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Why Won't 'Reformers' Listen?

Dear Deborah,

We have had fun as a traveling team, debating the issues and engaging in free-flowing conversation about the current state of school reform. People call it "live blogging" and seem to enjoy our discussions. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don't. That's a healthy thing in a democracy.

These days, there seems to be little tolerance for debate and discussion.

Last week, I went to Providence, R.I., to give a lecture. Before my arrival, I was invited by Gov. Lincoln Chafee to meet privately with him. Thirty minutes before my hour with Gov. Chafee, I learned that state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah Gist would join our meeting. As it turned out, I had 10 minutes of private time with the governor, then 50 minutes with Gist and leaders of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers.

I mention all this because of what happened during the 50 minutes. Gist is clearly a very smart, articulate woman. But she dominated the conversation, interrupted me whenever I spoke, and filibustered to use up the limited time. Whenever I raised an issue, she would interrupt to say, "That isn't happening here." She came to talk, not to listen. It became so difficult for me to complete a sentence that at one point, I said, "Hey, guys, you live here all the time, I'm only here for a few hours. Please let me speak." But Gist continued to cut me off. In many years of meeting with public officials, I have never encountered such rudeness and incivility. I am waiting for an apology.

That afternoon, I spoke to some 500 teachers, parents, and community activists from many of the state's districts. Teachers in Rhode Island are angry and disheartened in the aftermath of the pink slips that went out to every teacher in the Providence schools. But no one other than teachers seems to know or care. My view: indiscriminate, mass layoffs—with no individual evaluations—demoralize everyone and sunder the bonds of trust that are so necessary for school improvement.

I worry about the one-sided treatment of education issues, not only in Rhode Island, but in the national media. The corporate reformers seem shocked when anyone questions their narrative. They see no downside to their dogmatic belief in closing schools and firing principals and teachers, nor to their dogmatic faith that higher test scores are the goal of education. They accuse critics of "defending the status quo," even though it is they who are the status quo, the champions of get-tough accountability. They don't understand that they might be wrong, that their critics deserve a hearing, and that disagreement is healthy.

I remember that you went to the University of Chicago, where Robert Maynard Hutchins was president and a great defender of academic freedom and freedom of thought. For many years, I kept a clipping in my wallet, something that Hutchins said. It was the last line of his obituary in The New York Times (May 16, 1977). He said: "The only political dogma in America is that discussion leads to progress, that every man is entitled to his own opinions, and that we have to learn to live with those whose opinions differ from our own. After all, they may turn out to be right."

I don't know how we will convince the policymakers, the foundation leaders, and the media that education issues are complex and that all sides should be heard. Of course, there is a need for action, but not all actions make sense. And driving a train as fast as you can to the edge of a precipice is never a good idea. It pays to listen.

Diane

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