University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Attacks … or Civilized Debates?

In The View from the OEP on April 19, 2011 at 11:09 am

Every once in a while, you find yourself in a discussion where common ground seems impossible to find.  Two people see the exact same movie, watch the same ballgame, or observe the same goings-on, and come to completely opposite conclusions!

Education policy battles heat up!

I think that we have all been involved in a situation like this for the past decade as we observed (participated in) education policy debates/discussions in Arkansas and across the nation.  Well-intentioned and thoughtful people continue to end up on opposite sides of the fence with respect to important educational questions.  And the volume has recently been turned up in these debates over the past year. Unfortunately, as the debates heat up, so does the hyperbole and extreme talk.

For example, on the topic of charter schools, you are either:

  • A zealous advocate of charter schools, who obviously seeks the destruction of all public education and hates teachers, or ….
  • A cranky obstructionist, who cares more about saving the jobs of adults than about creating meaningful opportunities for children.

How about teacher evaluation and merit pay? On this issue, you must choose between:

  • An excuse-maker who claims that everything under the sun (poverty, cultural differences, bad luck, missing a breakfast on test day, an unlucky horoscope, etc.) influences student achievement — except the teacher, or ….
  • A teacher-basher who wants to wallpaper the public square — or the LA Times —  with student test scores and teacher ratings to publicly shame all the unprofessional teachers, who would most certainly slack off were it not for such public scrutiny.

Of course, I am exaggerating here, but sometimes this is the tone these debates take.  A friend of mine from the central part of the state recently referred me to this essay from a UCLA lecturer entitled, graphically enough, “The beating will continue until teacher morale improves.”

And this brings me to my point … last week, I was fortunate to attend a lecture given by Rick Hess, the author of   “The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas.”  He made a point that seems obvious (and hearkens back to Progressive educator John Dewey) — these false dichotomies do not foster genuine debate and are unlikely to lead to solutions to the real problems our students face.

While the Fox News and MSNBC types find it profitable to highlight the extremes, can’t we well-meaning policymakers, educators, and constituents engage in reasoned debate on these thorny issues?  Hess thinks so. Perhaps our discussions on education policy in Arkansas would be more fruitful if we could dig ourselves out of our ideological trenches for a while and simply engage in policy debates on these important questions that will affect the lives of about 450,000 Arkansas students each day.

What do you think?
  • The next time someone says charter schools are not going to lead to improved student achievement, let’s not call him an obstructionist!  
  • The next time someone asks that student test scores be part of teacher evaluations, let’s not call her a teacher-hater!  
  • And the next time we disagree on an issue, let’s use terms like disagree and debate instead of attack and hate!

The OEP would love to get your thoughts on this …. thanks for reading.

— Gary W. Ritter

  1. Sadly, but true — your point of view. One of the sadest is the notion that those not directly involved in the educational system, are unworthy of being heard with a suggestion. Most school districts (I’ve yet to find one) do not take advantage of what is available in their own district in the way of guest speakers in a variety of fields. This real world experienced provider could contribute much — for both students and teachers.

    Taxpayers have no idea of what is being taught in the classroom, and apparently neither do many within the establishment. This lack of transparency is contributing to a lot of misunderstandings. All of which is unnecessary and detrimental.

    It isn’t just “workforce”. Most people have no idea what the term means nor encompasses.

  2. I agree. I have seen the “debate” in the classroom here at the University and unfortunately even well-meaning and seemingly pretty smart people take the sides that you just described. One side laughs arrogantly at the teachers who claim that they cannot be blamed (and the teachers really appear pretty damn cowardly about the whole thing). The teacher rightfully assess that the problem is outside of their domain. How are they supposed to influence the Socio-Economic Status of their students (this is the main indicator of poor test performance) or the policy of the school board when they are “the beating will continue until teacher morale improves” We are not using best practices. Not at the school level, not at the public level, but most importantly (as you have pointed out) not at the debate level. You cannot enter a fruitful conversation (please lets not use the word “debate” anymore, unless their is going to be a judge who decides the winner and loser) unless you are prepared to change your views in some way. Most people are not because they have spent a lot of time studying or practicing their views and they don’t have the guts to come of them. Piaget describes the way we learn new information and said that unless something is slightly off-putting, you will not recognize it as new and it will be enveloped by your pre-existing knowledge, but if you are too put-off, you will experience fear and not learn anything. We must find the middle ground with these debates and learn that both sides are going to have to be a little uncomfortable.

  3. Glad to get the comments .. thanks Jon and Tom. I like the idea of viewing these discussions as “conversations” rather than as debates.

    As you have noted, well meaning and smart people sometimes migrate toward the extreme views. (I am not sure if I am smart, but I am sure I have made this mistake at times.) We should be able to disagree with stances taken but not do so “arrogantly” ; we should be able to “attack” the logic behind arguments without “attacking” those making the arguments. As you’ve noted, it is a fine line and it is not surprising that these debates quickly get heated!

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