School & District Management Opinion

The Contrarian’s Guide to Holiday Conversation

By Dave Powell — December 23, 2014 9 min read
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NOTE: The K-12 Contrarian is currently traveling the eastern seaboard with his family. Blogging will resume shortly after the new year. Thanks for reading!

The holidays are here, and that means many of us will be traveling to places far and wide to spend time with relatives we may only occasionally get to see. If you are involved somehow in the work of educating young people, there’s a good chance that education, at some point, will become a topic of conversation. I’m not saying for sure that it will, or even that you should engage if it does—you know the old saw about politics and religion, and education combines the combustible sensibilities of both—but if you do, here are a few tips to help guide the conversation. For your convenience, I have identified some key issues, described the conventional wisdom surrounding each issue, and outlined a few defensible contrarian positions. But buyer beware! You might step into a minefield if you’re not careful.

Now, go ahead—be a little bit contrary this holiday season. Because everybody loves arguing with a contrarian.

The Issue: Common core.

The CW (Conventional Wisdom): Common core is the worst! Just ask any Republican governor or presidential candidate. Or Louis C.K. Or the angry Tea Party lady who lives down the street, the one with all the cats. I mean, any policy that can bring people who are normally that far apart together on something has to be terrible, right? Did I mention Louis C.K. doesn’t like common core? Isn’t that cool?

The Position: This one is pretty easy to argue if you want to take the contrarian position: make a case for why common core isn’t such a bad idea after all. Maybe it’s better to have Bill Gates spend his money on education than on whatever else he might spend it on. Maybe it’s a good idea to expect more from kids, no matter who pays for it. Or get really adventurous and argue that common core is the antidote to the testing craze: by basing school reform on actual learning experiences, we can both deliver a better school experience to kids who otherwise wouldn’t get one and put more power in the hands of teachers to determine what happens in schools. If all else fails, remind your family that the tactics being used against common core now (“it’s a conspiracy!"; “it will make us less safe!"; “it’s government intrusion!”) are some of the same ones people used as a pretext to stop vaccinating their kids.

Caveat Emptor: But what if your crazy aunt already supports common core? Ask her why she wants everybody to be the same. That should get her going.

The Issue: Billionaire philanthropists bankrolling school reform

The CW: What’s wrong with people spending money to help make schools better? And if they have more of it, even better. It’s not like we want Congress or the local school board making these decisions.

The Position: Today’s tech billionaires are like yesterday’s robber barons: they give us nice things, but they take all the wealth that is generated by those things in return. Then they use their wealth to reshape our public institutions in their image and call it “philanthropy.” Billionaire philanthropists should focus on the industries that made them billionaires and leave the work of deciding how our public schools should function to the public. The principle here is one person, one vote—not one dollar, one vote.

Caveat Emptor: Your Uncle Pete is a billionaire philanthropist in Waxhaw (“Proud of Our Past! Passionate About Our Future!”), near the banking center of Charlotte, N.C. You may want to consider changing course and asking about grant funding opportunities instead.

The Issue: Standardized testing

The CW: We’re falling behind! Our schools are failing! We’ll never be competitive in The New Global Economy! The only solution is testing.

The Position: Start with this: the idea that we have to hold schools and teachers “accountable” in order to make them better is questionable to begin with. Why do we need to do that? Because we don’t trust teachers. And why do we think tests will make teachers do their jobs? Because we don’t trust teachers. The solution here is not more tests, it’s trusting teachers. If that doesn’t work your relatives into a lather try this angle: the problem with standardized tests is that their ubiquity is based on the assumption that the point of schooling is to master an already-defined body of information and learn how to behave right so you can be better at doing your job, whatever it ends up being, later. What about art, man? Music? Civic engagement? Science? Who hates gym class and recess, anyway? You have to be un-American to not support recess.

Caveat Emptor: Your nephew has taken so many tests in school that all he does is hang around the house in a catatonic stupor. Best to not bring it up in that case. Work the billionaire angle instead.

The Issue: Charter schools vs. traditional public schools

The CW: Everybody and his brother (and that includes your little brother, the one dabbling in libertarianism who quotes Ayn Rand all the time) knows that public schools are terrible, just like all other public things. They’re basically 21st century poor houses: only charity cases go to public schools, especially in urban areas. If we want to save these poor kids from being left behind in The New Global Economy (i.e.: if we want them to be productive workers), we need more autonomy for mayors (i.e.: for the billionaire investors and hedge funds who pay the bills) to hire good teachers (i.e.: fire “bad” ones) and experiment with new approaches to educating kids (i.e.: control their behavior so they can learn how to be productive workers who don’t attend Occupy Wall Street protests). No more oversight from school boards, elected or otherwise. Let the Edupreneurs light the way. Especially the ones with the fat checkbooks.

