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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.

Policy & Politics Opinion

A Search for Common Ground in Schooling

By Rick Hess — March 08, 2021 3 min read
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Today, Pedro Noguera and I release our new book, A Search for Common Ground: Conversations About the Toughest Questions in K-12 Education. We drafted the book as a continuous e-mail correspondence that unfolded between January and June 2020. We delved into the purpose of schooling, testing, school choice, the role of for-profits, philanthropy, civics, social and emotional learning, teacher pay, and much else, all against the backdrop of COVID-19, intense attention to issues of race, and a bitter (if mostly virtual) presidential contest.

In the course of our collaboration, we each argued from conviction while also striving to listen to one another, identify places of principled agreement, and model the kind of discourse that we want our kids to emulate. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t easy. Pedro and I see the world differently and sit in very different places. He’s the dean of a major school of education, an icon for members of outfits like the University Council of Education Administration (UCEA), and on the editorial board of The Nation. I head up the education program at the American Enterprise Institute, have been deemed one of the “most wanted” enemies of public education by the UCEA Review, and write regularly for National Review.

But we also hold some things in common. We both have strongly held principles but believe that sweeping sentiments matter less than how things work in the real world. We both believe that it’s important to squarely confront issues of inequality and opportunity, but that doing so must include a sensible commitment to foundational virtues like hard work, personal responsibility, and ensuring that schools are spending public funds wisely and well.

And we’ve both been frustrated at how often it’s presumed today that any disagreement over matters of principle, policy, or educational practice is due to the other party’s ignorance or malice. We wrote this book because we didn’t believe that to be true. The further along we got, the more I was convinced that it’s not.

In fact, I came away from the project realizing that the two of us have a lot more in common than I had thought (which was kind of the point). We tend to agree that practical considerations too often get short shrift in our education debates, that those on the “other side” of a debate frequently have honorable motives and valid points to make, and that you learn more from listening than righteous posturing.

You know, when we train educators, we talk a lot today about the need for “courageous conversations.” Well, Pedro and I agree that we have too few of these in practice. As we put it in the book, “The truth is, there’s nothing courageous about preaching to the choir. It’s not courageous for liberals to tell one another that they’re right or for conservatives to do the same. Courageous conversations require sitting down with those who see, think, and feel differently and then being willing to listen—not lecture.”

A big problem, though, is that social media and 24-7 news cycles make it hard to engage in sustained, patient conversation. Like everyone else in this connected world, educators, scholars, and advocates tend to rush from one thing to the next—from email to text messages to meetings to their news feed, with little time for reflection or sustained back-and-forth.

It turns out that breaking that polarized pattern of shouting and doubting is a lot easier when you’re not worried about squeezing a rejoinder into a Twitter post or reacting in real time to the latest outrage. It’s easier when you have the time to go back and forth and process what one another has said. In fact, the format of the project, with its opportunity for deliberate, sustained conversation, probably deserves as much credit as either of us for whatever value the book holds.

Our correspondence forced us to stay with uncomfortable topics when one of us might’ve preferred to move on, even as it allowed us to reflect and not just respond. We couldn’t simply settle for whatever quick quip or reflexive riposte leapt to mind. The opportunity to sit down, read each other’s take, consider it, and then gather our thoughts, and to do this time and again over an extended period, made for an all-too-uncommon experience.

In the end, writing this book was one of the most heartening, inspiring experiences I’ve had in years. I hope readers will be inclined to check it out. And, if you do, I’ll be most curious to hear whether you feel the same.

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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.

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