A conversation with my good friend re the public discourse about schools: “In life there are doers and there are don’ters, which one are you?”

First of all, credit to my man P. for being the one who said tittle quote to me.
The following is a long gchat between my good friend Mary (Twitter: @teapot314) and I about the state of educational discourse. In fairness, this is mostly Mary’s thinking and my parroting (see her first post on the subject), but I thought her thinking was representative of some of the views expressed on this blog regarding raising the level of educational discourse.
MConger to me 6:10 PM (20 hours ago)

MConger: are you there?

me: usually

MConger: can i vent for a sec and/or get some feedback?

me: of course, otherwise we would have a very one-sided relationship

MConger: ha. here goes: i think i’m fundamentally sad about the state of discourse about school perfection and i’m going to use that phrase “school perfection” for now because i’m done with “ed reform”…

assuming, of course, that perfection is an on-going process.

anyway, i am just truly disheartened by the blatant negativity

the obstructionism

the immediate inclination to tear down rather than build up

no wonder nothing changes when everyone is a critic…

i feel like this is a pattern we’ve seen before in other big issues/crises

set the unhappy citizens upon each other, rather than upon the problem

i think i’ve felt this way for a long time

but it was really surfaced by watching waiting for superman

because, hey, i’m hip, i’m with it, i’m on twitter

and there’s been SO MUCH buzz about how awful the movie is, how one-sided, how imperfect, how inaccurate, how unfair to teachers or public schools or students or whatever and i was ready to watch it and tear it down myself

i went into that theatre very cynical, prepared to poke holes in any given scene

me: and!?

MConger: i walked away so very disappointed in my community of educators

because i felt that this movie was just someone trying to tell a story about a piece

of a huge problem in a way that was accessible and compelling

and what do the big shot “ed reformers” do in response? rip it to shreds rather than pull out the positives and build on them tens of thousands of people are going to think more about education than they have before because of this movie

maybe hundreds of thousands

and what’s the ed community doing?

bashing each other

ripping it down

no wonder change doesn’t happen when we’re so quick to go negative on each other

and i don’t want to seem like i think this is an easy issue and we should all play nice

there are HUGE things at stake that folks should be passionate about

but this negativity that tinges EVERYTHING is killing me

and i see it big time with the stuff happening in my home district

my parents are caught in the middle of it and it’s totally wearing them out, making them cynical and shortening their vision about what’s possible

it’s this short view of change that’s driving me nuts, i think.

which, of course is tied to the political cycles and nature of it all

but i feel deeply deeply saddened by it

i find that attitude more difficult to fix than failing schools

the end

me: you should be sad

it’s sad

I of course, completely agree with you

there are real children in real schools who are trying desperately to make it through what they know is a really messy world and all around them, an entire nation of educators seems to be telling them lies—complicated things are really simple; rules are the same for everyone; study hard get educated, get rich—you should be sad

sadness is an appropriate response that proves you’re a sane and caring person

It seems like our entire educational community is caught mirror-gazing.

fascinated with ourselves, our conflicts, our relationships

as if that had anything to do with helping young people learn and grow strong

MConger: indeed. i’m just coming to this realization that i think i’m actually sadder about the adults’ trenchant negativity and narcissism than i am the students’ plights

me: that’s right too though, in each individual student there is endless hope and possibility

MConger: well, i also think that with any given kid, in any given classroom or school, there’s always room for growth

i guess i’m taking a flux/chaos approach here

me: lol

MConger: beware anyone who says they have the answer that will fit every kid, classroom, school, etc.

the fact remains that we don’t know how to make all of this work like clockwork

and we need to be ok with that

we need to take that as a fundamental premise

so we can open ourselves up to the possibilities for improvement

i guess i’m a locavore in a way

well, let me stop

i’m going off on a different tangent

me: 🙂

MConger: the point is, until we fix the way our community engages in discussing these problems and supporting each other in their resolutions, we’re [profanity omitted].

kids lose

schools lose

everyone feels bad

and on the defensive

and as though they’re getting the short end of the stick

MConger: and i’m scared about saying this stuff out loud, because a really easy retort is: THIS IS TOO IMPORTANT TO PLAY NICE

and i dont want to seem as though i’m saying let’s all just get along and things will change

as though i don’t have high standards

me: you didn’t say that

MConger: or good arguments

me: to me you said that it is foolish to reduce and destroy for the sake of politics

MConger: but the more i read, experience, study, think, the more i truly believe that the state of education discourse is the problem.

not just foolish, but i think it’s at the root of the problem

me: very different aspects of school policy should be treated as the same just because the same person happens to support them

MConger: i think it’s right up there with systemic poverty and racism, honestly

me: I would argue it is, in fact a representation of both

MConger: agreed

ugh. i’m just so down about this.

me: can I post some of this on my blog?

I may be beating this discourse drum too hard

is it too late to post today?

I have like six things half ready

MConger: oh post away

me: can I post this convo?

minus some of the profanity and harsh edges?

I can send you a draft and site you or not as you please

MConger: oh post

no sweat

you can use my profanity

just throw in a #$%

me: we don’t curse at the real school 🙂

MConger: if you need to clean it up 🙂

whatever you like is fine

i trust you

me: jk

I crack myself up

MConger: this is the thing

i don’t want to talk to anyone full of hate anymore

i just wnat to be a principal

and do my best

and help other people do their best

in our corner of the world

that’s real

that’s change

that matters

me: 🙂

become a principal

you know I think that is only a partial truth, but it is a really powerful one

17 minutes

me: You know who we miss, Mark Twain, now there was one of the great truth-tellers in American history. He was a man who could take a complex topic and wrap it up in folk truths until it was intelligible, but not dumbed down

32 minutes

MConger: sorry to disappear on you there

amen to mark twain



  1. Yes, Waiting for Superman was moving and compelling–but it was a moving compelling piece of propaganda meant to blame the victims, and promote reforms that will actually destroy public education and put in the hands of corporate America for their profit.

    Just because it is well done and compelling, does not mean it is an accurate representation of reality.

    1. Thanks for adding your thoughts, Nick. I’m glad you’re reading the REAL School design blog!

      I agree wholeheartedly that the film being done well and compellingly does not mean it is a robust and thorough representation of exactly what’s wrong or right with American public education, a.k.a. “reality.”

      My point in this conversation with Gabe, and my strong feeling after seeing the film, was simply that the vitriolic dialogue in the ed community about Waiting for Superman is at best a bit inaccurate and at worst totally unhelpful/unproductive. To me, it was quite clear that the film was attempting to represent one small reality–tell one (or five) small stories–as a means of sparking wider dialogue about and attention to the complex, fraught, and important issues of education. And I thought the film/makers were much more explicit about this than most of their critics acknowledge.

      I too would have vastly preferred to watch a film that captured the “reality” of public education in a more comprehensive fashion. But until that film comes along (and my sincerest best wishes to whomever attempts to undertake such a behemoth–I don’t think even Ken Burns would be up to the task), I’m going to try and use this attempt to share a slice of ed reality as something to build upon rather than tear down. Amongst educators, it’s easy and important to talk about the film’s foibles and failings; however, I think WFS is prompting many non-educators to think more deeply about what’s really going on in education, and spurring them to want to do something about it. And that’s momentum I’d like to encourage and capitalize on, regardless of the imperfections of its source.

      Thanks again for reading, Nick. I look forward to hearing more of your comments on this or future posts.

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