Education Opinion

Labeling People We Disagree With Doesn’t Increase Learning

By Joe Nathan — May 05, 2015 9 min read
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Today Joe Nathan and Deborah Meier discuss whether labeling opponents helps improve students’ learning. Joe begins, and Deborah responds.

Deb, seems to me that labeling others with whom we disagree don’t help improve or increase student’s learning. Labels may be convenient. They may make people using them feel better. But having witnessed this over forty years, I don’t see how they help students.

Over the last few years, I think we’ve seen an increase. The Internet and related websites that often allow anonymous comments seem to contribute to this kind of thing. But people who use their names, too, sometimes dismiss others via labels.

Take for example, the term “anti reform”. That’s far too vague. Which reforms, changes are we talking about. I know of a school district that asks principals to list people who are “anti reform.” But many thoughtful people disagree with the “reforms” that are being pushed. We need to be more specific.

Then there’s the term “Corporate education reform. " This label ignores the facts that corporations vary in how they operate, what they suggest and some corporations have contributed thousands, even millions to district public schools for efforts that I think you and I would agree are valuable. It also ignores the fact that corporations operate differently. Some very top down, some that delegate considerable responsibility to those working directly with clients/customers.

I could say the same for labels like “teacher-basher,” or “anti-parent” or “reform opponents.” Just to comment on the last one - different people support and oppose various reforms. So to label someone a “reform opponent” doesn’t tell you much.

You were deeply involved with the Coalition For Essential Schools. Turns out that Citibank, for example, gave millions of dollars to support that effort. Did CES represent what some dismiss as “corporate reform?”
But we don’t have to go back to CES. Look at the Fund For (New York City) Public Schools. Over the last several years, it reports raising $186 million from companies, corporations and individuals. According to their most recent (2013) annual report, available on their website, the Fund among other things, supports summer art programs, mentoring for students, early childhood and reading programs for New York City District schools.

Or there’s Target, (TM) based here in Minneapolis. They have provided "$418 million to local K-12 schools since 1997... In 2014, more than 84,000 schools received a TCOE check, totaling more than $31 million in TCOE donations for the year. “

In the last few years, Target has focused its k-12 contributions on helping increase the number of youngsters who can read by the end of the third grade. (Full disclosure, Target gave our Center $25,000 a few years ago to help some district and charter schools with which we work provide books for families, and produce a video on dual credit.)

You won’t read about any of that from those who write disdainfully about “corporate education reform.” But corporations vary widely, as do the ways they are working with educators, families and students.

Some of this gets personal.

I’ve been accused of being a “charter marketer,” for example. That’s ironic because a good deal of the work I’ve done over the last 45 years has to honor, acknowledge and promote outstanding things happening in district schools. And I’ve made made many criticisms, as well as sharing praise, for what’s happened with chartering. Another example is the prominent anti charter writer who recently accused me of being “an apologist for every misdeed of the charter industry.” Again, ironic as well as untrue, since I’ve repeatedly here, and elsewhere, described and criticized some behavior in charters that I oppose and have worked hard to reduce.

Fortunately we live in a country that allows free speech. There are many ways to help youngsters. On line forums can be used to help share information, mobilize support, and a vast array of other ways. People can reasonably disagree with each other. But I think people who use reduce other people’s work to one-three words should not kid themselves. Labeling people with whom we disagree doesn’t help students learn.

Deborah Meier responds

Dear Joe, Labels are both a necessity and an evil! Like all language they clarify some things while simultaneously distorting others. At least most of the time. I think “corporate” reform is probably more clarifying than misleading.

Corporations give charitable contributions for reasons of PR. Target gives with one hand and takes with another. For the benefit of its stockholders (and officers). In fact, I think perhaps they are legally obliged to defend their charity as PR. They are in the profit-making business. That’s why “buyer beware” is an appropriate “capitalist” slogan, not an attack. They’re doing what they are supposed to do. As citizens we must do what we have to do too.

