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Rally for Sanity in Education?

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"If we amplify everything we hear nothing."

"The press can hold its magnifying up to our problems bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic."

"We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is -- on the brink of catastrophe -- torn by polarizing hate and how it's a shame that we can't work together to get things done, but the truth is we do. We work together to get things done every damn day!"

Jon Stewart's closing speech at the Rally To Restore Sanity helped me pinpoint what has been bothering me about the whole discussion centering around Education Nation's programming and the release of Waiting for 'Superman', and what also worries me about the recent lopsided election results.

The rhetoric and finger-pointing ignores the many of us in the middle, who as Jon Stewart points out, are doing things daily to make compromises and work together to get things done every single day.

Education can be a political "hot potato" because it impacts every family -- and the political rhetoric around it can become just as inflammatory and "ants on fire" as politics in general -- "It's the fault of _____ (fill in the blank: unions, poor manners, poor teachers, lack of basics, poor parenting, poor college education programs for teachers, too many tests, not enough tests, and on and on)".

Jon Stewart's rally was a call for a restoration of reasonable discussion -- as he said, we can have 'animus without having enemies.' It's not that we don't need to have passion for education -- it's just we need to have reasonable passionate discourse .

Take for example, this recent column in Jay Mathew's Washington Post column, written by guest poster J. Martin Rochester, political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, which slams school districts that are changing how they teach and test spelling. Rather than approach his concerns with a reasonable analysis of the issues -- his post was filled with insults and disdainful language towards the educators involved.

For example -- he writes:

This is just another case of K-12 progressive educators devaluing the basics, putting down spelling tests (because in truth they don't care if kids can spell) just as they put down computation skills (because they don't care if kids have automaticity with math facts), rationalizing all the while that schools should focus on developing (sniff, sniff) "higher order skills.

Further, he writes:

Part of this is ego on the part of K-8 educators -- they now consider it beneath them as "professionals" to get their hands dirty administering spelling tests (and multiplication table exercises) -- but mostly it is something more damning : it is not so much that the reformers don't care about these skills but rather they do not have enough faith in kids to succeed at mastering them. The dark secret the reformers will not admit is that the basics are hard and they have thrown in the towel on things like spelling.

Manchester's obvious disdain for educators bleeds through everything he writes in this column, and by writing with this sort of disdain he obfuscates his own point by his unreasonable and wildly inflamed (and insulting) rhetoric about teachers(not to mention students, whom he refers to both as stupid and lazy).

The finger-pointing and blaming of teachers in some of the current rhetoric like Rochester's serves little purpose other than "setting ants on fire" and his is only one isolated example, of course. Much of the current heated debate about teacher unions, for example, mirrors this same tone.

These are the sorts of polarizing discussions that the Rally For Sanity was trying to speak to.

A reasonable and informed and even passionate discussion of issues in education recognizes that there are many factors in play at the same time that contribute to student success or failure -- factors like leadership, teaching, parenting, socio-economics, funding, legislation, curriculum, technology, testing, societal pressures, etc. And this petri dish of factors may call for many different solutions.

But when we propose solutions that isolate out one element and pretend none of the others matter, then we are only "lighting ants on fire" and then reporting on the fire, as Stewart puts it, rather than designing mindful, compelling school reform.

What can we do differently? We can listen. But too often we really don't. Too often our minds are made up before we sit down at the table, whether the discussion is school reform, ed tech, school funding, teacher unions, etc.

When everyone involved thinks they already know what the problem and solution is, then any protests to the contrary are portrayed as whining, rather than as an opportunity to listen to real concerns. But how can truly helpful discourse happen if people aren't curious about the possibilities and respectful of others? How can it happen if all the players aren't at the table and listening to one another? Maybe it's time for a "Rally to Restore Sanity" in education.

Ultimately when we don't have reasonable dialogue, we do a disservice to our nation's children, because in the end failed understandings lead to failing solutions. We also fail to model for our own children how to have reasonable and thoughtful discourse.

We have to find a way to acknowledge that the challenges schools face are complex and then have rational dialogue about them, one that includes real respect for all the players involved before we can hope for real and lasting progress.

Why don't we start with believing that all of us care? Perhaps then we can get started.

Carolyn Foote blogs at Not So Distant Future.