Recently I have been spending much time reading up on public school reform. Yes, I totally have an ulterior motive in doing so—I’m trying to figure out how to create more interest/buzz about my year-old e-book, Snowflake Schools (you can read excerpts at http://www.snowflake-schools.com/snowflake-schools-the-book.html if you would like)—but it is starting to depress me more and more. (No, it’s not the anemic sales of my book that’s getting me down–I know what everybody says, “That’s the lot of most authors,” “You just have to keep plugging,” “Blah, blah, blah,” “Have you considered the possibility that your book totally sucks?” Hmm, that one doesn’t sound so encouraging…) No, it’s the tone of what’s being written about public education that I find awful. From what I’ve read, the majority of educational reformers spend most of their time attacking other educational reformers whom they believe have gotten everything wrong, rather than trying to figure out ways to bridge the gaps between positions, so that we can work toward ways to improve public education.
Naturally, I first gravitated to articles from reformers I consider most like me—those I believed were pro-teacher, wanted to de-emphasize the importance of standardized tests, and saw public education as a possible solution instead of the main problem. And I do mostly agree with what these reformers advocate. What I found in their articles, however, is that the majority of them strive to trash the other side. Several of these pundits had end-of-year lists citing the highs and lows of education in 2014. Not surprisingly, the lows all had to do with advances of for-profit charter schools, the “corporate” reform movement’s strides (Bill Gates and the Walmart Waltons were the ones most often cited as destroying education), and how the Common Core is driving teachers out of schools. Again, I would tend to agree that these directions do not best serve America’s students. Are they destroying education? Um, no, I taught too many sharp kids over too many years to believe that our system can ever be efficient and ruthless enough to stamp out the creativity, desire, and talent of the kids with whom I was lucky enough to work. Of course that might sound overly idealistic and Pollyanna-ish to many of you, but you can check with just about ANY of the students I ever taught and they will assure that I will never, ever be confused with Pollyanna. Anyway, I pretty much agreed that their lows were in fact, lows.
But when I came to the best public school events of 2014, almost all of them celebrated others’ lack of success: This charter school company folded, that anti-education candidate lost, those high-and-mighty leaders fell out of favor, these studies showed how stupid Arne Duncan is, and on and on. Hardly any of these lists had positive achievements, just failures on the parts of those they considered enemies. The gloating, sniping, low-road nature of most of their comments made me feel embarrassed to be on their side. I had to stop following one prominent educational leader whom I had admired because all I was getting from her was a barrage of emails about her blog entries almost all of which were blast after blast about how awful charter schools and their leaders are.
That’s not to say those who see things differently took the high road either. The gloating about tenure being overturned in California (currently that ruling is on appeal), melodramatic Time covers that suggest the teaching ranks are rife with rotten apples, and the strident commentators who demonize teacher pay and teacher unions certainly don’t improve the tenor of the discussions we should be having on how to improve struggling schools or to help spread the good word about teaching that is working, about schools that are educating young people.
In short, the debate on public education has descended to the level of our political wrangling. It’s the same “Red vs. Blue” garbage that has led our news channels to being little more than propaganda outlets for viewers who have no interest in “fair and balanced,” but tune in each day simply to have their already granite-like opinions given another coat of shellac so that their minds might be even further protected from having to consider other points of view.
None of this should be surprising, I guess. Pointing out how other people have screwed up has always been one of the chief human joys; it’s the same emotional relief and horrific interest that motivates people to gape at traffic accidents and watch America’s Funniest Home Videos. Hell, it’s what I’m doing right now. It’s just that one would hope when it comes to something as potentially life-changing and positive as education we would try to have reasoned debates in which opponents parried over facts, instead of automatic attacks simply based on the source of the opinion.
You run into this same negativity all over the internet, especially with the relative anonymity of the comments sections at the end of every article, blog, or Facebook entry on-line. Recently, I saw what appeared to be an innocuous posting of a baked chicken recipe that had been vociferously attacked by some because the recipe made use of brown sugar. (And we all know that brown sugar is a satanic poison designed to kill every overweight or diabetic person in the world. The horror that anyone would share a recipe with such an evil ingredient!) I’m guessing that there has always been this kind of over-reaction to the things people read, but the freedom and ease of expression allowed by computers has certainly encouraged people to abuse this opportunity. And it’s not only the negative people who are taking advantage. “I earned $666,666,666,666 in one month working at home for five seconds a day. You can too if you just…”
Nobody has all the answers, and I do realize how pompous it can seem when people like me regularly share our “brilliant” ideas in public forums. I have never been shy about stating what I think, but as I’ve aged, I’ve tried (with minimal success at times, I will admit) to temper my views, to consider alternative ways of doing things, and to work at being polite even when those with whom I’m dealing aren’t. I’m not big on resolutions for the new year, but I would like to do better at being open to those with whom I disagree and striving to find ideas that will move public schools forward rather than adding another strident voice to the cacophony of current discourse.
So I vow to be neither red nor blue in my biases, but to seek the purple ground, to blend the extremes to a consistency that will appeal to a variety of palates, and to refrain from mean-spiritedness or gloating at others’ failures. What we need are things that work, things we can use, things that will ensure our kids have the opportunity to enter the “real” world with the skills they need to make that world better. It’s always ego-satisfying to score debating points or to lambast people with whom you disagree in a funny-at-their-expense way, but that’s not going to get us anywhere. Let’s try to get somewhere, okay?