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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

When Education Policy Debates Are More Than a Circus

By Rick Hess — January 22, 2015 3 min read
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I got to spend the past couple weeks up in Boston, teaching a between-terms course for my friends at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The course, “Debating Education Policy,” attracted a terrific group of M.Ed. and doctoral students who cared enough to gut their winter break. Turned out, many thought they’d be getting a good seat to the usual ed policy circus.

When we wrapped up, several students noted that they’d thought the course would help them learn how to win their edu-smackdowns. It didn’t. In the end, they seemed okay with that. Instead, the course reflected my biases, which are that most policies are a mixed bag, that different people can look at the same evidence and disagree about “what works,” that good ideas often disappoint when enacted as public policies, and that hardly anyone involved in education policy is anti-education, anti-kid, or anti-teacher. The premise was that you win debates by learning to appreciate opposing arguments, find points of agreement, and acknowledge that your opponents usually have strong convictions of their own.

Some of the exchanges reminded all of us how tough it can be to move away from our familiar assumptions. For instance, the class had the chance to chat with Howard Fuller on school choice, Mike Petrilli on the Common Core, and TNTP’s Tim Daly about teacher evaluation. In each case, students who were skeptical of these efforts mentioned to me that the speakers didn’t say what they’d expected--and that the speakers were more accepting of nuance and pushback than students might have anticipated.

One repeated topic was how the circus aspects of policy debate can predominate (thanks in no small part to the pervasive magic of cable news). On issues from campus rape to ESEA reauthorization to school vouchers, there’s a disinclination to disagree in good faith and to work from there--instead we insist that anyone who sees things or interprets the facts differently than we do must be ignorant or unconcerned with social justice.

This has all struck me once again over the past week as we’ve been watching the budding frenzy around ESEA reauthorization and as I read the various postmortems of the president’s State of the Union address. As far as that goes, I just offer two takeaways.

First (and this will infuriate some people who’ve been thus far nodding along), I don’t think the refusal to deal in good faith is a 50-50 deal. I think Title IX enthusiasts, champions for an expansive ESEA, and proponents for school choice are much more inclined to casually depict their opponents as indifferent to the plight of women or low-income or minority children. (Of course, those who dislike school choice, for instance, have shown a remarkable willingness to denounce proponents as enemies of public education and corporatist swine out to exploit vulnerable kids.) The result makes it incredibly difficult to talk constructively about hard choices, the fact that different policies will help some children and hurt others, and the reality that we have to make these choices amidst huge uncertainty and lots of strong feelings and distrust.

Second, the measure of one’s seriousness ought to be one’s willingness to presume the goodwill of those who disagree, forego the insults and boilerplate, and seek principled points of agreement. This means not just citing evidence that one happens to like and dismissing studies that don’t help one’s cause. It means recognizing that big, complicated policy questions involve winners and losers, values, and unanticipated consequences; they are never simple questions of “what works” and are hardly ever going to be settled by a series of academic studies. It means acknowledging how incredibly complex these issues are, abandoning the search for pat answers, and recognizing that we’re inevitably making fraught judgments about what policies are more likely to do more good for more children--and about which of tens of millions of youth deserve priority (and how much more of a priority they should be than their peers) when it comes to a given decision at a given point in time. If we’re being the least bit honest with ourselves and each other, we’re inevitably going to disagree about a lot of this. And it seems to me that we need to see that as okay--and not as prima facie evidence of someone else’s broken moral compass.

When we were wrapping up at Harvard and chatting about takeaways, the students noted that it seems like you don’t “win” education policy debates by making extravagant demands or by dismissing your opponents as ignorant bumpkins. That’s a lesson worth remembering.

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.