Mike Petrilli has a speech to deliver Sunday about "How To End the Ed Reform Wars," and he put up a tweet this morning asking for thoughts. So I started thinking.
Step One: Stop Calling Them Wars
I have a general aversion to overamped rhetoric. We frequently resort to calling things "war" and "rape" which are not, and such rhetorical flourishes are just ways to bolster our own sense of importance. But the device is not helpful, and it's insulting to people who have actually suffered through the real thing. Go find a combat veteran and explain to him the war you're fighting over education.
Using the term "war" also embeds a bunch of useless goals. In a debate, people can work their way to clearer understanding and perhaps build some useful solutions, as well as sorting out the viable viewpoints from the posturing baloney. In war, your goal is to blast those Bad Guys Over There into oblivion.
War is particularly unhelpful for the education sector because nobody is going to be blasted into oblivion, for better or worse. Teachers and public education are not going to go away any time soon. Neither are big corporations that really want to suck up some of the public tax dollars associated with education. Neither are politicians whose bread and butter is making loud policy pronouncements covering areas in which they are personally deeply ignorant. Neither are people who care deeply about children and young people and their education.
That list of players alone is enough to guarantee that there will always be conflict around education.
Step Two: Consider the Roots of the Conflicts
We have conflicts in the education debates that stem from two basic groups of issues.
On the one hand, we have disagreements of method. For instance, in the charter arena, we have people who believe that modern charters are a success because they have managed to rescue a handful of students from problematic public schools; on the other side, we have people who believe that modern charters are a failure because they have sucked resources away from the students left behind in those problematic public schools. These groups have some strong disagreements, but they share the value of wanting to provide a decent education for children. There may be solutions possible that can make both groups happy
But there are also differences based on fundamental disagreements about values. Ed reformsters include people who believe that education would work better if it were an open market where people could make money by starting up their own schools. I (and a few gazillion people like me) think that's a fundamentally wrong approach based on a flawed and just-dead-wrong understanding of education, schools, and the free market. I cannot imagine a solution that would make both those corporate boosters and me happy, ever. I think the ongoing efforts to direct public tax dollars away from education and into private bank accounts are absolutely, indefensibly wrong, period.
Not all values-based differences are unbridgeable. I do not believe there is any value in national standards. None. I don't think there is anything inherently desirable about having the same standards in Iowa and Florida. But I can understand why some people do see standardization is valuable. I just think they're wrong.
Because money and politics have infected the debate, we've also got a problem with honest discussion. A lot of people in the reform biz have a problem with honest conversation, and honest conversation starts with an honest attempt to understand what the other person is actually saying. Trying to really grasp what that person is saying doesn't mean you have to agree with them (I have several hundred posts here on this blog demonstrating that point). But deliberately misreading someone so that you can try to control the narrative is not the beginning of honest conversation-- it's just trolling. (Ditto trying to characterize all your opponents as ignorant and evil.)
The education debate would be vastly improved if we all just ignored people who insist on that kind of trolling, no matter how well-connected or important they seem to be.
When serious people arrive at The Table and find that a meeting being run by people who are Not Serious, the serious people are inclined to go home, and the conversation at The Table becomes vastly stupid and hugely unproductive. That has been a large problem in the education debates for years. Too many seats at The Table have been given away to people who are Not Serious.
So What Can We Actually Do?
We can be civil. We can argue about ideas and not reduce the debate to questions of whether our opponents are Terrible People with Deep Character Flaws. This is not always easy; I feel certain that many people in the reformy field have motives that are not remotely pure. But if we get dragged into personality debate, we end up in the same pit of ineffectual noisemaking as our political leaders. My rule of thumb is that if you find yourself accepting or rejecting an idea simply and only because of the source, you are off track.
Judge actual merit. Education is suffering right now because a variety of ideas and programs and policies have been jammed into place without ever making a real case for their merits. Our leaders have imposed unproven standards and inflicted unproven tests in pursuit of goals that nobody has proven will be reached by these means. We have seen people try to remake American education with no more authority than their own massive bank accounts or useful political connections. And in New York (where Petrilli is speaking), we've seen a whole system put in place so that superintendents can demand that teachers stop using their own professional judgment and replace it with scripts from EngageNY because, reasons, while the governor proposes to redefine the entire purpose of teaching.
We can have actual conversations. The modern ed reform movement has tried to redefine the entire purpose of American education without ever having a single public discussion about it. Subsequently, they have been shocked and surprised that a few million people spoke up and said some version of, "Excuse me, just a minute!" Reformsters were not prepared to talk about it; they had created a program that was just supposed to put all these goals in place and it would just happen.
They got in the ring with no plan other than, "I will throw one or two punches, knock this guy out, and we'll be done." They threw their punch, and the opponent got back up off the canvas; that's the point at which reformsters started saying, "Hey, let's talk about this."
But instead of really trying to talk about education, reformsters have tried to keep tweaking their talking points and fine-tuning their PR, trying to get that narrative under control. Some are still devoted to the long game of steadily starving the public system ("the beast"), declaring a school failure emergency, and putting their programs for "rescue" in place.
A conversation? Still by and large not happening. At this point, I'm not sure how it could happen. But if the "education wars" are to ever end, or at least become calm enough that schools can more easily and effectively do their jobs, then a real conversation is going to have to happen.