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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.

School & District Management Opinion

From Testing to Teacher Pay, Surprising Common Ground on Schooling

By Rick Hess — August 18, 2021 4 min read
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Not all that long ago, it was broadly understood that we could find meaningful common ground even with those whom we regard as ideological adversaries. In fact, we recognized that disagreement on some issues doesn’t require disagreeing with someone on everything, much less mark them as an enemy. Unfortunately, amidst our raging culture wars and swirling currents of hyperpolarization, we seem to have forgotten much of this. Instead, it’s become disturbingly easy for all of us to see bogeymen and malicious agendas even where they don’t exist.

For instance, I’ve been clear about my grave reservations regarding much of what is being promoted under the banner of “anti-racist” education. I’ve pointed to particular policies, practices, and programs to document my concerns. At the same time, as a one-time social studies teacher (who long ago taught Frantz Fanon, Lao Tse, and Marx to my high schoolers, alongside the Founders and Adam Smith), I’ve consistently supported efforts to look unflinchingly at American history and society, be inclusive of new perspectives, take differences more seriously, reexamine troubling practices, and do a much better job meeting the needs of all learners. (I’ve made the point here, here, here, here, here—well, you get the idea.)

Nonetheless, I find that many who see the issue differently are either disinterested in this distinction or disinclined to acknowledge it. Rather, in both private and public forums, they insist that because I’m troubled by much of what I see promoted under the label of anti-racist education, I therefore must be opposed to warts-and-all-history, to confronting issues of race, and so forth.

If one opts for that route, then any disagreement or critique serves to make finding common ground impossible. That’s a poisonous path, especially for those of us in education who are charged with cultivating free-thinking, responsible citizens.

There are far better paths, but we must actively choose them. That’s exactly what USC’s Pedro Noguera and I—about as ideologically disparate a pair as one can find in education today—tried to demonstrate in our recent book, A Search for Common Ground. In fact, as anyone who has perused the book can see, and as Pedro and I observed not too long ago in the New York Daily News, we stumbled onto more common ground than we might have anticipated in talking through our differences.

For instance, when it comes to testing, we agreed that, while “the central fight has long been whether testing is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” this is “a pretty pointless way to frame the issue. After all, testing and assessment are tools that are part and parcel of the educational process. On any given day, a teacher assesses what kids know and can do in order to figure out what to teach or re-teach next.” We further agreed that testing has an important role in helping “parents and taxpayers receive some reliable sense” of how kids are learning.

At the same time, we noted, we’re all too familiar with “high-stakes” tests that “don’t deliver results until months after the school year has ended and which are mostly useful for bureaucrats seeking to rank schools, not for teachers or parents.” Because we were listening to each other, we found it just wasn’t that hard to broadly agree that “testing has a vital role, but only when those tests are designed to be more relevant for educators and parents.”

When it came to teacher pay, we were able to agree that we need to boost it in ways that serve students and taxpayers. That means, we wrote, “While teachers should be well-paid and supported, increased pay should come with increased expectations and responsibilities, as it does for other professionals. Raises should be directed to those teachers who are making a big difference for kids, who take on leadership roles, who engage parents and communities and who mentor and support their peers.”

Further, since we avoided the trap of simply swapping party-line slogans, we found ourselves agreeing on causes dear to both left and right. We observed that “in some states, salaries are so low it’s become difficult to attract skilled educators into classrooms,” but at the same time pointed out that states need to take steps “to stabilize and reimagine their benefit systems.” In the end, we were struck that “there are grand bargains lurking here, if we’re open to them.”

And then there’s civics. While we’re both well aware of how much deep-seated ideological disagreement there is on all this, we found a surprising amount of accord—due, in large part, to our staying focused on the content rather than our familiar caricatures. As we put it, “We agree that students need to understand how government works and what citizenship entails, and that schools need to confront the whole of the American story: the ‘ugly’ side of our history as well as the practical details of the Constitution and the inspirational power of American ideals.”

We concluded, “Ultimately, we need to find engaging, dynamic ways to help students learn to think critically, examine evidence, and make sense of complex personalities and historical contradictions—all without trying to teach them what to think.”

In the end, the search for common ground requires that we rediscover what it means to disagree in good faith. We can’t permit principled disagreements to so obscure our vision that we become incapable of seeing points of agreement. We owe our kids, and our communities, nothing less.

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