The Position: One of the things that has always made American public schools different (great, even) is our willingness to experiment. Some see this as a problem, but others see it as a great manifestation of democracy: when voices compete on somewhat level ground, you’re going to have more opportunities for different ideas to flourish. With that said, charters ought to be community based and should serve community needs, and they should especially be held accountable for how they spend public money. And they should be open to everyone. As soon as it’s discovered that any school using public money discriminates in its selection of students—by race, gender, creed, religion, or academic ability (perceived or otherwise)—it should have its charter revoked. Oh, and one more thing: education should never be a for-profit enterprise. Period. The problem with corporatization of education is that it confuses motives, allowing unscrupulous people to put the profit motive ahead of the education one. If you’re in education to turn a buck, do us all a favor and go invest in something else.

Caveat Emptor: Your sister, the one with the bleeding heart, was a Teach for America corps member and works at a “corporate” charter school in a major city. And she loves it. Don’t step all over her dream. Just gently remind her to leave the saving at the door; a teacher’s job is to teach.

The Issue: Teacher quality

The CW: The best way to get better schools is to get better teachers. Fire the bad ones. Reward the good ones. We want weak unions, merit pay, more accountability, and higher standards for entry. And no tenure! Why should anybody be guaranteed a job for life—especially a dumb, overpaid, ineffective teacher?

The Position: Good luck in this briar patch. Start with tenure: there is no “guaranteed job for life” for any teacher, except for those teachers with principals who are too lazy or too incompetent to fire them (see what I did there?). Remind your father that “getting tenure” in practical terms really just means they have to tell you why they fired you before they do it. Then pick apart the rest of his untenable arguments. Merit pay? Based on what? Can I really be held accountable for how kids do on a standardized test I’ve never seen? Try an experiment with the family. Tell your dad he gets no egg nog until after he teaches everyone how to be a good parent, and that his effectiveness will be evaluated by a multiple choice test put together by your mom. Add that mom is not allowed to be in the house when dad does his teaching. He’ll be begging for union protection before you know it. Go easy on him and don’t question his qualifications for the job; that’s just adding insult to injury.

Caveat Emptor: Your dad is really proud of you, and of your decision to become a teacher. Remind him how low your pay is; maybe he can help out a little since it’s the holiday season and everything?

The Issue: Use of technology in classrooms

The CW: More. We want more. There can never be enough technology. It is the wave of the future. Kids are digital natives, and if we want to meet them where they are we should spend money like it’s going out of style when it comes to instructional technology. We want a chicken in every pot, a car in every driveway, an earbud in every ear, and a personal screen for every eye. And when the technology evolves we’ll give all this stuff to the urban kids and buy more.

The Position: That “chicken in every pot” line was first used by Herbert Hoover. So there’s that. The important thing to remember about technology is that it’s just a tool, just a means to an end. Smart phones make communication easier by allowing us to bring telephones and computers with us everywhere we go, but the point is to communicate. Tablets can make learning more interactive, but, as Grant Wiggins likes to say, we have to be careful about being hands on but not minds on. The question to ask about technology is: what are we using it for? If your school is more worried about kids getting around the firewall to play games or chat with each other than they are about using it to teach them something, then they probably aren’t using it right. And if your school is using technology to spy on kids, they’re definitely not using it right. Pointing this out will bring you and your libertarian brother closer.

Caveat Emptor: Your grandfather is a luddite but your grandmother wants Siri to help her figure out what time CSI starts so she doesn’t miss it. Table all talk about school technology until you’ve had a chance to brief your grandparents on the proper use of their iPhones.

Remember: the key to winning any argument about education is to be the loudest person in the room. Only kidding! The key is actually to recognize that, for most people, the extent of their expertise around education issues begins and ends with the 12-16 years they spent sitting through school themselves. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong; it just means that their experience with these issues is limited. You have to educate them. If you work in schools, or if you have kids in them—and if you do your homework—you can help make the public smarter about educational issues by making the public more aware of their complexity. And keep asking questions. If you do that, you can at least wear your opponent down.

Now get out there and show them the conventional wisdom is wrong. It’s what being a contrarian is all about.

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