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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

The Importance of the ‘Messy Middle’

By Guest Blogger — March 22, 2017 7 min read
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This week, Rick is off talking about his forthcoming book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer. Letters won’t be officially released until late April, but you can learn more about it here and order an advance copy here. While Rick is away, we’ve got an illustrious line-up of guest stars. This week, Jessica Sutter, president of EdPro Consulting and a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park, will be guest-blogging.

On Monday, I shared advice with young education reformers. Today, I find myself pondering words from my favorite advice-giver, my Mom. Whenever I turn to her for insight on how to navigate a rough patch in life, Mom is likely to offer up one of two reliable pearls of wisdom: “Change is good” or “Everything in moderation.” Our nation is currently undergoing a sea change, and I’m holding fast to the hope that some good will come of it all. I’m a dogged optimist. Lately, though, I find myself musing on Mom’s second trusty adage, because moderation seems to be missing from our current education reform conversations. What stands in the way of reformers meeting together in a middle space?

To answer that question, I want to think about what divides us. Values are often called out as a culprit.

My conservative friends and colleagues value many of the same things I, a self-professed liberal, value. We value liberty—the freedom from and the freedom to. Freedom from burdensome and limiting regulations, freedom from persecution, freedom to live a life as we see fit, freedom to innovate. We value equality. We believe that all children are equally deserving of an excellent education that gives them the best possible shot at living the good life. These shared values are, in the abstract, neither conservative nor liberal—but, in education policy conversations, they tend to be framed in opposition to one another. (Friends who are better read than I tell me that James O’Toole addresses some of these same value tensions for business leaders in his book The Executive’s Compass. I’ve added it to my own reading list.)

Imagine these values along a schoolyard tug-of-war rope. Liberty stands at one end, grasping the freedom to make our own choices and define our individual destiny. Equality stands at the other end, holding tight to the notion that all Americans have the same access to opportunity. When the rope is held with equal tension between both sides, both values stay upright. When one side pulls through to victory, the other falls down, drops the rope, and goes tumbling in all sorts of unflattering ways.

School choice policies are currently at stake in a particularly dangerous game of tug-of-war, with liberty and equality positioned as foes. Each side appears determined to drag the other one down. That seems a shame. Surely, proponents of expanding school choice share some common values with supporters of traditional public schooling.

What’s behind what people want from school choice policies? Most folks who favor school choice believe in the fundamental power of education as a tool of social mobility. They believe in growth mindsets, rather than fixed futures. They value diversity, especially diversity of ideas. They are pluralistic, rather than monopolistic, in their thinking. They believe there is no one best system for education.

And what about folks who protect the traditional notion of public schools? They see the common school as a tool for preparing democratic citizens, for racial and socioeconomic integration, for leveling the playing field from a young age. They value civic participation in the form of school boards, PTAs, and community councils. They know their ideal ends are not always achieved by the current means, but they believe that the common school system is the best bet for achieving an equalizing vision of the American dream.

These two groups, despite noble intentions, seem to find themselves on opposite ends of the rope. They are surrounded by others who think like they do, who cheer them on, and who are pulling to win. Being extreme is comfortable. But life at the extremes misses the middle, where ideas come together and coalitions form. The middle relies on tension, and uses it to drive work forward. How do we in the education reform community maintain a healthy tension between values but avoid dropping the rope and sending each other sprawling?

I think listening to each other is a reasonable first step. When I coached an urban middle school debate team, I taught students about the importance of listening closely to the arguments set forth by their opponent. In the practice of debate, winning is more complicated than making excellent arguments. Points in debate are awarded for effectively defeating, or co-opting, your opponent’s argument. In order to do either, you need to first listen to your opponent, to hear and understand their argument. You need to listen twice as well as you speak in order to win a middle school debate; one would hope as much is true in the realm of education policy.

But working in the middle is not easy. It necessitates a willingness to engage in the messy business of compromise with folks at the other end of the rope. It requires admitting weaknesses in your own position, considering the merits of the other side, and clarifying your goals for the work at hand. The middle requires developing a “third way” between extreme positions. It requires accepting that your extreme might not prevail because there might be a better way than your way.

Given that the extremes are easy and comfortable, and the middle is messy and hard, why would anyone bother? Extreme positions win, and when you’ve won, you get to make the rules. Why would you give any power to the ideas of the opposition?

One reason is because see-sawing between extremes is unproductive. It is especially difficult when shifts in paradigms do not easily translate into the implementation of policy in ossified systems.

Extreme thinking and extreme policy-making also encourages the characterization of the “other side” as enemies. Enemies are to be attacked, taken down, and neutralized—which makes it difficult to forge alliances with them. Making space in the middle encourages reasonable consideration of those who think differently. You can convince a person who opposes you to see the merits of your position and you can hear them out as they share their own. They need not be destroyed in the process.

This is not meant to be a call for milquetoast policy. On the contrary, because our positions and policies in education have real and lasting consequences for children, we must not allow ourselves to be comfortable and unmoved at the extremes. We must, instead, model for those same children the work in the messy middle.

I’ll offer one example of a middle space I think is ripe for negotiating. The president’s budget proposal calls for a $1.4 billion investment in school choice programs, including an additional $168 million for the Charter Schools Program and $250 million for private school choice—vouchers. There are plenty of extreme voices on the issue of vouchers: those who call such policies the dismantling of public education and others who would have government get out of the business of schooling entirely. It would be easy, especially for those opposed to vouchers as a policy tool, to deny them outright.

But, if we seek a middle ground between the extremes, we might acknowledge that proponents of private school choice favor its potential to further expand liberty. We might, then, consider whether it is possible to design a policy that expands liberty without sacrificing other values, like equality.

If, for instance, a voucher program was designed to fund only new students entering private schools rather than allowing program funds to supplant financial aid or family contributions for current students, it could further access for low-income children to school choices previously inaccessible. But, if private schools were allowed to accept public funds while restricting access to students on the basis of special education status or gender identity, people would rightly raise questions about whether such a policy sanctioned discriminatory admissions. Setting clear expected conditions for private schools accepting vouchers might protect equality, while still expanding access.

Finding a middle space on vouchers will be messy. Moderate ground may still prove elusive. It is, however, an effort worth undertaking. And, if the effort is grounded in the values from which our drive to provide education as a public good emanates, we may find ourselves surprised at where we land.

We must navigate these efforts thoughtfully and work to find policies that are transformative for all children. We need balance, and a bit more moderation. Mom agrees.

Thanks again, Rick, for the opportunity to share my musings on your blog this week.

—Jessica Sutter

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.