a refusal to lower the discourse

Recently on twitter I appreciated Deborah Meier, a powerful voice for progressive education, for her insistence on nuance and complexity. It was interesting to note that in the comments suggestions to the above link, a response purporting to be from a supporter of Meier’s, rebutted her nuance as if she had just been being polite to the “other side.”

Educators, we are going to have to start insisting on nuance, complexity, and mess. I always tell my students that learning is messy, I think the educational community needs to acknowledge the same.

What amazed me about the now famous/notoriousSuperintendent’s Manifesto” that stirred a great deal of attention recently, was the reduction of the conversation to simplicities. They seem to argue that changing, for example, the teacher seniority and discipline processes would suddenly change the what Richard Elmore calls the enduring “grammar of schooling” (relevant quote posted here). More than 100 years of schooling history belie this belief.

The public school systems are inertia bound and enduring. They adapt ably to the whim of public policy and politics. The four year political cycle ensures that the ever growing demands on schools change, at least in emphasis, from one extreme to another with the changing of the political tides. Michelle Rhee, who seemed to operate the belief that effective hierarchical management could, effectively impact change in the school system, was swept aside by heterarchical forces far stronger than her. Her resignation was inevitable, as noted by educational historian David Tyack. Tyack is nothing, if not nuanced.

In another example of nuance, and in contrast to the original manifesto, I think Arlene Ackerman, superintendent here in Phlly, offered a much more complex rendition of the challenges facing schools and school systems. Regardless of whether you agree with her reform agenda, it is hard to disagree with Ackerman’s assertion, “A collaborative approach to reform may not be easy, glamorous or movie-worthy, but it is a stronger and sustainable solution that is likely to outlast the tenure of individuals or politicized agendas.”

Unlike Tyack (and somewhat like, for example, Tom Vander Ark), I do see the spread of independent public public schools, charter or otherwise, as a potential important systems change. Beware, however, of any and all absolutes. At REAL we hope to deal, instead, in the truly complicated needs of each student, family, and community we serve.



  1. the need to keep the discourse nuanced is real, but not necessarily grounded in real life. yes, we want to assume the public making choices about schools, education, or any other social issue is rational and capable of engaging in meaningful, complex conversation. but i fear we are expecting a lot from adults who have been (mis)educated by the same system we hope to reform. the reason many debates are hijacked by fearmongers and corporate interests is because they consistently underestimate the congnitive power of the american public, and time and again they win.

    i think the better set of issues to consider is how to express complex issues in simple terms. we love soundbites, and although the whole of educational reform can not be summed up in 30 seconds, we should strive to make it understandable to a notoriously underinformed public. look at the debates over healthcare, and how any nuance was removed and people ultimately voted against their best interest. the same goes with taxes and economic issues. if there is any hope of meaningful change, there must be an acknowledgement of the overall lack of intelligence displayed by americans over and over. not saying we should cater to this, or even lower the bars we set for ourselves, but that we need to be better marketers of ideas. as sad as it may be, packaging makes all the difference, no matter how hard we try to prove that wrong.

    1. Well, I don’t agree at all about “the lack of intelligence” Carl suggests is displayed by the American voter, and I’m not sure what he means about “people ultimately voted against their best interest” regarding healthcare, I do agree that all of us who purport to have something to offer to the policy debate in education need to learn how to boil it down to an elevator speech or a commercial or a sound-bite.

      The voting public sometimes frustrates me and I have been known to rant about how people do often seem to vote against their own self-interest. However, to me this is a problem of teaching and learning more than it is of anything else. Schools and educators and parents have allowed the public discourse our children learn to value to be devoid of meaningful or important content. With out exposure to wide varieties of interesting and important content, it is hard for youth to build the cognitive frameworks for difficult conversations.

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