A Definitional Problem

Last month we put out a new analysis at Bellwether, Common Ground*, about the landscape the sector is operating in. I wrote a short post about it here.

We identified six common themes we are seeing across a range of issues, from DEI to school enrollment. One that warrants more attention in my view is the pervasive definitional confusion that is distorting educational debates today and causing people to talk past one another. There are real divides, yes, but there is also more common ground than people realize.

For instance, to use two hot-button issues that are in the news a lot lately, when we talk about teaching about gender and sexuality in school the specific age of students matters a lot. People are, understandably, a lot more concerned with what content is taught in say K-3 than middle and high school. That’s not to say objections go away where older kids are concerned, but there is a lot less opposition. Likewise, there is a big difference between a school concealing active measures they are taking from parents and just giving students some degree of privacy in their lives or turning teachers into cops. Those distinct issues are commonly conflated leading to a lot of avoidable confusion and angst.

BLM is another good example. You’re often asked, ‘do you support Black Lives Matter?’ Are we talking about the plain meaning of those three words? Then of course. The overall political agenda of the organization? Or specifics of that agenda – some of which aren’t even supported by a majority of Black Americans? All three of those questions are important, but they are three quite different questions that will elicit different answers from different people. The reason supporters and opponents conflate those things is to obscure not reveal. It’s about power, not illumination.

Book “bannings” are another. There are some folks who want to go back to the 1950s, but there are others who just want to limit access to explicit content without parental approval. People also disagree on what’s explicit and there is a lot of confusion about various books – that many people arguing about them on all sides have never read. Censorious instincts abound and are nothing new in education. We’d have a healthier conversation if people made more clear what they are and are not talking about.

And of course school shootings. Definitions of what constitutes a school shooting vary widely – from stray bullets hitting school facilities at any time day or night to narrow definitions of intentional gun violence in a school. Some activists try to hype the numbers to call attention to the problem. The result is a lot of confusion about prevalence.

Words like equity have lost all precision. Fiscal equity or equity work that focuses on addressing achievement gaps by providing more support to students who are further behind is a great distance from some of what now flies under the banner of “equity” work.

Or “anti-racism?” Are we talking about being against racism, or specific aspects of work by writers like Ibram X. Kendi or Tema Okun? Or something else? People – on all sides – often don’t say, and there is a reason for that.

In the end it all creates a lot of confusion that obscures genuine points of disagreement – and consensus. My point here is not that your views should be dictated by public opinion – on the contrary. My point is merely that we might have a healthier and less toxic conversation if we were more clear on what we’re talking about in the first place.

(Another piece of this dynamic is how infrequently people read underlying documents or materials. It’s remarkable how often the discourse about some issue or event diverges from the facts – especially on social media).

Some politicians, I’m thinking in particular of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, are becoming adept at exploiting this. They let the public characterization of an issue diverge from the plain letter of some policy and that allows them to marginalize their critics as hysterical or dishonest. Others use vagueness to their advantage to obscure positions that are popular with activists but not the general public. Twitter is rocket fuel for this problem especially as our politics become polarized and zero sum.

Look, we’re all going to make mistakes. And we’re going to mischaracterize things based on misunderstandings or incomplete or imperfect communication because we’re humans. And as issues evolve how we talk about them will change, too. C’est la vie as they say. Where we can try to do better is to be as precise as possible, share definitions transparently, and avoid deliberate misinformation.

I’m not naive. Politics is what it is and some of this is par for the course. But if your role – and this especially goes for the media but also leaders more generally – is to explain and interpret then there is a lot of room to do better.

If you’re interested in learning more about some strategies and context, three books I’d recommend are Amanda Ripley’s High Conflict, Todd Rose’s Collective Illusions, and Julia Galef’s Scout Mindset. This essay by Freddie deBoer is also excellent.

ICYMI – Bellwether also released a look at some plays on school finance equity. In the spirit of this post that means ensuring funding and funding effort is allocated based more on need than is commonly the case today. It’s interesting, and certainly not the worst thing, that two related areas of education policy that are seeing a lot of attention recently are finance and also school choice. Stay tuned on that.