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Hearing One Another Out: Both Sides of the Argument

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I started my own education blog and podcast a little over a year ago because traditional means of faculty communication -- the conference paper and journal article -- weren't doing it for me. Well, they don't move fast enough at least. At numerous conferences on education, I tend to see a lot of half-baked ideas, unfinished thought experiments, and nervous graduate students getting their first shots at the big time. To be honest, I've likely been guilty of all three of those over the last several years. And I'm sure I'll be presenting yet another half-baked idea in the future.

My joining the education blogosphere, even in my own limited way, connected me with more like-minded, and not so like-minded, folks in education than I could have imagined. Not all of these contacts guided me to productive places, but for every ten connections, let's say, at least one gets you somewhere. Yet, I have enjoyed interacting with those whose views on education I do not share, largely from the Johnny-come-lately reform elite that's been so busy in recent months. Like our mainstream media tastes, we tend to get cloistered in our own little camps. My own experiences as an education faculty member tend to be limited to those with similar perspectives. Other educators and I interact with the same societies or groups annually, even splintering into the same sub-groups year after year within the same organization. I don't know how this leads others into healthy debate; it certainly has not helped me.

But joining the larger debate on education reform has for me accumulated a certain number of costs, especially the frustrations with the influence (or lack thereof) of my own voice. Just as my little blog and I barely scratched through the veneer, I discovered that, even in something as seemingly benign as school reform, there were much bigger players with extremely deep pockets already busting through to the grain. On the one hand, I see people like myself: no real agenda to start, got into teaching in very traditional ways, but then left the classroom to seek something more. I work with the experienced and soon-to-be teacher alike to navigate this muddled profession in which we've found ourselves.

Here's part of the problem as I see it, and perhaps the source of my recent frustrations. I said previously that education is a muddled profession because everyone has his or her hands on it. Many claim that being a former student or the parent of a student means they know what they're talking about. Observed a few classrooms? Expert. Your cousin's a teacher? Expert. Write policy documents or newspaper articles on education? Definitely an expert. You're a member of your daughter's school PTA? Absolutely -- expert. I don't mean to say that there is not room for multiple voices. Debate is invigorated by diverse perspectives. But we need to start being a bit more selective with who gets to comment on education. Or, so as not to violate free speech, whose views are actually taken into consideration.

I see a daily struggle on the left hand side of this very education page. The media loves to play up the education wars and extol the hard-as-nails self-righteousness of prominent reformers. Here on the left side of the Huffington Post's education page, I see many individuals like myself who are trying to resist that dominant test-driven discourse, but aren't faring so well in the mainstream. Can you hear the words that are coming out of my mouth? Not likely. I don't have deep pockets and my schedule is largely full from teaching new teachers. A research study conducted by me could take years from preface to publication, which is not fast enough when up against think tanks and foundations.

Believe it or not, left or right politically, we are bombarded by a monolithic discourse driven by more testing, narrowed curriculum, and bashing both teachers and their right to organize. Obama's Race to the Top is Bush's No Child Left Behind -- this time on some kind of performance enhancing drug. It's also marketed a bit better so as to confuse us plebes into thinking it's something truly revolutionary. It's not. How is it that many of us with actual classroom experience, with extensive knowledge of education and its history, so revile recent reform movements? It can't be mere coincidence or some activist political conspiracy. It's got to be that some of us actually know what we're talking about and actually see what happens to schools when tests are the driving force. But you can't hear us because, like a big wet blanket, other people's money smothers our voices.