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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

When They Denounce You Today & Selectively Quote You Tomorrow

By Rick Hess — December 07, 2011 2 min read
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The week before Thanksgiving, I penned “When Good Intentions Make Us Stupid.” It garnered some heartening feedback from friends who found it useful. It was also quoted by many who selectively cited me in their ongoing efforts to vilify many folks whom I like and respect (as is routine when I’m critical of poorly conceived merit pay systems, federal overreach, or careless use of value-added metrics). In this case, the AFT-backed “RheeFirst” website (along with similar ventures) selectively quoted me in their ongoing war on Michelle Rhee and her StudentsFirst organization.

Now, my typical policy is not to worry about who quotes me or how they do so. I decided a long time ago, while still teaching at UVA, that it’s not worth the time or energy to track who quotes me or imagine I can police how or why they do so. For one thing, since I’m not an elected official and don’t claim to speak for any constituency, it’s not like selective quoting of me matters all that much.

But, it was pointed out that many readers may only encounter me in these abridged snippets. Indeed, one savvy reader indicated that he’s frequently uncertain about where I’m coming and urged me to speak to this. If he’s unsure, I imagine others are too. So, let me try to clarify.

When it comes to “reformers,” I’m trying to engage in this exercise we sometimes call “constructive criticism.” Because many would-be reformers are inspired by the laudable pursuit of “social justice” rather than any deep interest in schooling or teaching, I think they frequently make poor decisions when it comes to designing merit pay or accountability, as good intentions squelch common sense or a respect for practical challenges. My criticism of many reform efforts is fueled by support, not opposition, to their aims. I too embrace accountability, choice, and paying terrific educators more than lousy ones, but I think it is crucial to do these things well and fear that reformers too often do these things badly in their rush to make a difference.

As for reform skeptics, like RheeFirst, who quote me when it’s convenient, I’d welcome their interest if they showed much inclination to consider what I have to say when they’re not handpicking snippets to suit their agenda. Instead, they cheerfully cherry-pick and then placidly ignore or snidely denounce everything else I say. I find that intellectually bankrupt. In truth, I think most who quote my criticisms of “reformers” are doing so in bad faith, with no interest in serious debate or thoughtful engagement. My hunch on this score is heightened every time I learn that someone has quoted me approvingly one day, only to quickly turn around and denounce me as a “privatizing, anti-teacher, patriarchal fascist” the next.

At the end of the day, all any of us can do is try to speak our truth. For better or worse, I give that my best shot. I try to both make the case for the path I endorse and to provide some guard rails when it seems like we’re making missteps along the way. I suppose such nuance risks giving offense to one’s friends and amusing those who wonder why you’re stepping on your “message” in this era of sound bites, partisanship, and a willingness to smear the motives of those with whom we may disagree. But I don’t know how to do anything else, so I figure I’ll just keep doing the same.

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