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The Slippery Slope

During the 2004 campaign season, there was a particularly annoying billboard on a stretch of freeway I drive several times a week. All it said was: Boots? Or Flip-flops?--with the appropriate Texas-style boots positioned above a pair of rubber beach thongs, presumably the footwear of feckless windsurfer types. As advertising, it certainly was catchy. But as policy-making philosophy, it's thoughtless--the elevation of prideful tenacity over common sense. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said: The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

Speaking of a first-rate intelligence, I just finished Diane Ravitch's superb book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, which could serve as a well-researched primer for anyone who wants a lucid, readable deconstruction of the education policy ideas that have currently captured the public imagination. The highest recommendation I can offer is this: Ravitch has written a fair, balanced and scholarly briefing on the issues, including the evolution of her own thinking.

Most of the early media buzz about the book has centered on Ravitch's defection from earlier educational convictions--which is a shame, because the book is a whole lot more than an explanation of why a respected educator now rejects ideas she once found compelling. For the talking ed-heads, the story is: Diane Ravitch changed her mind!

But for teachers, principals, parents and students--whose life work and life prospects are most impacted by education policy decisions--her opinions and message carry far more import. On each of a handful of key issues--testing, choice, effective teaching, standards--Ravitch provides a concise summary of history, needs, policy goals, research data and implications, a template for the road ahead. The real story is not about Diane Ravitch; the story is about the policy choices we're making, often on the basis of faulty information and optimism.

Is there merit in sticking to your guns, staying the course--even when the evidence is running in the other direction? Ironically, the pundits who are now questioning Ravitch's motivation in writing the book remind me of another educational force: the unions.

In my thirty years as a union member, there were dozens of incidents where conscientious colleagues debated whether the right course of action might be volunteering to fill an unpaid role, negotiating reduced compensation to preserve programming or bending seniority language to keep the best teachers on the job.

Invariably, we were warned not to capitulate, because giving in to administrative requests was a slippery slope.

The slippery slope theory is familiar to all association veterans: give 'em an inch--consent to re-open settled discussions, even with new information--and "we" might lose ground. Thus making educational decision-making a continuous win/lose power struggle, rather than an ongoing dialogue based on emerging data and mutual commitment.

Much more on the issues Ravitch covers in "Death and Life" in upcoming blogs. But she gets the last word here on certainty, mind-changing and what matters when the stakes are high:

What should we think of someone who never admits error, never entertains doubt but adheres unflinchingly to the same ideas all his life, regardless of new evidence? Doubt and skepticism are signs of rationality. When we are too certain of our opinions, we run the risk of ignoring any evidence that conflicts with our views. It is doubt that shows we are still thinking, still willing to reexamine hardened beliefs when confronted with new facts and new evidence.

Forget the steel-toed boots. Give me flexibility--and a willingness to pay attention.

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