Alan Gottlieb has an interesting blog post coming out of EWA asking about polarizing reform rhetoric and whether there is a lack of humility associated with today’s reform movement.
I don’t think he’s all wrong, I wrote about this about a year ago in U.S. News.
But there are three issues that bear on his analysis worth considering. First, he writes of:
“… a growing impatience among journalists with today’s self-styled reformers. A number of veteran education writers said this group’s certainty about the correctness of its positions borders on the arrogant and hubristic.”
At one level, this doesn’t trouble me because you can say it about all sides of the education debate, and in fact most debates, it’s a rhetorical throwaway. But at another level it’s cause for concern because what I think Alan has actually identified is a serious public discourse problem in education that hampers the progress that a free exchange of ideas and information can lead to. The problem is that too often doubts, caveats, etc…are used as weapons in the rhetorical debate. For journalists to bemoan the lack of nuance is comical, as they’re the first ones to privately admit that the medium hardly allows for anything other than blunt force he said/she said trauma. But what this means is that both “sides” in the debate cannot honestly discuss the issues without getting clobbered. To the extent you believe that the accretion of ideas leads to better ones and improvements, this is an enormous problem.
As an example think about KIPP, the high-performing charter school network. It’s no great secret that there is an attrition problem at some KIPP schools. Some of this is mobility and other “normal” factors but some is not. Yet when KIPP has tried to own that problem, figure out ways to to address it and so forth all it’s led to is ammunition for KIPP’s harshest critics to use against them. The rational position is that KIPP is doing many great things and changing lives but also dealing with real challenges. There is a lot of learning there. Yet that’s not the debate at all. In fact, at this point KIPP is foolish to lead with their chin on any of that in public as there are too few people who want to have that conversation. The same is true of some data on Teach For America, charter schools, and many other reforms and many of the issues confronting the teachers’ unions today as well. It’s all complicated but the debate allows no quarter for that.
So in other words, I’d argue the problem Alan identifies is actually an endogenous one. The polarizing environment is driving an apparent lack of reflection and overabundance of certainty at least as much as those attributes inherently exist.
Second, Alan is down on Davis Guggenheim and his new film. But we should be honest and acknowledge that real change doesn’t happen absent big cultural markers and debates like the one this film could spark. And let’s face it, because most of my peers agreed with Al Gore no one got too bent out of shape about too much certainty in “Inconvenient Truth.” Think about it, are there other issues you support where there is both a great deal of certainty among your fellow supporters, and, in truth, a lot of ambiguity. In fact, aren’t arrogance and certainty two charges frequently leveled against President Obama? But we like him… School reform is more complicated as the politics are generally trickier. So now we’re worried about certainty…I saw the film months ago but haven’t written about it in advance of its release. It’s hard hitting, in your face, compelling, and pretty much lacking in nuance. Yet while I didn’t love everything about it I think it’s exactly the sort of conversation piece we need given the complacency that still exists around this issue.
Third, and related to the previous point as well as the issue Alan raises overall, history teaches us plainly that progress requires tension. More recently Martin Luther King reminds us that the absence of tension is often a negative peace. So at some level all this concern about tension misses the bigger picture in terms of what it usually takes to see progress for disadvantaged groups and how much of this is par for the course with change.
Finally, just as an aside, you hear this business about the totalitarian regime of Joel Klein all the time. How everyone is scared to criticize him etc…Yet there is a an entire industry built around criticizing him in the papers, on blogs, at Gotham Schools, etc…? It’s this weird perpetual motion machine where people constantly go on record to say you can’t criticize Klein…write about how awful he is, then say you can’t say that and speech is being squelched, I don’t get it. If anything criticizing Klein seems like a good career move if you’re on the make.