Standards Opinion

Can the School Change Debate, Itself, Change?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 24, 2013 4 min read
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The responsibility for systemic change belongs to all of us. Some lead, others support, and others, with varying degrees of reticence, will, hopefully, follow. We live in a time of accelerating change, in a society where most things are disposable. The old phrase “planned obsolescence” comes to mind. Debates rage about fundamental things like local control and individual choice. Amidst this we hold to our schools as representative of our neighborhood and our community. Public schooling is one of those cohering forces in this widely diverse nation. Most of us spent our childhoods there and we send our children there. In the past few years, the national curriculum called Common Core Standards has encompassed us. It is a fundamental change at the classroom level. What is today’s challenge? Is it the change itself or the manner in which we go about it?

The news is replete with charged arguments about the multiple changes being required of educators. Arguments abound in local meetings and in statewide and national media. Free speech, accelerated by social media, enliven public interest in the issues. While our elected officials in Washington maneuver through the government shutdown and debt ceiling controversies, fuel is poured on the educational change debate by the new tests for students and the associated accountability system for students, teachers, and principals. The louder the voice, the more powerful the speaker, the deepest frustration, the greatest anger hold the day. Even the POTUS says, “No one is madder than I am.” Over change, and so many other things, people are mad.

Deborah Tannen begins her book, The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words, this way:

This book is about a pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight...Our spirits are corroded by living in an atmosphere of unrelenting contention--an argument culture (p.3).

We are in a war fought with words! The irony is that both sides do begin on common ground...a commitment to children and their futures. Differences have become the focus and while so many are working along trying to get it right, the cloud of the debate hangs over them. And in this present schema, the human beings who teach and lead are being exhausted. An irony may be that we, in schools, have actually taught this manner of argument. Tannen refers to ‘formal logic’ which “encourages thinkers to regard truth seeking as a step-by-step alternation of claims and counterclaims...This formal approach to learning is taught in our schools, often indirectly” (p. 260). We very well may have taught our society how to act in this way. Where does this leave us as learners and participants in the process?

Our fellow blogger, Peter DeWitt has named his blogging space, ‘Finding Common Ground.’ No words say it better. Whether in Washington, Albany, districts, schools, committees...we might do better if we considered where we all begin in the first place. Since we all want what is best for our students and our schools, why not step away from the power of the oppositional dynamic and find common ground? Once the sides are taken and the debate gets lifted to the stage to step away feels like concession, like losing.

What has happened in our country is a move toward extreme opposites and, ironically, both sides believe they are headed to an improved place. There is a serious lack of listening and of thoughtful engagement of divergent opinions. Have we lost the days when that was how we aspired to function? It seems to be the clashing of top down and bottom up forces...one demanding disruptive, systemic change at unrelenting high speed, one adamantly calling for slower, incremental change, done well, at a reasonable pace. Is the difference in how we see time?

The energy focused on the argument is intense. Our students are watching and waiting for us to get it right. At the end of the day, they are the ones who count and we...politicians, school leaders, teachers, parents, researchers, authors, journalists, and all... must be collectively successful for them. Can we organize the tremendous energy that this call for change has provoked and galvanize it toward positive change? As optimists, we believe there is always a chance to end an argument, if the right players are at the table and the right intentions are in play. We need those who can listen respectfully and disagree honorably and persuasively to move to the front lines. We’d like to give you the microphone for a while.

Parker Palmer writes,

I know of no field, from science to religion, where what we regard as objective knowledge did not emerge from long and complex communal discourse that continues to this day, no field where the facts of the matter were delivered fully formed from on high (p.107).

It is America and our schools are American schools so, with or without invitation, there will be debate over this kind of sweeping change. If it could become a “communal discourse”, we might make real progress.

Palmer, Parker (2007). The Courage To Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tannen, Deborah (1998). The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words. New York: Ballantine Books.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.