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School & District Management Opinion

4 Lessons That Brexit Can Offer School Reform

By Rick Hess — June 29, 2016 3 min read
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Last week, in a fiercely contested, closely watched referendum, Britain elected to leave the European Union by a 52 to 48 vote. The vote rattled financial markets, shocked experts, and surprised pollsters who had expected a narrow victory for Prime Minister David Cameron’s campaign to stay in the EU. Lots of ink has been spilled on this elsewhere, so I won’t get into any of this. But as I watched the coverage and read the analysis, it did strike me that there are four cautions to pull from the fray that America’s school reformers would do well to heed.

Don’t put too much faith in loaded poll questions. Polls generally underestimated the “leave” vote by about five points. This isn’t too surprising. When Brits were told time and again that voting “leave” was a xenophobic, moronic, racist position, it turns out that leave voters were telling pollsters what they were “supposed” to say. I find that school reformers, too, overestimate the significance of poll results that tell them what they want to hear—and forget that pollsters eliciting a desired response is no assurance that people will actually vote or behave accordingly in the real world.

It’s hard to persuade people if you don’t address their actual concerns. In the run-up to the vote, a host of financial, political, and diplomatic luminaries bombarded the British with the case for “remain.” Much of the case argued that catastrophe would befall Britain if it left the EU—a prognostication that may or may not be true. Yet, it turns out that all the arguments and dire warnings didn’t do much to address the actual concerns about immigration, jobs, and loss of national autonomy that motivated the “leave” voters. When it comes to teacher evaluation, accountability, the Common Core, and all the rest, school reformers might ask themselves if they’re responding to concerns or are just rehashing talking points slower and louder.

What seems good to urban elites may not appeal equally elsewhere. London supported “remain” 60-40, while pretty much the whole rest of England and Wales strongly went the other way. Londoners like their cosmopolitan culture and their array of eateries, and are more likely to traipse to the continent and back. That means that they place more value on the benefits of EU membership and are less troubled by potential trade-offs than the Brits who reside in the British equivalent of “flyover country.” When it comes to school reform, the cities and the coasts tend to dominate our attention, but what may be useful or popular there may play out quite differently in other communities.

It’s important to talk to people who don’t agree with you. It was remarkable to watch how befuddled analysts, reporters, and public officials were by the vote results. They knew that any sensible person would vote “remain,” and all of their friends and colleagues felt the same—so who were these yahoos actually voting to leave? When you don’t really talk to your opponents, you wind up turning them into caricatures. This makes it hard to understand them or to persuade them. School reformers need to ask themselves how much time they spend talking to—and, more important, listening to—people who see things differently than them.

Brendan O’Neill, a blogger for the Telegraph, captured the election nicely. He observed that those championing “remain” tend to “view the white working classes as an inscrutable tribe, possessed of mad beliefs and given to strange flag-waving rituals.” The EU appeal that seems so obvious and inevitable to the “remain” camp looks remarkably different to Euroskeptics. This kind of disagreement can be healthy and illuminating, or it can embolden us to dismiss critics and barge ahead. In Britain, Cameron and his allies took one path. It didn’t work out so well. School reformers have taken their own share of bumps and bruises in recent years, but sometimes it’s easier to learn by observing someone else stumble. School reformers may find much of value in the Brexit soap opera, if they choose to look.

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