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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Lessons from Newtown, Kudos to AERA

By Rick Hess — December 26, 2012 3 min read
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I’ve been surprised by some of the vitriol that greeted last week’s short RHSU post on Newtown, in which I said it was disappointing to see anyone use the Sandy Hook tragedy as a way to score debating points. I thought the reaction may have hit a nadir when self-proclaimed Florida school safety advocate Lowell Levine wrote, “You just do not want to hear the truth ---it is writers like you who are in denial and contribute to violence in schools. You are a shame to your profession. Good by and have a great life------A$$@#%&!!!!!... You are a disgrace to the education world for children --you refuse to write the truth about what is going on in Public Schools. You should be working in a supermarket and asking the customers--paper or platic?” [sic]

Given this kind of response, I thought it might be useful to elaborate. Since this is a week when we’re often a bit closer to the better angels of our nature, perhaps a bit of reflection can soften, ever so slightly, our bitter debates in the year ahead. After all, some, like blogger Mike Klonsky, seemed to think that I had a problem with people arguing for their views on teacher unions or tenure, in the aftermath of Newtown. That’s nuts. I’ve repeatedly acknowledged that everyone, no matter their views on schooling, can and should forcefully argue their preferred positions. But civilization requires boundaries. And, for what it’s worth, I believe we need to insist that it’s unacceptable for anyone, whatever their views, to exploit the murder of children when debating unions, testing, and such.

Now, there are useful distinctions. For instance, I don’t have a problem with the tragedy being used to discuss directly relevant measures, such as gun control, school security, institutionalization of the mentally ill, or a culture of routinized violence. After all, these proposed remedies--unlike teacher tenure or evaluation--are specifically intended to prevent a recurrence and to spare the lives of other children. So, citing Sandy Hook in making the case for new gun control measures: fine by me. Citing it to attack Teach For America (seriously?!!): over the line.

I respect that those who oppose various “reforms” feel like they are sometimes vilified in today’s debates, and think that, in blaming “reformers” for the Newtown murders, they are firing back in kind. I get it, but I think folks like Chicago union chief Karen Lewis are kidding themselves if they think they have shown more respect for those who disagree with them than have their opponents. When I recall the attacks on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel this fall, or the invective spewed at Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker last year, for instance, it’s hard for me to credit “teacher voices” with any particular restraint.

In a free nation, thoughtful people will disagree. It’s appropriate and inevitable that we argue big questions in the public square, and that we do so passionately and vociferously. I just ask that we try do it without cheap rhetorical histrionics and with respect for the boundaries of civil debate. That means respecting those with whom we disagree and the bounds of decency-- which entails, for instance, not trivializing the murder of twenty children and six adults in order to score political points.

On that count, I was very pleasantly surprised to find the American Educational Research Association’s (AERA) December 17th draft statement on Sandy Hook an admirable example of how scholars can help inform and focus incendiary debates. Unlike in other politically sensitive cases, in which I have blasted the AERA for seeming to take highly partisan positions in fights over immigration or affirmative action, here I found AERA’s stance measured rather than partisan. AERA’s statement, drafted by a panel of member scholars, concludes, “Now is the time for our political leaders to take meaningful action to address the need for improved mental health services and protection from gun violence. At the same time, concerned citizens in every community should engage in comprehensive planning and coordination to prevent violence in our schools and communities. These plans should include access to mental health services for youth and adults who are showing signs of psychological distress, including depression, anxiety, withdrawal, anger, and aggression as well as assistance for the families that support them. The bottom line is that we must all work together toward the common goal of keeping our schools and communities safe.”

The AERA statement does not yet appear to be in circulation, but I hope it will be shortly. This kind of reasoned guidance is something that scholars are uniquely suited to provide, and I hope it might help nudge us just a tiny bit towards more fruitful, productive policy debates in the new year.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.

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