Education reform wars: Caricaturization, not disagreement, is the problem |

Education reform wars: Caricaturization, not disagreement, is the problem

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I live in the middle of an ideological war zone.

Wake County Public School System is the eighth largest school district in the United States, and one of the mostly highly regarded. But lately it's not been our graduation rate or test scores that make the headlines. It's the school board's decision to end a highly regarded socioeconomic integration program.

One of the few urban school districts in the United States that is truly racially and socioeconomically integrated, Wake County is also an extremely fast-growing area with residents largely adverse to paying taxes for the local infrastructure.

As you may imagine, this has created a rather untenable situation for the public schools, as many are bursting at the seams with children packed into classroom trailers. Oh, and let's not forget the economic recession, which has further reduced funding for building new schools.

So in addition to balancing the socioeconomic (and by extension, racial) composition of its public schools--with the goal of having no high-poverty schools--the county was also busing kids here, there, and everywhere to try to alleviate overcrowding. Rapid growth in certain parts of the county was offset by moving students to under-capacity schools in older suburbs.

For a county that doesn't like spending tax-dollars, it's not a bad arrangement: the per-pupil spending in Wake County is significantly lower than most urban and suburban districts. The bus rides for some students, however, are lengthy. And many families were burned by frequent reassignments when school board committees tried to maintain the balance between growth, decline, poverty, and affluence.

So it's not surprising that a major shakeup happened with the 2008 elections. Moderate Republican board members were replaced by a few Tea Party favorites and others who campaigned on a platform of stability in school assignments—by moving all students to their neighborhood schools.

The battle begins

On one side, the NAACP charged the new board with trying to resegregate the schools. (And with this story coming out of nearby Goldsboro—which happened in state NAACP president Rev. William Barber's own community—it's not an unfounded concern.) Already, the approved student assignment changes have transformed the future population of one school to over 80 percent economically disadvantaged and 93% African American and Latino, creating a school population makeup unseen in Raleigh since the early days of “token” integration.

On the other side, proponents of the changes claim the past board was playing shell games with minority students, concerned more with the school-wide scores and reputations than individual failing students or demographic groups. Meanwhile, the program created unstable schools with frequent reassignment of students, and some families were forced into multiple schools with differing calendars. And for students living in high-growth areas with an inadequate number of schools, it also meant long bus rides each day.

On both sides, individuals create caricatures of the opposition, erecting straw men that are easily ridiculed or knocked down. One such caricature made it all the way to Comedy Central:

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Clearly, some folks make themselves easy targets for caricaturization. And I don't believe that all opinions are equal on any issue. But are we all so deeply ingrained in our ideologies that we can't look closely at those across the aisle and find common ground? And are we all so dedicated to collaboration with our allies that we can't mention the numerous areas we disagree?

Stepping back for a wider angle

If this political and ideological war sounds familiar, it's because we're seeing it played out on a national scale in education reform. One side declares public education a failed endeavor, while the other dismisses the successes of a few charter schools. One side insists on business-style reform, while the other points only to the failures of the business world. Always, it's either-or, black or white, never a commitment to finding a collaborative 'and.'

The darker side to this is our desire to create two allowable perspectives—mine versus yours—and disregard the numerous areas where we agree with one another and disagree with our allies.

Progressive education leader Deborah Meier alludes to these ideological wars in her Education Week blog:

I think of this often when colleagues/allies with whom I align on current educational policy disagree with me on other fundamental issues. I remain silent often because it seems to me that it's "the wrong place or time" to quarrel among "ourselves."

Yet we need to do so. We need to make alliances with open eyes to what we are ignoring or overlooking and what the consequences might be of doing so. Ignoring them allows us to pretend to innocence later on, rather than accepting some blame for what we helped create...

...are we purposely avoiding some topics because it's pointless and risky to our alliance? Pointless because we don't imagine we will succeed in persuading each other, or just because the energy involved is not worth it, or because our enemies will use our differences to undermine our collaboration.

What if true collaboration is democratic? What if it requires debate and dissension, not just consensus?

And perhaps most unsettling, what if improving our public schools requires the ability to tolerate a difference of opinion on big issues?

Cooperative Catalyst blogger John Spencer recently wrote:

[The lack of ideological diversity] has me thinking about education reform. I realize that we might need a unified vision of what needs to change. We might need a set of core values (I vote for authenticity and humility and paradox), but if we want real, lasting, positive change, we need ideological diversity. We need to see multiple perspectives to understand the nuances of the arguments and to understand on an emotional level what we claim already on an intellectual level: that the other side isn’t just a bunch of whacked-out Crazies hellbent on hurting children.

Ultimately change doesn’t happen without dialogue and dialogue won’t happen if we handpick who we allow to have a voice.

Opposing opinions

Back in Wake County, there's a glimmer of hope. Early on in the fight, the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the Wake Education Partnership pushed the school board to consider working with education consultant Michael Alves on a controlled choice assignment plan that would balance stability, choice, proximity, and diversity. The board majority balked at the last word: diversity. They moved forward with an attempt at developing their own choice-based plan, without regard to race or poverty.

But then one member, Debra Goldman, broke rank. Unwilling to commit to a plan without guaranteed base school assignments, particularly neighborhood school assignments, Goldman's vote threw the board into a stalemate.1

Enter Michael Alves, again. While the board feuded, the Chamber of Commerce and Wake Education Partnership scraped together the funds to pay Alves for a plan, hoping to present it to the board as a compromise that would stabilize the home values and alleviate the business community's concerns.

In a brilliant move, Alves removed his usual emphasis on racial and financial diversity and replaced it with student achievement. (Student test scores, remember, are what the board majority had pointed to as a problem that was being swept under the rug by the socioeconomic diversity assignment model, and are a strong indicator of socioeconomic status.) Alves presented the plan to the board and general public earlier this month.

Weary of the ongoing battles, negative national attention, and the increasingly unlikely chance of actually achieving their assignment plan goals, both sides of the board have handed over the plan to new superintendent and retired Brigadier General2 Tony Tata and essentially said, “Work some kind of miracle, please.”

Though Tata was the most polarized of all caricatures of Wake's school leadership, he alone seems capable of tolerating ideological diversity and seeking to understand the concerns and needs of the community. (I'll lay bare my own ideology here and admit that I had stronger reservations about him before he arrived than I do now.)

So here we stand, and we wait. Tata's assignment plan—which he emphasizes must be built together with the community—represents a potential turning point in the national education reform debate. Raleigh aims to be the first open source city. Can Wake County transform its Board of Education into the first transparent, collaborative, open source school board? Can we overcome the ideological silos our political system shoves us into and our tendency to caricaturize rather than understand our opponents, and instead find a compromise that will benefit all of our children?

Stay tuned.



1 If you thought Stephen Colbert was picking on board member John Tedesco for a one-time foolish remark, think again. After Goldman's swing vote, he once again made headlines when he called her a “prom queen” at the heated meeting, then referred to her as “Benedict Goldman” in a Facebook status update. Never a dull moment in Wake County.

2 That's a whole other article.


About the author

Rebecca Fernandez - Rebecca Fernandez is a Principal Program Manager at Red Hat, leading projects to help the company scale its open culture. She's an Open Organization Ambassador, contributed to The Open Organization book, and maintains the Open Decision Framework. She is interested in the intersection of open source principles and practices, and how they can transform organizations for the better.