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

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

On Monday, I argued that a large swath of education reformers and education reform opponents actually have more in common than they think. I hope that simply recognizing that fact could help turn down the heat on some of the rhetoric, but I live in the real world. So I'll offer some more concrete steps to achieve a Christmas truce.

1.       Dig deeper than the party label

I'm not Akon. I'm not against labels. In many cases, party labels are effective tools for voters with limited time and interest to make more informed decisions at the ballot box. However, if you are interested in understanding where the real fault lines are in education debates, party ID will probably not help you.

The Christmas Truce would unite those who oppose technocracy, whether they identify as Democrats or Republicans. In an interview, a prominent education reform opponent who is about as far to the left of the political spectrum as I've encountered told me, "Thank God for those conservative moms who opposed the Common Core." In them, he saw a force fighting the same fight against centralizers and technocrats as he was. 

 2.       Argue on the right terms

If we accept that both sides are interested in breaking up big, unresponsive, and unrepresentative systems, then the debate becomes about which system of governance (school choice or school boards) actually achieves this goal. Gone are tired debates over which sector "works" based on how much it increases students' math and reading test scores, and in their place is a much deeper debate over our democracy and how to ensure the promise of equality that undergirds it. If debate is guided by the question, "Does this (policy, school, governance arrangement, etc.) accurately reflect the needs and wants of children, parents, and its community?" the resulting discussion will be far more productive.

A similar question for debate might be, "Is this tool able to make the distinction that we want it to?" It is a common refrain that testing is needed because "you need to know if what you are doing is working." But that second person pronoun is rarely clarified. Who is "you?" If it is policymakers trying to evaluate schools or programs, they need tests that do one thing. If it is school leaders trying to evaluate teachers or within-school initiatives, they need tests that do another. If it is classroom teachers trying to figure out if students have learned last week's lesson, they need tests that do something else. So what happens? All of these tests get piled on top of one another, various and at times competing stakes get attached to them, students spend way too much time testing, and teachers spend way too much time prepping. No one wants that. Let's debate this: Who actually needs to know what, and how do we get it to them parsimoniously? This not to say that it won't be a fraught or difficult discussion, but it is one that might find some resolution.

3.       Let old wounds heal

I'd be willing to wager that if some poor soul decided to review all of the pieces I've ever published, I have violated some of my own recommendations. But I learned a lot from the folks Jenn and I interviewed, and those conversations changed the way that I look at several education issues.

Sometimes I worry that folks get stuck in particular ideological positions simply because they don't want to be grouped with people they don't like. They essentially say, "My dumb uncle Gary is a Republican, so as persuasive as you might be, I can never see myself in the same group as that moron," or the flipside, "I'm not joining the same team as my patchouli-scented 17-year-old nephew with his ratty Che Guevara t-shirt."

For folks that exist outside of the technocratic middle, there are people on the other side of the aisle that think like them. Unfortunately, because these people tend to fall more at the extremes of their own partisan group, they are especially averse to extending a hand in common effort. That's too bad, because I bet it would work out much better than they think.

4.       Choice might be the answer

While these folks have united in opposing the Common Core, I think a similar coalition could also form around school choice, as allowing people choice can circumvent the need for centralized standards and accountability and open up schooling to community-based organizations.

But, in order to find common ground, liberals have got to internalize that many conservatives support charter schools and school vouchers because they see them as an opportunity for community organizations to get involved and create new schools in neighborhoods. They like churches and non-profits and want to empower them to help serve kids. To put it another way, in school choice they see Edmund Burke, not Gordon Gekko. It would also help if more conservatives understood that most liberals oppose school choice programs for the exact same reasons. They think that school boards are a better guarantor of community input and values than markets are. They worry that for-profit companies or even far-away non-profit entities are trying to invade communities and instill their values and their vision on children, whether families like it or not. They see charter schools or voucher systems as cold, impersonal, and destructive.

To assuage both sides' fears, a couple of conditions would have to be met.

First, the amount of the voucher (or scholarship or whatever PC thing you want to call it) would have to accurately reflect what both sides think a child's education costs. That means more money for poor students, English language learners, students with special needs, etc.

Second, local community organizations would need to have first crack, and the necessary supports, to create schools for students. Rather than outsiders coming in with their plans, if schools grew organically within communities, they would engender much more support.

Third, schools must have the freedom to pursue the pedagogical orientation that they want. If this means progressive, constructivist, we don't give grades instruction, so be it. If it means rigid direct instruction and strict discipline, that's cool too, so long as parents have the freedom to choose the school and the freedom to leave should they not like what they are experiencing.

No coercion. No centralization. Community voices. Small democratic institutions (with families "voting" with their feet). Freedom to be diverse. Liberals and conservatives can get behind this.

I don't want to say that we can get rid of conflict in education. In fact, I think that debate, conflict, and disagreement are essential parts of our democracy. I hope they continue, just on terms that might actually allow someone to gain some ground, not just mow down wave after wave of our youth like the guns of Verdun and the Somme.

We should not forget a central lesson of The Christmas Truce of 1914. In the ugly aftermath of later battles, the Christmas Truce faded away. According to sources from the time, soldiers on opposing sides saw less and less of the mutual humanity that struck up the first Christmas Truce as the long war toiled on. I hope we can do better.

--Mike McShane

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