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My Hat's off to ED

Big props to the Obama Department of Education for doing something that you don't see too much in Washington or in edu-circles. Last Thursday, the Department invited my colleague Andrew Kelly and me to come over and have a public, unscripted conversation about our book Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit (Harvard Ed Press, 2012). This was a sterling example of how leaders can signal that they're interested in hearing constructive criticism and willing to take the time to hear the thinking of those who aren't necessarily on the same page.

How so? One, I've been a sympathetic but emphatic critic of a number of Obama administration initiatives in K-12 and higher ed. Two, while the book's varied contributors offer what is (I think) an even-handed treatment of what we've learned about Uncle Sam's efforts to improve schooling, it certainly challenges some of the assumptions and strategies of the Obama administration. Three, assistant secretary for communications and outreach Peter Cunningham moderated the session in the Department auditorium before a full house, had taken the time to read the book (not a common D.C. occurrence), and asked incisive but genial questions. Four, the courteous audience included officials like Duncan chief of staff Joanne Weiss and IES chief John Easton, who took the time to catch the whole discussion.

This is the kind of willingness to hear from our critics that is sorely lacking in Washington and the edu-space, and I think ED deserves real kudos for inviting this kind of dialogue. (For those who would say, "Rick, practice what you preach," I'd point out that over the past 2-3 years I've been honored to host colleagues with whom I've clashed, including: Secretary Duncan, Kati Haycock, Randi Weingarten, Dennis van Roekel, Diane Ravitch, Deborah Meier, Kevin Welner, Charlie Barone, and so on.)

The funny thing about such discussions is they inevitably reveal common ground that can go overlooked when we only communicate through intermediaries and sharply-worded missives. For instance, I happily told Cunningham that, for all my serious reservations about ED's ESEA waiver approach, the resulting state proficiency targets are more sensible than NCLB's requirements. Similarly, I endorsed the administration's push on education research and federal competitive grants which aid state leaders eager to throw off anachronistic strictures (like data firewalls or charter school caps).

One final thought. This kind of exchange only works when the speaker is willing to respect the audience. That obviously requires civility. But it also requires that speakers not pander. I've sat through way too many talks to ed school, TFA, or charter leaders where thoughtful speakers just spew flattery that tell the audience what it wants to hear. Real dialogue requires at least two things: an audience to address, and the willingness to share your truth... whatever the reception.

But I'm not too worried about all that right now. Today, I just want to recognize the Department for the healthful discipline of offering a full hearing to even a disgruntled, dyspeptic, and generally ill-tempered critic like me.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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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