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Whose Opinions Matter in Education World?

I've been a teacher all my adult life--which means I've had to wrestle, many times, with questions about what is fair, what is balanced, what is best for the group. I've had to bite back opinion (deep-seated opinion, often) about a controversial issue when speaking in a classroom. I've actively promoted, for decades, the idea that we can all get along peacefully, despite our very real and obvious differences. I understand the need for neutrality, civility and caution when acting as a public employee.

I recently asked a wonderful, newly minted PhD in Education and former teacher to write a column for this blog--on a school-based topic I thought was critical, current and of special interest now, a time when the very foundations of good government and democratic equality are shaky.

First, he said yes. Then he needed more time. Finally, reluctantly, because he didn't want to scuttle any of the job opportunities on his horizon, he bailed. And I don't blame him.

Along with all the outspoken teacher-fervor of 2018--laying bare the growing teacher pay penalty accompanied by crumbling facilities and irrational expectations--there lies another important question: Who is telling us the truth about our schools, and who's reluctant to speak?

Who has the right ideas about shoring up public education? Who can be trusted to always be on the side of students and their parents, looking out for schools and teachers? Who is both concerned and well-informed--and who's just trying to sell us something or advance an idea or organization?

It's no wonder that the smartest and best-informed educators, like my friend, are reluctant to stick their necks out, to lead a charge, speak in public or write opinion blogs and books. Everything you put out there can come back to haunt you the next time you're trying to present yourself as a serious, open-minded education scholar, not an ideologue or a scold.

I could name dozens of education authors and thought leaders I once admired--Big Thinkers in education whose books I embraced (or was assigned to read), or well-known, compelling presenters--whose stars have faded in the national discourse. In education, we are always looking for the next big thing, but we're also unforgiving of those whose ideas may have morphed over time.

Over the past eight years, I have facilitated an online graduate course designed to encourage teachers to get involved in educational policy and change. The first module asks enrolled teachers to name an education book that influenced their thinking about education. Surprisingly, several teachers in each incarnation of the course admitted they hadn't read an education book since college. In the last round, we expanded that assignment to include all education commentary--magazines, blogs, articles, op-eds, even Twitter and Facebook posts. Nearly the same result--it was difficult for teacher leaders to name their greatest influencers, the thinkers who challenged or inspired them.

I get it. They're uber-busy, doing exactly what parents, administrators and communities want them to do: immerse themselves in accomplished classroom practice. Some teachers said--correctly--that current education writing was a firehose, too overwhelming and random to know whose voices were the right ones, and whose opinions were loaded. And I need to say that I was impressed with their honesty. It's hard to identify education heroes and sheroes.

And perhaps even harder to pinpoint just whose work is slanted, paid-for and dishonest. The education landscape has grown increasingly complicated, disparate and contentious. Every single issue, from preparing an adequate supply of quality teachers to innovative curricula to what constitutes adequate teacher compensation has become an arena for argument and judgment.

To whom should we be listening, when it comes to public education? And what makes a source untrustworthy? These are important questions.

There aren't many unassailable thought leaders or organizations in education.

  • In a group conversation about equity and testing, I admired the scholarship and writing of Linda Darling-Hammond, only to be shot down by a small cadre of university professors who felt she was complicit with the testing industry.
  • The blog I recently wrote about Ted Dintersmith's new book, which I found compelling, met with lots of resistance from education writers whose work I admire, calling the author deceptive and mostly interested making money from individualized computer-based learning.
  • Ruby Payne was most often mentioned by the teachers in my course as a positive, game-changing influence on their teaching. Her book, 'A Framework for Understand Poverty,' has been widely disseminated by school leaders--probably the reason so many teachers knew the book and found it useful. But many scholars and critical theorists, especially those of color, find Payne's work deceitful, poorly researched, even damaging.

There is no such thing as ideological purity in education world. There are no programs or leaders or publications that everyone finds admirable.  And if you're teaching second grade or chemistry 24/7, you're probably not on top of cutting-edge editorial opinion, or the latest research study (including whether the researchers' methodology is solid and who's paying for the study).  

What should teacher leaders do? 

Approach every book, article or blog with an open mind, looking to analyze and critique content and ideas, rather than authorship.  

Compare viewpoints in any piece to their own experience in the classroom. Undervaluing the teacher perspective is a thread that runs through a great deal of scholarship.

Be willing to challenge closely-held beliefs, to listen or read deeply and sit with new ideas before looking for ways to reject them.

Try to spend an hour a week perusing that fire hose of information. It falls into the 'important' box, not the 'urgent' box, and we spend way too much time putting out fires instead of feeding our heads.

Before reading anything--and there are lots of glossy, tempting sites out there--find out who's funding the commentary. This is the most common mistake, made by recognized veterans and newbie teachers alike: falling for facile opinions, dished up by organizations with money and a definite agenda.

Talk with other teachers about what you read. Deconstruct. Argue. Discuss. That's how we will all become fully professional.

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