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Commentary: Toward more productive dialogue

Teacher Mark Sass urges people engaged in debates about education reform to open their minds to diverse perspectives and avoid ideology and knee-jerk positioning.

Living in Colorado, a key swing state in the upcoming presidential election, we are being bombarded with campaign spots on the television and radio. It is still four months from the election, yet the airwaves of Colorado are filled not only with the acrid smell of out-of-control wild fires, but the acrid smell of our political discourse.

As a social science teacher, I’m fortunate to be able to bring immediate relevance to my classroom with the impending presidential election. I am not only responsible for teaching the election system to my students, including the electoral college, political parties,and special interest groups; I am also responsible for teaching students how to engage in their civic duties, which includes gathering and arguing their political positions.

I have plenty of real life examples on how NOT to engage in political discourse just by using the media. There is little “how to” engage examples out there today.

The same can be said of the discourse surrounding education reform today. There are plenty of examples and ideas on how NOT to engage in discourse, and not a lot of examples or ideas on how to do it well.

How do we move to a more productive, a more constructive conversation about education and education reform which can result in action? Let’s start with a few suggestions for those who currently engage in the education discussions:

  • Teachers, we need to listen. In order to listen effectively, reactionary and defensive posturing will need to fall aside. We have to be open to the ideas of others rather than simply rejecting them because they may not be “real” educators. Teachers need to lead, but we need to listen as well.
  • Non-educators, have some respect for the profession of teaching. After all, if the research informs us that teachers have the greatest impact in the classroom, why not help promote this by listening and taking teachers’ voices seriously?
  • Don’t confuse bias with partisanship. Bias permeates all of us. But bias does not mean one is wrong or right. Let’s allow for one’s “angle” or “perspective” to enter the idea arena without immediately disregarding others’ views based on who they are. One can be biased but not closed off to other ideas; partisanship leads to closed-mindedness because the only goal is to win.
  • Understand that education is complex. For those who believe they have easy fixes to education reform, don’t bother. Easy fixes reflect a simplified view of the parts that make up the whole. When people take a reductionist view of something as complex as education, they limit the conversation to a very narrow world-view.
  • Focus on the shades of grey that exist between the polarizing and dualistic approaches that seem to inhabit current education reform discourse. Education has experienced tremendous swings in the reform pendulum that leaves us weary and thin-skinned. Think back to the phonics versus whole-language debate of a decade ago. We now know it takes a combination of both based on the student’s individual needs to work.
  • To progressives I ask us/you to stop with the simplistic view that: a) you cannot impact achievement gaps in schools until you end inequities in society and/or b) academic achievement is not phased by social injustice. As I state above, let’s move away from the either/or scenarios.
  • To those who advocate for a market-based approach I ask that we understand that there are short-term and long-term approaches you can apply to education reform discussions. Use the long-term approach. Countries with successful education systems recognize that short-term financial returns do not equate to success.

Some may call me naive but I envision dialogue that relies on the human capacity for rational behavior where we recognize compelling, reasoned arguments for what they are; where we can learn from one another and agree on interpretations of the situation; where we reach a common understanding through reasoned argument, consensus and cooperation rather than strategic action strictly in pursuit of ones’ own goals. These are some of the ideas that come from the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and his idea of communicative action.

This is not easy work. Whenever work involves moral claims it will be combative and messy. Saul Alinsky, the great community organizer, called dissonance “the music of democracy.” Let’s be mindful of this as we engage in our work.

I want to be clear that I am not necessarily advocating for finding a middle ground. The middle ground may not be the best place to end up. Besides, if we focus on the middle ground, it just encourages parties to engage in polemic attacks in an attempt to keep the middle ground from moving to or away from the poles.

I am advocating that we take into account the perspectives of those whom we reflexively reject. Let’s reach consensus on the moral claim that compels our work, and let’s reject the use of power as the motivator to act.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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