Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

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
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Events

Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
Professional Development Online Summit What's Next for Professional Development: An Overview for Principals
Join fellow educators and administrators in this discussion on professional development for principals and administrators.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education 'Widespread' Racial Harassment Found at Utah School District
The federal probe found hundreds of documented uses of the N-word and other racial epithets, and harsher discipline for students of color.
1 min read
A CNG, compressed natural gas, school bus is shown at the Utah State Capitol, Monday, March 4, 2013, in Salt Lake City. After a winter with back-to back episodes of severe pollution in northern Utah, lawmakers and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert will discuss clean air legislation and call for government and businesses to convert to clean fuel vehicles.
Federal civil rights investigators found widespread racial harassment of Black and Asian American students in the Davis school district north of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Rick Bowmer/AP Photo
Education Tiny Wrists in Cuffs: How Police Use Force Against Children
An investigation finds children as young as 6 and a disproportionate amount of Black children have been handled forcibly by police officers.
15 min read
Jhaimarion, 10, reacts as he listens to his mother, Krystal Archie talking with an Associated Press reporter in Chicago on Sept. 23, 2021. Archie’s three children were present when police, on two occasions, just 11 weeks apart, kicked open her front door and tore through their home searching for drug suspects. She’d never heard of the people they were hunting. Her oldest child, Savannah was 14 at the time; her youngest, Jhaimarion, was seven. They were ordered to get down on the floor.
Jhaimarion, 10, reacts as he listens to his mother, Krystal Archie talking with an Associated Press reporter in Chicago on Sept. 23, 2021. Archie’s three children were present when police, on two occasions, just 11 weeks apart, kicked open her front door and tore through their home searching for drug suspects. She’d never heard of the people they were hunting. Her oldest child, Savannah was 14 at the time; her youngest, Jhaimarion, was seven. They were ordered to get down on the floor.
Nam Y. Huh/AP
Education Gunman in 2018 Parkland School Massacre Pleads Guilty
A jury will decide whether Nikolas Cruz will be executed for one of the nation’s deadliest school shootings.
3 min read
Annika Dworet and her husband, Mitch Dworet, wipe away tears as their son's name is read aloud during Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz's guilty plea on all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. The Dworet's son, Nicholas Dworet, 17, was killed in the massacre.
Annika Dworet and her husband, Mitch Dworet, wipe away tears as their son's name is read aloud during Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz's guilty plea on all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. The Dworet's son, Nicholas Dworet, 17, was killed in the massacre.
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP
Education Briefly Stated: October 20, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read