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Michelle Rhee and Jack Schneider: Sitting Down to Talk

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Over the past 20 years a new reform movement has emerged in American education.  Led by a coalition of entrepreneurial policymakers, philanthropists, and business leaders—as well as by a number of educators—the movement seeks quantifiable gains in student achievement.  And in pursuit of that aim, its adherents have pushed for the implementation of strategies like accountability testing, teacher compensation reform, "value-added" evaluation methodologies, and charter school expansion.

Of course, this movement has not swept across K-12 schools without opposition.  Proposed changes in policy have provoked passionate resistance from those who interpret them as an assault on public schools and teachers.  And the resulting tension between these two sides has subjected each camp's cherished ideas to severe scrutiny.

Sometimes this tension has been fruitful—leading to the adoption of policies for which there is diverse and well-founded support.  More often, however, it has provoked animosity and mistrust, accompanied by increasingly alarmist rhetoric.  Arguments have devolved into attacks.  Fact has been blended with fiction.  And ideology has undermined respect for evidence.  In this war of words, reasoned debate is being driven to the margins.  And neither side is blameless.

This blog is our response.  It is a plea for dialogue.

To be clear: we have chosen our sides.  One of us (Michelle) has been an active part of the reform movement—most visibly through her leadership of the Washington, DC public schools, and most recently through her work at StudentsFirst.  The other of us (Jack) has been a vocal critic—writing frequently about the movement and its shortcomings.  In short, Michelle believes that the current push for educational change is in the right direction; Jack does not.

But despite our disagreements, we have agreed to write about educational change together because we believe that a more substantive and nuanced dialogue will serve the public interest.  Of course, Michelle believes that if the public is presented with the facts, they will be swayed by the logic undergirding the dominant policy agenda.  And Jack believes the opposite, seeing the rhetoric as more fundamentally misleading—a cover for ideologically-driven policies thin on evidence. 

Yet though we are uncertain about what the ultimate outcome of this dialogue will be, both of us agree about the importance of finding common ground.  We think that sound bites are fundamentally misleading.  We are convinced that the more we shout at each other from our separate corners, the further apart we will grow.  And we believe that beneath the surface of so much disagreement is a point of consensus about the importance of educating the nation's children.

The purpose of this blog, then, is not to sling partisan mud at each other, or even to debate.  Instead, our aim in this dialogue is to move beyond the rhetoric (and counter- rhetoric) in an effort to restore some common ground for improving our schools.  And though neither of us is operating under the illusion that we will agree about everything, it is our sincere hope that we will agree about some things.  Because strategies of mutual opposition are almost certain to result in wrathful deadlock.

In the process of this work, Michelle may undermine some of her reform credibility—agreeing that the push for educational change is perhaps more complicated than its boosters maintain.  And Jack may appear to have gone soft—conceding that some iterations of particular policies may actually do more good than harm.  But that is by design.  We are sitting down to talk.  And we hope invested parties will consider doing the same, before we find ourselves even more deeply divided.

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The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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