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A Christmas Truce in the Education Reform Wars (Part I)

Note: Mike McShane, research fellow in education policy studies at AEI, is guest posting this week.

One hundred years ago this week, in small pockets along the Western Front, soldiers fighting in World War I laid down their arms for a temporary Christmas truce.

Some say it began when soldiers on one side of no man's land began singing carols in their trenches and their adversaries recognized the tunes and started singing back. Others say it was a series of formal agreements between commanders that harkened back to a more gentlemanly age of warfare. For whatever reason, the soldiers chose to recognize, for a brief moment, that what united them was greater than what divided them and partook in a bit of Christmas cheer.

As you read this, I'm celebrating the holidays with my soon-to-be in-laws in Waterford, Ireland, where there will be no shortage of Christmas cheer. Just before I left the States, I completed a draft of a chapter for a forthcoming volume Rick and Jeff Henig are editing on educational philanthropy. They tasked me and AEI's Jenn Hatfield with studying the "backlash" to education philanthropy that has sprung up in the past decade or so.

You have seen it in outlets from all parts of the political spectrum: "Bill Gates' Reckless Meddling with US Education through Common Core," "What Bill Gates really thinks of the Common Core State Standards," and "Why are Walmart bankrolling billionaires phony school 'Reform' in LA?"

After conducting a series of interviews with folks enmeshed in this fight, I can't help but think that many people are stuck in ideological and rhetorical trenches, not unlike the soldiers on the Western Front.

In that spirit, I'd like to offer a couple of ideas for an Education Reform Christmas Truce. Today I'll highlight where I think folks are getting entrenched, and on Wednesday I'll try to offer a path out.

So how are folks getting stuck? Put simply, too many people have caricatured views of their ideological opponents and are choosing to highlight what divides them, rather than what unites them. In truth, I think there is much less distance between many of these people than they recognize. Let me give a couple of examples of mistakes I think folks are making:

1.       Letting means obscure ends

We interviewed folks from across the political spectrum. Although they have been temporarily united in opposing certain philanthropists' efforts (most notably the Common Core), those on the left end of the political spectrum generally saw themselves as adversaries to those on the right end of the political spectrum, and vice versa. But, when they got to talking about how they think schools should work and how the other side is screwing them up, there was a great deal of similarity. 

On both sides of these battles, people seem to imagine their opponents as wanting an unresponsive, monolithic system of schools. Conservatives see liberals as wanting a giant unresponsive bureaucracy lorded over by teacher union bosses puffing cigars in a backroom somewhere. Liberals see conservatives as wanting a school system dominated by huge corporate chains whose fat cats are puffing cigars at some country club somewhere, getting rich off of students and teachers. (BTW, who still smokes cigars? Gross.)

In reality, neither side actually wants what the other thinks they do.

Conservatives think that markets break up vested interests by promoting competition and allowing small organizations to emerge to meet a need. By giving families the same amount of money (or a need-based allocation) through a "voucher," policy creates a level playing field and an opportunity for smaller, community-based entrepreneurial organizations to spring up to educate children. Liberals see democracy as the way to break up vested interests by giving each individual equal representation in elections. By putting power in the hands of school boards, small democratic communities can create the schools that they want that reflect their values, and that value all of their children equally.

See the similarities? Breaking up unresponsive, monolithic institutions. Empowering the little guy. Giving schools freedom to reflect the values of the communities in which they are located. Folks across the spectrum can seemingly get behind this.

 2.       Not recognizing a common enemy

Conservatives recognize human fallibility, and are therefore skeptical that centrally-determined formulae can effectively evaluate children, teachers, or children. This is why they like markets, because markets take into account large amounts of information and competing value systems. Liberals recognize human diversity, and are therefore skeptical that centrally-determined formulae can fairly evaluate children, teachers, or children. This is why they, a la Montesquieu, like small democratic communities.

What these folks need to understand is that their enemy is not, in fact, each other. It is the people who want to standardize and routinize the evaluation of schools and teachers and narrow the aims those schools are required to pursue. 

In this way, I think improving education can be a bipartisan issue, but not in the way you usually hear it. When Secretary Duncan says that education can be bipartisan, he means that centrist Republicans can coalesce around an essentially center-left technocratic vision of how to operate schools. They want centralized standards, test-based school and teacher accountability, and limited "quality" choices for students.

But the inverse is also true: there is bipartisan resistance to centralization and rote test-based accountability systems. While conservatives are more naturally disposed to like standards and accountability, they are nervous about a single, centralized set of expectations with overly prescriptive definitions of student, teacher, and school quality. They also have little faith in bureaucrats to implement standards effectively, even if the standards are "high quality" (whatever that even means). Liberals are naturally more averse to school choice (because they believe choice schools can become vehicles for racial or socioeconomic segregation), but in many ways they dislike large-scale centralization even more than conservatives do. They see the denizens of state capitols or Washington as "The Man," outsiders who show up with little understanding of local context, a laundry list of demands, and few tools to help.

Given all of this, I tend to think that there is enough common ground to call a truce. On Wednesday, I'll talk terms.

--Mike McShane

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