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Bridging the Naughty-Nice Divide in Education Debates

Judging from the comments they left online, several charter school advocates think I was naughty last week when I wrote in a New York Times editorial forum that some charter networks push out kids who have only moderate behavior issues. 

In the Room for Debate piece, I suggested that while forcing young adults to comply with an ultra-strict dress code and total-silence-in-the-hallway rules might make some students more "college-ready,"  it might make some expressive, free-thinking kids more prison-ready.  After all, which do these knit-picky rules and their dire consequences resemble most, college life or prison life? 

As a charter school teacher myself, some allies acted like my criticism was tantamount to treason!

On the other hand, traditional school advocates and hardcore unionists applauded me for being nice.  A few of my faithful critics even favorited and retweeted my post on Twitter.  While it was refreshing to finally find share common ground with them, it seemed that they were misinterpreting my message and using it as evidence that charters are bad for public education.  I wasn't saying that at all!  I was critiquing certain unnamed charter schools on their seemingly over-the-top discipline policies, not judging all charter schools as inherently evil nor challenging the educational value that they bring.

For the record, I've happily worked at a charter for the past seven years.  I have two school-aged children who attend a charter school. This, however, in no way prohibits me from speaking out against what seem to me egregious, wrongheaded policies at some charter schools—or any other kind of school.  A school is a school is a school.

Regrettably, we educators are taught early on in our careers to pick a side—charter or district—and stick to it.  When we pick our side, we must never publicly say anything pointedly critical about it—period.

I know several die-hard union teachers—a couple of them school delegates—who, as quiet as it's kept, send their own children to private and charter schools.  When I've asked them about this, they've told me flat-out (but off the record, of course) that their neighborhood school wasn't good enough.  Publicly they stand united with their union's anti-charter stance, but privately they've selected the charter school option. Here's a terrific question: Are these teacher-parents being naughty or nice?

One might argue nice because these teachers are parents first, and who can fault them for doing what's best for their children?  Another might say naughty because these teachers are hypocrites for secretly reneging on principles they pretend to so deeply hold dear.   

I think the best way for any institution to improve is to hear constructive criticism from within or from its allies. Yes, you will likely be perceived as naughty.  But if your grandma's nasty homemade soup promised to heal your disease, you would probably drink it ... albeit reluctantly. Why? Because you know your grandmother's motive is to help, not hurt, you.

Unfortunately, our ultra-polarized political culture discourages honest, civil, and nuanced public debate. It especially has little tolerance for dissention within the ranks. When the notion of solidarity takes preeminence, those within the firm who might offer a better strategy feel muted lest the wrath of Almighty God comes upon them.  What a brilliant way to sabotage progress on either side!

Who might find a better alternative to a charter network's "no excuses" discipline policies: Teachers who work in charter schools or union supporters who want nothing less than to shut all charters down (or at least unionize them)?

Who might be better at convincing leaders of a teachers union to adopt a new, innovative education model: A group of union delegates from neighborhood schools or administrators from a charter school management company that's asking the district to authorize a dozen more campus sites?

It's high time for educators to do more self-policing of their own type of schools—and it's time for more school managers of all stripes to listen.  This can be a hard sell to charter teachers and administrators who work on a one-year, at-will contract, without the benefits of tenure or due process if fired.  With union protection, district teachers (and to some extent administrators) don't face as high of a risk, but we all know that retribution comes in many other forms besides loosing one's job.

I addressed this issue last year in my TEDx talk entitled "Finding the Courage to Voice the Taboo." Before offering constructive criticism to colleagues or higher-ups within your institution, be sure to ask yourself these questions:

  • Is my criticism constructive, solutions-oriented, and rooted in facts?
  • Am I trying to solve a persistent problem or am I exaggerating an issue to embarrass someone or to pick a fight? 
  • Am I motived for personal or political gain or am I honestly trying to improve learning conditions for children?
  • How far do I want to press my case, and am I prepared to accept the consequences that may follow?

I ask myself these questions every time I write a blog; a few times, I decided to postpone publishing a post when I did not feel comfortable with my answers.  

With each blog post, some readers find me naughty while others find me nice.  What matters most to me is that readers find me honest.

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