of the conversation. The same tactics that may be appropriate in Chicago or New York will do no good at all in my quiet small town of 7,000. And vice versa.

Second, we Ned to stop putting out fires.  Thomas says we need to stop simply responding to the Ridiculous Celebrity Comment Du Jour. This is tricky as hell, for a couple of reasons.

One is the audience. One reason I call She Who Will Not Be Named (and refuse to name her) the Kim Kardashian of education is because she is reliable clickbait. I'm under no obligation to write about her, but I know that the crowd will be running off to some other place that did. Getting the audience to ignore someone is a real challenge.

The other is focus, and Thomas is right on point here. The best way attack a person's credibility is to attack their argument. We do not need, and it is not useful, to try to prove that reformsters are terrible people. We need to be talking about their terrible ideas.

They have made this difficult because they rarely present their terrible ideas with evidence or support. Most often, they simply assert linkages that don't exist. We still haven't seen a shred of specific evidence to support, say, the idea that the Core will make a student ready for college, or that the standards are "tougher" or "higher." Evidence and soundness of reformster ideas have never been part of the conversation.

It's a tough stance to counter. When people are hearing about happy puppies and fluffy bunnies and unicorns that poop rainbows, they don't want to be brought down by boring bummer facts.

We will always be at a marketing disadvantage, because ed reform since the dawn of time is always about a Really Cool Thing that will Change Everything and bring Instant Fixes, whereas actual education and schooling is about long hard unglamorous day-by-day work. Guess which is easier to market. But we can't get to where we want to by trying to sell a better brand of snake oil.

I think one answer is to come up with a batch of questions and to keep asking them, again and again  and again, just as many times as reformsters repeat unsubstantiated claims. "How do you explain [foundationless baloney], exactly?" Or, "How do you explain [actual fact]?"

The other answer, at least for me, has been to follow the arguments, not the people. It does get to be like playing whack-a-mole, but I want to point out that in many cases we've been successful. For instance, reformsters have stopped floating the claim that teachers wrote the Common Core. It's true that we need to stop simply reacting, but it's also true that by reacting relentlessly, we have made the conversation drift a little closer to reality.

That's our big advantage-- we have actual facts on our side. Reformsters just have to keep making shit up. Time is on our side. But (as we all know from managing our own classrooms) it's far more productive to focus on what we want to see happen and not on what we want to NOT see happen.

Third, we need more faces and voices.

The mainstream media have reduced the resistance to Ravitch in much the same way that the media have reduced climate change to Bill Nye. The resistance is and must be promoted as a rich and varied body of professionals, both unified and driven by the tensions of our field. Race, gender, sexuality, ideology—the rainbow of our resistance must be prominent and we cannot allow it to be reduced, oversimplified, or marginalized.

Amen. Now, to some degree, this is out of our control. Unless you've got a zillion dollars to spend, it's hard to manufacture media attention.

But all of us can help by amplifying all of our voices. Diane Ravitch had a huge platform essentially fall in her lap-- she was the perfect media-ready person to represent a point of view. And once she had a spotlight, she started aiming it at other people. None of us have that kind of platform, but all of us have a platform of some sort. We can use it to pass on what resonates. Tweet links. Share on Facebook. Email. If you feel as if you don't have the words, share someone else's.

As you read and share, look for two sets of people. People who are just like you and who are saying just what you want to say, and people who are different from you from whose work you learned something about another point of view. Both sets are important to developing a rich and varied chorus that both reflects your concerns and connects you to the larger community of people working to strengthen all that is best and valuable in American public education.

I think Thomas has written a piece well worth thinking about. It's possible that he's simply describing what is about to happen naturally and organically, which would suit me-- I'm not a fan of super-organization. But I do believe the time has come to be just a hair more mindful of what we're saying and doing.

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