In many respects, the polarization that characterizes the national political climate has long been present in the debates over the direction of public education, which took a particularly rancorous turn with the enactment of No Child Left Behind 16 years ago. Fierce conflicts over the expansion of charter schools, school closures, high-stakes testing, teacher evaluation, and the merits of the common core have been common in communities across the country. Unlike the current political debates over immigration, taxes, and healthcare, which typically pit Republicans against Democrats, the fault lines in these long-running conflicts over education have frequently put leaders in the Democratic Party against constituencies that are typically regarded as a stable part of their base, namely teachers’ unions and parents and activists in low-income communities of color.
Not surprisingly, some academics (myself included) have chosen to weigh in on these education conflicts. Some have participated actively out of a sense of moral obligation because the research they have done has a direct bearing on the issues under debate. Others have done so because of their close political or ideological alignment to one side or the other. Most do quickly learn that becoming embroiled in such heated debates, especially when the stakes are high, always comes with risks to reputation, and in some cases, even job security.
In this special collection of Commentary essays, Frederick M. Hess and four education scholars discuss the pros and cons for academics who want to wade into public debate.
Having participated in some of these battles over the years, I have arrived at an understanding about how and when to intervene in the debate through our scholarship and writing. Here are criteria that I have found helpful:
1) Avoid calling upon others to take stands that you are not taking yourself. For example, although I have been critical of high-stakes testing for many years, I have never encouraged parents to “opt out.” I feel that this is a decision that each parent must make on their own, and while I feel it is appropriate to explain the merits and drawbacks associated with high-stakes testing, I draw the line at telling parents what to do with their children.
2) Only enter conflicts in which you have a knowledgeable position that can be supported by research. This may seem like an obvious rule of thumb, but I have seen many scholars drawn into debates where they lack the expertise to offer well-reasoned positions. Invariably, their reputations are sullied when it turns out they can’t effectively defend a position they have taken.
3) Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the complexity of an issue even if it angers some people who want you to declare your allegiance to their position. For example, I have been asked repeatedly to weigh-in on the debate over charters and single-gender schools. My answer has consistently been that some are good, some are not, and there’s no evidence to suggest that expanding either will lead to significant improvements in educational outcomes.
4) Don’t be afraid of speaking truth to power. If you are confident about your position on an issue, don’t be afraid of speaking out or writing on the issue. Even if your position may be at odds with the position of powerful political or economic interest groups, you shouldn’t hesitate to speak for the interests of vulnerable and disadvantaged children. Sometimes, silence is a form of complicity.