Sunday, May 1, 2011

Don't Be So Sure

When I left Seattle in the summer of 2009 to teach in Washington, DC, there was a lot I didn't understand about education policy. At the time, I thought what Michelle Rhee was doing in DCPS was probably the right thing. I'd seen my fair share of bad teachers and heard anecdotes from principals about how difficult it was to get rid of them. Also, a number of people I thought were pretty good teachers were at risk of losing their jobs because they were newer than other less capable people. Seniority struck me as a dumb way to decide who keeps a job and who doesn't.

I moved across the country partly because I wanted to find out what this whole education reform looked like in practice, at the school level. After experiencing a seriously unhealthy work environment for a semester in Washington, DC, I quit mid-year. I blogged about it a lot (see my posts especially between October of 2009 and January of 2010).

When I left, I wouldn't have been able to tell you how my school's problems were endemic to the corporate reform movement. But I took the next eight months off and studied the shit out of education policy in this country. Partly as a result of the the educational disaster I experienced at Columbia Heights Educational Campus, and partly as a result of my study, I refashioned my take on the country's current brand of educational reform. Along the way I learned some important lessons: be skeptical of the media (even big names like the Washington Post or the New York Times); logic and reason are often the fifth or sixth important factor impacting policy decisions at a macro level; and, despite their rhetoric, many of our ed policy leaders are in it because they're ideologues committed to transforming society based on that ideology or they're opportunists, not because they're tenacious problem solvers devoted to bettering children's lives.

There's one other lesson I've learned, though. Despite all of the time I've spent thinking about education over the past five years, I'm still positive many of my opinions are flawed. When I was twenty-five, and thought I had a pretty good grasp on education, I moved across the country and found that simply teaching and reading about education weren't nearly enough to provide the necessary insight to come to legitimate conclusions concerning corporate reform. I'd never taught in a high-profile urban district. Now that I have, I understand things very differently. But there is still plenty of information that my current understanding lacks. There are the known unknowns: what does Michael Bloomberg say to Dennis Walcott when they're alone? What gets taught at the Broad Leadership Academy? What does the money web in public education look like? Then, I imagine, there are a whole host of unknown unknowns.

What I'm trying to say is: I have opinions, and I can support them with evidence, but I certainly don't see the whole picture, or even the majority of it. I must admit that my understanding is not only fallible, but likely misconstrued in a number of ways. This is sort of the nature of being human. We're desperate to make sense of our worlds, but are severely limited in our ability to do so. Because I've spent so much time thinking about education and I still can't claim to have many, much less all, the answers, it makes me shy away from giving my opinion on other outrageously complicated issues. When people ask me what I think about the war in Afghanistan or health care, I just shrug and say, "I don't know." It's not because I don't try to stay informed; it's because despite the five or six articles I've read on Afghanistan in the past week, I still have a dearth of evidence on what is assuredly an incredibly abstruse issue. I know a few facts about it, but I'm in no position to really have an opinion on it.

Take this reality and combine it with the pugnacious partisan debate that is characteristic of the American body politic. It makes you cringe, particularly when our major media outlets are so committed to not investigating important issues. In a lot of ways, I'm afraid we're just a bunch of ignoramuses yelling past each other. Policy gets made by those who are willing to fight hard enough or have enough money to get their way, with relatively little attention paid to what quality solutions would look like.

Sometimes I wonder if teachers contribute to this problem by stressing the importance of learning how to argue. Language arts textbooks are filled with information on the art of rhetoric. And while I think argument is certainly valuable to learn, it doesn't promote reflection. As a culture, I think we lack the capacity to hold two contradictory ideas in our head and appreciate the pros and cons of each, especially as they're applied to various contexts. I seriously doubt the ability of many people to debate big issues in their heads, and the practice of most to do it regularly. People just don't seem to be in the habit of arguing with themselves. This not only limits our ability to solve problems practically and work to build a stronger community among ourselves, but it hinders our ability to learn.

One of the most important traits of my best students is the willingness to be wrong, the understanding that real growth only comes through making mistakes, reflecting on them, and trying again. On that note, I'd like to leave you with with a TED talk. The speaker hits on a lot of the same points I made here. Good to know there are smart people out there thinking about this problem.


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