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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

“Only a Sith Deals in Absolutes”

By Robin J. Lake — April 16, 2012 4 min read
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Note: Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington, is guest-posting this week.

When your kids make you watch “Star Wars: Episode III” for the 29th time, your attention can’t help but wander, and the characters start to seem like they’re talking to you. During a recent viewing, it occurred to me that Obi-Wan’s attempt to warn Annakin away from the dark side--"Only a Sith deals in absolutes"--perfectly describes my frustration with the dichotomous thinking that has come to characterize the conversation on education research and policy.

Here’s a prime example: An education blogger recently told me that if he is being honest with himself, his problem with charter schools is not actually charter schools, but that if he voiced support for them, he’d have to argue on the same side as the reform advocates he has come to detest.

This polarization colors the response to the work we do at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), like when my colleagues and I are attacked for suggesting state budget cuts that align with research on what matters most to student achievement; apparently, engaging in any discussion about cuts means that we oppose generous funding of public education--and, for that matter, teachers.

Even those union leaders who have spent their careers fighting for real teacher evaluations and other important reforms still put the blame for inaction solely on school districts and are deeply suspicious of anyone tied to the reform community. And district leaders love to say that charter schools sap their resources, but meanwhile they refuse to admit--and act on--the fact that students flee to charters because their current schools don’t serve them well.

The reform community is just as guilty. Reformers who criticize teacher evaluations are quick to blame only the unions for the system we have and ignore real problems with principal and district capacity. The charter sector is often defensive about its track record regarding kids with special needs and tolerates too much uneven school quality. And if you question any of this, you’re accused of not caring about kids.

Everyone involved in research or policy has been assigned to one of two camps: you’re for reform, or you’re against it. The fact that CRPE does research on charter schools lands us in the pro-reform camp, even though we regularly make serious, research-based critiques of the charter sector. We are often cast as foes of traditional public education, despite the fact that the majority of our work is concentrated on improving the capacity of current public institutions at the state and district levels.

I’m not suggesting that we all just need to get along. Sometimes warfare and vitriol are necessary, and heck, enmity sells! But the toxicity of this conversation has created an unthinking and unproductive debate. Education reform has become one gigantic, clichéd collection of logical fallacies: guilt by association, ad hominem attacks, and so on. People are afraid to voice reasonable ideas or concerns for fear of being painted as disloyal to their usual cause. The great irony here is that some of the most polarized thinkers are the very same folks who preach the importance of teaching critical thinking in the classroom.

Our progress toward better schools depends on a more meaningful conversation, sparked by braver leaders. Those who know better have to step forward, demonstrate open-mindedness, reframe the debate, and call foul when they see people thinking (and yelling) in black and white.

There are people out there trying to do this. District superintendents Tom Boasberg in Denver, John White in Louisiana, and Christina Kishimoto in Hartford attack dichotomous thinking by insisting that central office staff stop caring about whether city public schools are charter or not, and instead focus on equal resources, equal responsibility, and breakthrough results. John Wilson, formerly of the NEA, blogs candidly about the need for unions to start presenting solutions, not just blame. The California Charter Schools Association, led by Jed Wallace, has lobbied for legislation to close low-performing charter schools.

At CRPE we, like any organization, can fall into dichotomous thinking, but we do our best to challenge our own notions and seek a wide variety of input. For instance, I admit that I’ve come to dismiss cries for more “teacher voice” as unions wanting to control every decision. But spending time with union leaders recently has given me new insights into how much good teachers want to channel their dedication for kids into a broader policy discussion and how frustrated they often are with the current opportunities available to them.

I’d like to see more researchers and think tanks surprise us all with findings that don’t support their usual stance. Could it possibly be true that everything Diane Ravitch comes across confirms her point of view? What if Michelle Rhee wrote about mistakes she thinks she made as superintendent of D.C. schools? I’d like to see a union leader propose a change in rules that removes protections for weak teachers. I’d like to see charter advocates self-police bad authorizers or schools not serving kids with special needs.

Today, make your friends uncomfortable by challenging their ideas. Make arguments based on facts, not easy rhetorical plays. Read things from publications you normally ignore. Surprise. Lead.

--Robin Lake

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.