Is There No Common Ground?


I sympathize with Peter DeWitt, the former K-5 principal who has morphed into a pundit/trainer. In his blog at EdWeek he can often be found trying to chart a course between the Scylla of the CCSS-based Reformsters and the Charybdis of rabid opposition to any changey things in school while sailing under the Pigpen’s Black Cloud of corporate deceitfulness with the Pebble of rhetorical purity tests in his shoe.

I get the desire to believe that surely we’re all adults here and we ought to be able to work things out like intelligent human beings. Much of his writing has been about finding middle ground, bridges between the two sides, and he most recently addressed the idea directly in a blog entitled Education: Is There No Common Ground.

I understand the value of that question. A decade ago when we were on strike, one oft my oft-repeated sound bites was “This is not a contest for one side to win, but a problem for all of us to solve together.” DeWitt says he named his blog”Finding Common Ground because he “was hoping to meet in the middle on some tough issues.” I want to believe that’s possible, because in general I believe that where people are pursuing what appear to be different goals, they are often pursuing the same values, but in different ways.

But after wading through the swamp of current education debates, I’ve reluctantly come to believe that some of our biggest issues are the result of fundamentally different values– and that creates an unbridgeable gap.

We value the students, the young human beings who are trying to grow into their best selves. Reformsters value students only as cogs in the machine, a part of a system that is built to generate outputs and throughputs. When given a choice between what’s good for the system and what’s good for the students, reformsters pick the system. They say that they want the system to work well in order to insure students success, but they do not see a value for student success beyond using it to prove that the system is functioning well.

We value testing that helps us make more informed choices about how best to identify and meet the needs of individual students. Reformsters value testing that generates the numbers that prove how well the system is working.

We value standards that give us a guide for the direction student education should take. Reformsters value standards that keep the system trim and in line. We think good standards allow for human variety within teachers and students. Reformsters think good standards correct (i.e. wipe out) individual variations within the system.

We value the toughness and ingenuity to use limited resources to make a difference. Reformasters value the opportunity to make a buck.

We think teachers are the front line soldiers in education who have devoted their lives to the job. Reformsters think teachers are the main obstacle to education in this country.

We think people who are in trouble need help. Reformsters they need to be kicked in the butt and cast aside.

We believe that American public education is a system worth saving. Reformsters believe it is a system worth stripping for parts and destroying.

We believe in a process that allows all voices to be heard, that allows for discussion and revision and redirecting, open to all stakeholders. Reformsters believe that if you don’t have money or powerful friends, you don’t count and your voice is, at most, an annoyance.

That is perhaps the most frustrating part of these bridging discussions. While men of good faith like Peter DeWitt are really trying to keep the possibility of finding common ground open, reformsters like Duncan and Pearson and the Gates et al have no interest in even opening the door to such a conversation. They don’t need to talk to the little people, and they so no reason they should have to.

You know who fought tirelessly to maintain peace between the British government and their American colonies? Benjamin Franklin. Franklin desperately and repeatedly worked to do his very best to find common ground with Great Britain, believing fervently that there was more to unite us than separate us. It was one of the great disappointments of his life when he stood (by some accounts) in Parliament, listened to the British, and realized finally that there was no common ground, there would be no bridge, that the British government did not have peace or bridge-building or anything remotely resembling the best interests of the colonies in mind.

I’ve had my Ben Franklin moment, and I suspect, at some point, Peter DeWitt is going to have his. I admire him for his optimism. I just can’t share it any more. I still want to understand, and I still believe that there may be some people tucked in among the reformsters who are good faith and good intent, but I am no longer in the market to buy a bridge.

By Peter A. Greene

Peter Greene is a veteran teacher and
has a blog called “Curmudgucation.”

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