They also give money to lobby in a variety of forms for policies that benefit their bottom line. I assume you’d not object to calling ALEC a corporate-sponsored organization? Their education position is not a secret, not a behind-the-scenes imagined plot, but pretty straight-forward. They believe--earnestly as well as greedily--in the unfettered unregulated market place as the solution to most issues. Choice is, for them, a part of that package, so is freedom from governmental interference. etc, etc. They also see the institution of public tax-payer funded schooling as a good marketplace for future corporate profits. They see it, and can hardly be faulted for doing so, as a way to kill two birds with one stone: one of those stones is profit. The other we can argue about.

They re far more powerful than those many allies of mine who have taken advantage of charters for strictly “do-good” purposes--plus a little personal ego-satisfaction. For the same reasons I accepted Tony Alvarado’s offer in 1974 and again in Boston when the Pilot program initiated by the AFT began. I WANTED TO PROVE SOMETHING! It’s interesting to me that so few of these ALEC members were excited about these efforts to prove that greater freedom via self-governance was a promising path to explore. There were some who were, but compared to the support for the current reform agenda--it was piddling. hey own this one, so support may be the wrong label! Yes, you preceded them, Joe. You and many others. But they are now driving it.

I wish you and my other friends who have started charters would reclaim it. You can’t speak as loudly as them, but you can be a powerful counter-voice. And, together we can defend the need for reform vs going back to the prior state of inequality. The new inequality is, in my book, more dangerous if not stopped in its inevitable trajectory--the same trajectory that is rapidly over-taking public post offices, public libraries, public prisons, public military--as they some time ago took over public old-age facilities, nursing homes, etc, etc. while working over-time to undermine the legal standing of organized people-power.

I just got back from a conference in D.C. entitled “Defending the Public Space.” That’s the meeting ground that we need to build--reformers of all kinds together. We need to defend the rePublic for which we stand.

Joe responds: There is a lot in what you’ve written, so I hope we can continue this, and hope others will join. After re-reading your comments above, I don’t see any disagreement my statement that 2-3 word labels don’t help students learn or achieve more. Here are a few additional thoughts.

* Corporations vary widely. There were two recent articles in our local paper about why it’s wise for companies to delegate many decisions. The first described a local company that has learned this. Its headline reads, “At Du Fresne Manufacturing, rebound began on shop floor.”

  • The second was a column written by a very successful business person, Harvey MacKay. He reminded leaders that among other things it’s a mistake to try “Making every decision. Ask others what they would do, and be willing to accept that there may be more than one way to accomplish a task....Control: You can’t stay on top of every task and decision. Identify what you really need to handle, and delegate responsibility for tasks that others can do just as well. Inflexibility. If you find yourself balking at new ideas, or resisting change with “but we’ve always done it this way,” it’s time for a change. Different situations demand different solutions.” This is great advice. Ignoring it seems to have led to often justified teacher frustration all over the country.

  • We agree that companies make contributions at least in part as part of public relations. I think corporate leaders also make contributions because they believe in certain programs. Having helped both public and private organizations give away money, I’ve learned that almost every funder has far more requests than they have resources to share. This leads to a few questions.
  • As a person who was active in the Coalition for Essential Schools, how do you feel about the multi-million dollar donation from a prominent bank to the CES (mentioned above)? Should CES not have accepted it?
  • How do you feel about the substantial contributions to New York City arts, mentoring and summer programs from a variety of corporations? Again, should NYC not seek or accept such donations?
  • We agree that some corporations support ALEC. You and I disagree with many of ALEC’s recommendations.
  • Who “drives” district public schools? Seems to me that there is no single driver. There are many groups that have a lot of influence. They include federal and state governments, teacher unions, school boards, administrators, foundations, and the general public, along with business and community groups. For 20 years I taught at University of Minnesota class on legislatures and education policy. Students and I regularly filled up large blackboards with lists of organizations that influenced traditional district schools.
  • I’d say the same is true of chartered public schools. There’s no single group that’s “driving” the effort to charter public schools. Yes, lots of us are speaking out, some with more funding than others. But there are plenty of people pushing this movement in various ways.
  • My central point remains, two-three word labels don’t help students learn more. Moreover, it seems like a lot of time, attention and energy is being devoted to demonizing others with whom some people disagree. While it might make the label makers feel better, I don’t see how the labels help increase learning. Do you?

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.