Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Can We Renew "The Conversation"?

There has been a renewal of calls lately to refresh, renew, restart, and otherwise rehabilitate the conversation about Common Core.

It has taken a variety of forms. In the Washington Times, Mike Petrilli and Neal McClusky put out a call to retire some of the standard talking points, admitting that the Core is after all kind of curriculummy and probably not the product of a commie conspiracy or of teachers, either. Meanwhile, Peter Cunningham, former communications master for Arne Duncan, has launched a new website that is nothing but standard talking points aimed at "starting a new conversation" in which Core boosters will convince parents that the Core is swell.

Can a new conversation be started? That's actually a trick question, because we never had a conversation to begin with.

When the Great White Whale of Common Core first appeared, with all its attendant barnacles, nobody was having a conversation. Nobody who was writing it said, "Let's get lots of teachers and actual educators in here and have a conversation about what national standards should look like." Nobody in DC who was pushing this stuff said, "Let's get a bunch of stakeholders in here and have a conversation about what the federal role in retooling education should be."

There was no conversation. There was a set of changes and mandates, imposed from the top down, directly and indirectly by people with power and money. They did not ask for conversation or debate, nor did they welcome it when it began to crop up. Teachers, parents, and other concerned stakeholders were told to shut up, sit down, and do as their betters told them to. Critics were labeled cranks, deluded moms, and (Arne's favorite word for a while) "silly." Architects like David Coleman were proud of the fact that they'd done this themselves, without "expert" help. And the implication was repeatedly that teachers were a major cause of public school failure; the implication was that they should not be included in any discussions of education.

So, not a conversation. Not a debate. Just people with money and power who not only had all the seats at the table, but owned the table and the room it was sitting in.

Make no mistake. The calls for conversation, for cooler heads, for less rhetoric, for less politics-- we've been hearing more and more of these over the past year because the reformsters are losing. With a full school year under their collective belts, they have nothing to point to as a clear, substantive success. Nothing they can point to that allows them to say, "See? We were right! Y"all need to shut up now, because here's our proof that we were right."

Some of them are still there. There are no signs that Education Post is about a conversation at all, but is simply more rapid response political spin and marketing. For those who are ready to move forward, they're not really looking to change the conversation so much as start it. And that's fundamentally because talking over everybody else isn't working for them any more.

The call for conversation and debate does something that in the retail world they call "assuming the sale." This is when your used car salesman starts talking to you about financing decisions as if you have already decided to buy the car.

The calls for debate and conversation assume that the reformsters deserve to be sitting at the table, helping set the terms under which education in this country will move forward. It assumes that they somehow have a right to decide what American public education should look like.

It is true that every single American deserves to have a voice in that conversation. And it is probably a cold hard truth that reformsters really do have a seat at the main table where these decisions will be made. But here's another "make no mistake"-- they did not get those seats by virtue of educational expertise or teaching experience or pedagogical knowledge. They did not get those seats by suggesting reforms that were embraced and promoted by teachers and education leaders in schools across America. They got those seats by virtue of money and power. That's it, and that's all.

It's one of the ironies of reformsterdom. As much as many love to talk about merit and effectiveness, Common Core did not become de facto law of the land based on merit or effectiveness. We're talking about Common Core and all the rest of the package because rich people and people with political power and connections decided to make it happen.

So calls for a better, kinder education conversation hit me kind of like calls from anti-evolutionists to "teach the controversy." It is not a meeting of equals. It's a meeting of people who have facts and reason on one side, and people who just believe what they want to believe and have the power to demand attention on the other side.

Reformsters have political power and money on their side, plus nowadays the inertial advantage that comes with being the status quo. Advocates for American public education have expertise, experience, knowledge, passion, and a growing body of facts on their side. (There are several other sides in this discussion, but let me stick to these two for the moment.) Moreover, as reformsters are increasingly discovering, money and power lose a lot of their effectiveness when you are steadily losing hearts and minds.

I do want to have a civil conversation, and I don't assume that reformsters are evil/ignorant monsters. My reluctance is not about their imagined awful intentions or their allegedly evil ideas. It's about their qualifications. I have a hard time getting over a gut reaction. It's the same reaction I would have if a random stranger wandered in off the street, walked into my classroom, and started giving me notes on how to properly explain dependent clauses (and his explanation included "show how the fairies build them"). I have trouble getting past that reaction of "Who are you, and why are you interrupting my work."

Reformsters have yet to answer some fundamental questions about themselves and their Common Core based reforms.

Who are you, and why should we be listening to your ideas about education?

What is the basis for your ideas, and why should we take them seriously?

These are fundamental questions that reformsters have yet to answer convincingly. They have yet to show any reasons that they should be included in a conversation about American public education any more than any other regular citizens. Until that happens, they will be people that we're talking to only and because they have money and power, and I'm not sure how we start a useful conversation based on that.


  1. see more on authoritarian reform at Jack Hassard's blog

  2. The "experts" may one day meet the experts.