The Barriers to Dialogue (TL;DR)

This is a piece that got completely away from me, but I’ve left it because it fulfills the primary purpose of this blog– to help me get stuff off my chest and out of my head. While simplifying issues is my stock in trade, sometimes I have to back up and try to see a bigger picture first. TL;DR. Or at least read at your own risk.

A guest writer on Peter DeWitt’s blog this morning issued about the fifty gazillionth educational essay on the general topic of “Can’t We All Just Get Along?” I sympathize. I am by nature a peacemaker. I don’t like conflict and I hate confrontation. But over the years, fatherhood, failing at marriage, and leading a striking local have taught me some things about how and when and why conflict and confrontation have to be dealt with.

I wish that we were having a dialogue about the current state of American public education, but by and large we are not, no matter how much we’d like to be. Here’s why we’re not having a discussion now, and why we likely will be soon.

Can Reasonable People Disagree

Let’s take care of this first. People can share values and goals and still disagree. In education we know this because it is how we live our professional lives. From staff meeting to department meeting to teachers’ lounges, we regularly argue about the best way to educate students.

But you know what? We are not the ones saying, “If you really understand what’s going on, you’ll understand that the only correct conclusion is ours.” That would be a reformer line. No room for deviation. Standards set in stone. Follow your script. Lifetime educators know that disagreement is not only okay, it’s normal and necessary. It is the reformeisters who have declared their ideas beyond discussion.

We Don’t Want the Same Things

From the WSJ reporter who told Diane Ravitch, “There are people on both sides looking to make money” to the invocation of “Curse of Knowledge” in the above-mentioned column, people keep suggesting that all the involved parties really want the same thing and all we have here is a failure to communicate.

This isn’t a surprise. False equivalency is apparently now a regular course of study in journalism school. We are regularly told that all sides of debates are equally valid and so science and creationsim, flat earth and round earth, paper and plastic are all just different points of view. We just need to talk about it.

What we are experiencing in American public education is not a communication problem. We do not all want the same thing.

Some of us want what’s best for students. Some of us want to make a bundle of money. Some of us want to create a streamlined efficient system of education. Some of us enjoy the exercise of power.

If the reformers really wanted the best for students, they would do what the best teachers have always done– search far and wide through acres of materials for Things That Work. Instead, they imposing a system that values control and power and profit over students.

Clearest evidence? The reformers do not want these reformy things for their own children. That’s not just a rhetorical flourish of an observation. I believe there is one value we do all share– we want the best for our own children. And when it’s time to make that choice, the reformy folks do not choose their own programs. Those programs are for other peoples’ children.

When people vandalize your home, when they are spray-painting your front door and setting fire to your car, the problem is not a failure to communicate. The problem is that there are vandals attacking your home. You do not all want the same thing. You do not all value the same things. A conversation is not going to fix this.

They Don’t Need To Listen

When teachers are told that we need to dialogue about reformy stuff, we get cranky because one of our major complaints is that we have been ignored through every step of this process. CCSS was created without any meaningful teacher input. Implementation has been hammered through without any meaningful teacher input. When teachers are even talked about, it has only been to complain that we are a barrier to education in this country.

Coleman, Gates, Broad, Duncan, Rhee– the list goes on for people who have no real experience or training in education. What they do have are rich and powerful friends.

A while back I made fun of Mike Petrilli at Fordham Institute over a video he made. He and some Fordham folk read it and did not threaten to squash me like a bug, but rather did some quick joshing in return and moved on. They didn’t need to seriously bother with me because today Mike Petrilli is going to put on a nice suit and go to work in a nice office where he can call powerful, influential people and enjoy an expensive lunch. I am going to go to my classroom where I will try to get 16-year-olds to write some decent paragraphs and wonder how I’m going to finance the emergency hot water heater replacement I had to do yesterday (true story). Nobody’s going to offer me a fat speaker’s fee or a book deal, and when I finally post this later, probably only a couple hundred people will read it.

The Powers That Be haven’t been talking to us. They haven’t been listening to us. They don’t need to.

That was one of the lessons of NCLB. When it first hit, the state would send trainers who fervently tried to get us to drink the kool-aid, but gradually, they decided they didn’t need to bother. Nowadays, the trainers’ attitude is, “Drink or don’t drink. We don’t care. You’re doing this.”

I don’t imagine Gates Foundation executives tossing and turning at night, wondering if teachers are upset with them. I don’t imagine thinkee tank guys fretting, “Oh, I hope this next repor goes over well with teachers.” In some cases, I’m certain that teacher displeasure is viewed as proof that the reformers are on the right track. If we’re unhappy, they must be doing the right thing.

The hard political truth is that you only have to talk to people who can help you or hurt you. The folks driving the reformy bus decided years ago that teachers can do neither. Make some contributions to the national unions, fund some “teacher of the year” contests as a sort of spokesperon audition, and that should be enough.

Saying teachers should talk more to reformers is like saying that ants should do a better job of explaining themselves to elephants.

We’ve been talking all along. We won’t shut up. Granted, some of us are yelling in rage. This is to be expected. People want to be heard; when they don’t think they are being heard, they will just keep raising their voices. Even if it means rage-yelling. A few folks get it– if somebody is rage-yelling at you, it’s because they don’t think you hear them. If you want them to back off, a good first step is to show that you hear them, even if all you can get is “Boy, you are angry.”

Will There Be Dialogue?

I think so. And I think sooner rather than later. Because soon, the “reformers” are going to need us.

The Common Core is becoming shakier by the minute. Bad testing and bad materials are awakening public opposition to CCSS, and supporters are starting to waver. “Oh, it’s just a bad implementation” is taking its place alongside “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play” in the Gallery of Hilariously Clueless Responses to Bad Situations. From Dennis Van Roekel to the Brookings Institute, folks are starting to suggest that some tweaking is needed. The new party line is, “Well, of course we’re going to need to be flexible in implementation,” as if they had never previously declared that no deviation would be allowed.

Let’s delay the tests. Let’s delay evaluation. Let’s delay some inconsequential piece of paperwork. Reformy fans are trying to negotiate, hoping that they can save the whole structure by giving up a piece. But the structure of reformy stuff is composed of so many shaky spires leaning against each other and resting on shifting foundation of money. Any piece that goes will take the rest with it.

Soon the reformers will be looking for help, trying to save some portion of their tottering edifice. They will be ready to talk. The trick will be for them to propose talks while they still have the power left to compel educators to come to the table they’ve been so long barred from.

The dialogue will also depend on the structure of the resistance at that moment. Like any other movement, the public education resistance movement contains a full range of voices. Out on the wings, we have some crazy-pants ragers, balanced by a full wing of quieter and calmer heads. Both have their place. The craziest person in the room may, as the old political saw suggests, set the agenda, but it’s the cooler heads that run the meeting and settle the issues.

The ragers create help create the pressure to talk. They just don’t excel at the actual talking. The corporate raiders will not want to give up an inch of profitable territory. The politicians will want to angle for a winning side. The professional bureaucrats will want to protect their incomes. When the conversation finally comes, it’s going to be messy and complex. I hope there are some folks who have the strength to manage that mess when it finally arrives.

Posted by Peter A. Greene

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