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When School Reformers Disagree

Two books on the same subject written for the general public and published simultaneously have unexpected relevance to the issue of education reform. I was reminded of this connection after reading a review in the New York Times of Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz and Wrong by David H. Freedman ("To Err Is Human. And How! And Why.").

When confronted by ideas that differ from theirs, people first assume that other people are ignorant, then idiotic, and finally evil. Although Schulz was referring to human beings in general, her observation has specific application to self-styled experts on school reform. It's increasingly common to read about those who have never taught a day in a public school pontificating about reform and referring to those who disagree by one of the three labels, either explicitly or implicitly. It's the height of arrogance, of course, but they don't know it, and to make matters worse they don't want to know it. The latter attitude makes a rational dialogue impossible.

Teachers unions serve as an illustration. Readers of the Wall Street Journal are familiar with the editorials known as Review & Outlook that persistently demonize teachers unions. The Nov. 17, 2009 editorial, for example, called teachers unions "the biggest barrier to school reform in America" ("The Edsel of Education Reform"). The Dec. 22, 2008 editorial charged that strikes are "a form of legal extortion" ("Striking Against Students"). Nothing that can be said in their defense ever makes it into the editorial column, even when the evidence flatly contradicts what is written. There is no tolerance for differing opinions, particularly from classroom teachers. That is the right of editorial writers, but it nevertheless amounts to intellectual incest.

Freedman picks up on this point. He says that even scientists, who should be open to all empirical evidence, often reject data that don't support their theses. The debate over charter schools, for example, falls into that category. The findings about their success are mixed, witness the studies by Margaret Raymond and Caroline Hoxby. Yet the results of both investigators are used selectively by those who wish to advance their agendas.

The controversy surrounding vouchers also reflects this tendency. Their supporters conveniently ignore the data showing similar academic results between students enrolled in voucher and regular schools in Milwaukee, home of the nation's oldest voucher program. The latest conclusion, published in April, was based on a series of reports from researchers in the School Choice Demonstration Project ("New data shows similar academic results between voucher and MPS students").

Disagreement is also reflected in the debate over vouchers. Supporters downplay the fact that voters in more than 25 statewide referendums across the country have rejected vouchers or their variants by an average of 2-to-1, as Edd Doerr, president of Americans for Religious Liberty, has frequently pointed out. Even after voters in Utah overwhelmingly turned down the country's first universal voucher program in Nov. 2007 advocates continue to try to spin the results.

Critics of public schools are certainly entitled to their opinions because they are taxpayers. But they do a disservice to the very students they are ostensibly advocating for when they attempt to win points by implying that those who do not share their attitudes are not worthy of consideration. Let's not forget that there are two sides to every story.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check 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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