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Where We Disagree: Let's Discuss

Dear Eric,

Even before your letter arrived, I've been puzzling over how to respond. Because I am hoping this will not be just a "your side" followed by "my side" etc. Even at the time (1970s and 1980s) when Diane Ravitch and I had our most bitter disagreements, there were commonalties we both knew about that helped us in our back and forth.

But I'm much more dependent on your own fairly succinctly outlined argument of last Tuesday—for which I apologize. I don't know the rest of your story. A good argument rests on finding common ground or else, too often, it's just "choose your sides."

So my purpose in this letter is to explore—by close examination of your Tuesday letter, where our assumptions, our underlying ways of knowing the world may give us a lead-in to a fruitful discussion.

To start off, I'm going to summarize what I think you're saying. I fully expect you to correct me where I'm wrong. Maybe by getting to the heart of some of my misconceptions about your views, we can make some progress.

1. On Tuesday, you wrote: "Our achievement goals should be a national decision, not an individual state decision." That was, of course, the Constitutional decision, and most states actually left it very vague at best with the details left to local public entities. Just a few decades ago we had over 100,000 local districts, today we educate twice as many students, have a 10th the number of schools boards, most of which are no longer elected or have much power. We can see this as a triumph or a worrisome fact. I see it as worrisome for the future of democracy. How we conduct 12 or more years of our children's education is surely a sensitive topic, and hardly a trivial matter. Especially for a diverse, complex, and democratic-aspiring society. I believe that especially when ideas are at stake and beliefs and habits are deeply involved, the more top-down decisionmaking becomes the norm, the more unsuccessful we will be. Getting to the heart of the matter, finding the best path for creating a well-educated citizenry rests on relationships of wary trust, constant revisions and rethinking, and lots of compromising, followed by more debate. Especially if we try to enforce such top-down decisions! Then we quickly run into Campbell's law—the higher the stakes, the more corrupted the standards we are seeking become.

Who should decide what is a critical discussion in a democracy? James Scott's book Seeing Like a State is a useful historical study of one approach—that I am inclined toward. Trust those closest to the action—if possible. This is not to say that it should overrule all other viewpoints, but that it's the first place to go for seeking both "whys" and "how's, with sufficient skepticism to seek the holes in the arguments and seek counter-explanations. It's a kind of "expect good intentions," but be wary, approach, especially when wariness may undermine whatever good intentions are present. I liked the sign I saw recently on a demonstration: "Becoming educated is not a race but a journey." You have to join the journey to understand it.

2. That, like many liberals of my own persuasion, you rest your hopes on "outcomes," not "inputs." (I base this on your statement that: "we should retain the objective outcome focus for student performance.") I'd argue that trying to find the right "outcomes" and then figuring out how to measure them is as complicated as it is foolhardy—except as a thought experiment. As the basis for discourse I love it, and as long as our efforts to measure it carry only rhetorical weight it may even be a useful way to explore an important question. For, in fact, outcomes are trickier to measure in the case of schooling (or parenting) than inputs. I'd vote for never losing sight of either.

3. That the NCLB requirement that "all students be proficient in math by the end of this year" was a reasonable goal. (I base this on your support for continuing NCLB, albeit in revised form.) I find defining what we mean by "proficient" puzzling, much less measuring it. It starts, after all, with: "What is it about math that adults most need to know"? As an aspiring democracy I'd suggest that statistics and probability—and an understanding of scale—are decidedly more important than calculus OR algebra and that we suffer grievously from our lack of such understanding. It's counterintuitive thinking that is the most difficult to "educate." But even were we to agree, proving the merits of one approach (or goal) to another would not definitively answer our dilemma. What data we decide to use is—in reality—almost impossible to standardize. Take it from me—even common terms—dropout rates, benchmarks, absenteeism, et al—are often highly misleading terms in actual practice. And how do we measure the unexpected consequences of our actions?

4. Setting a goal and mapping the step-by-step path toward meeting it was and remains as wise in this area as any other (especially given sufficient power to reward and punish)—at the heart of NCLB—and I'm therefore assuming you go along with it. Whereas this theory of change has its attractions, we usually recognize its futility in the real world. "If I only run the mile 1/10th a second faster each ... day, week, year, I will eventually be able to run a one-minute mile." What leads us to believe that this analogy doesn't describe our way of thinking about educational outcomes? In spades.

5. That NCLB and RTTT are supported by the usual allies of public education—civil-rights groups, parent organizations, etc.,—exposes, you suggest, the narrow self-interest of its opposition. What I believe it exposes is that we are easily taken in by "crisis" talk, and that indeed for some subsets of the American people such a crisis surely exists and has been unaddressed. (And besides this is beginning to change.) In fact for most of America's disadvantaged immigrants success in school came after success in the economy, not before—a fact we regularly rhetorically disguise. Why we select education as the equity issue to focus on—rather than unemployment, incarceration, poverty, racism, or any other of the possible villains that stand in the way of equity is interesting, but not obvious. Maybe because it distracts us from more intractable and "dangerous" subjects?

And finally, I have two other concerns that we might discuss.

First, I'm always cautious when the word "crisis" is used. We are in a crisis of some sort most of our lives, but to respond to crises as though things couldn't be worse is a fatal mistake. That's why medicine rests on "do no harm"—and so does raising children. So I often rest my arguments on "would I do it to myself" and "would I do it to my own offspring?" And if so, why not?

Secondly, I think temperamentally and professionally we are probably furthest apart in our respect for numerical data. Which came first—our line of work or our line of thought? I'm inclined to agree with David Brooks's column in The New York Times on Feb. 18—when it comes to data, and the more I know about any subject, the more suspicious I become of "data-driven" answers.

We can spend the next month trying to state our positions more clearly than we have in these first two introductory letters by perhaps selecting just one or two of my attempts to do so above—clarifying our language as we go and seeing where it takes us. It may not matter where we start—so I leave it to you.


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