Special Education Opinion

Distinguish Between Opinion and Fact: A Leader’s Responsibility

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 31, 2016 5 min read
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Leaders often seek advice and they comply with policies, regulations, and laws that are products of the input of specialists in the field or the political process. Standardized tests, for example, once supported by lawmakers, were developed by experts and supported by research and data that guaranteed the assessment’s integrity. The question that remained about standardized tests is whether they actually did measure what we value about what students are expected to know and be able to do at different points in their educational experiences.

The best way to make sense of this particular conundrum is to ask one’s self about those affected by these tests and how those tests can be given as required without galloping into and gobbling up other valuable time in the educational day. For those with the time and inclination to fight against their use, political action is an option.

Though some might disagree, leaders do have a power that is theirs alone. They possess an earned influence that hopefully increases over time. Their words and actions have impact. Whether dismissing a group of parents who are objecting to the testing and who hold their children home on the day of the test, or sharing one’s own negative feelings about the requirement to administer those tests, advocating for the testing, or managing a low impact implementation, how the leader behaves makes a difference.

A most responsible decision is to open discussions where people with all opinions, bias, concerns, and support can be heard and considered. Coming together to make sense of all sides and arriving at a place where most of those involved can agree is challenging and takes a good amount of open mindedness. It might even mean a leader has to change his/her mind and position as the cloud of opinions clear and the facts are clear. An example from outside of education can be found in Robert DeNiro’s intention to open dialogue when he supported the inclusion of a provocative movie about autism and vaccinations at the Tribeca Film Festival. But he changed his mind.

Robert DeNiro’s Decision
As educators, what do we know about autism? We know the behaviors, broad and individual, each autistic child and adult exhibit. We study constantly and pursue all the avenues possible to reach each autistic child and help each one to discover a learning path that supports them. But, it has been easier to identify the etiology of physical illnesses and, for many, the cure, or better, the prevention of them. We have yet to truly know the origin of autism. Enter the vaccination debate. A question about vaccinations has existed since their introduction in the 1790’s when Edward Jenner’s created the world’s first vaccine against smallpox.

From the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

To be licensed, vaccines go through many years of research, and must pass rigorous safety and efficacy standards. The vaccine development and research process includes diverse experts many scientific and social disciplines, including public health, epidemiology, immunology, and statistics, and from pharmaceutical companies. These stakeholders may have conflicting priorities and motives, which contributes to various ethical discussions.

It is fair to wonder if there is a relationship between vaccines and autism, but the consensus of scientists is now that there is no proven relationship between them. ABC News reported that the film, “Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Conspiracy” is about the theory of a cover-up and conspiracy and was directed by the now disgraced former doctor who linked the rise in autism to vaccines. His study has been discredited and denied by the very journal that published it. His credentials have been revoked.

Robert DeNiro wrote on Tribeca Film Festival’s Facebook page:

My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family. But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.

The Festival doesn’t seek to avoid or shy away from controversy. However, we have concerns with certain things in this film that we feel prevent us from presenting it in the Festival program. We have decided to remove it from our schedule.

What Does This Have To Do With Educational Leadership? Everything.
First and foremost, educators must be knowledgeable about autism spectrum disorder (ASD), its impact on children and the responsibilities for the education and development of these children that belong to the school and district. Autism Speaks suggests that 2% of school age children are diagnosed with some level of ASD. It is the leader’s role to maximize the success of each of these children by bringing together the team of professionals who will coordinate interventions and plans with academic programs. And, yes, educational leaders have the additional responsibility of establishing and leading an educational environment and community that is open to inclusion and protects the safety of all.

Mr. DeNiro chose to eliminate the film because its point of view lacked research and could spread harmful rhetoric about an issue that was very personal to him. His sensitivity to the issue and considered decision to step away from spreading simple opinions when scientific research exists is responsible. It may even protect children whose parents are wavering about the issue and might be influenced by the film. He changed his mind and did the right thing.

Daily, school leaders are confronted by both opinion and fact. They often are held with equal strength. Leaders also express opinions and facts. Sometimes we don’t differentiate. Unlike the world in which Mr. DeNiro wields influence, however, educational leaders live within and among the community that shapes the experience of the children within it. Show a film or not, the educational leader finds him/herself in the position of needing to both listen and educate with sensitivity, skill, a substantive understanding of the research, and a sensitive capacity to publically differentiate fact from opinion. Autistic children, their classmates, their parents, their teachers and the community depend on leaders for this wisdom.

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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.