03/22/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

And Never the Twain Shall Meet?

The deepening political divide on the Denver school board and elsewhere in the education world is often, and simplistically, described as 'reformers' vs. 'non-reformers.' Let's dispose of those meaningless labels once and for all.

At a recent event in Denver, Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, argued that more accurate terms to describe the two camps would be 'disrupters' (in place of 'reformers') and 'incrementalists' (in place of 'non-reformers'). Disrupters are after systemic change while incrementalists, as their name would suggest, want to preserve chunks of the current system and keep basic power structures intact.

That's a better framing of the dispute, but it misses the heart of the problem, at least locally.

While most people in the education world have spent the last few weeks in a frenzy over the Race to the Top competition, I've been distracted, wondering why the current battles over transforming public education, especially in Denver, have become so much more intractable and uncomfortable of late.

I've finally framed it in a way that makes sense to me. I'm sure some of you will disagree and will make your objections known, loud and clear. That's good. Let's have the debate.

The divide I see is between people who take a pragmatic approach to education reform and those who take an ideological approach. One is not inherently superior to the other.

The problem today is that neither side recognizes how fundamental the disagreement is. (A similar divide exists in the health care debate, with President Obama playing the role of ultimate pragmatist, much to the chagrin of people with more ideological inclinations on both the left and right).

Pragmatists in the current education debate assume people on the 'other side' are pragmatists as well, and that what we're fighting over boils down to competing strategies and tactics for reform. People driven by ideology assume their opponents are basing their positions on ideology as well, and that the ideologies are inherently incompatible.

Unless and until the two camps approach these disagreements with a clearer understanding of their nature, there will be little hope of compromise or reconciliation.

This is, of course, a generalization, and subject to Abraham Lincoln's famous caveat about the worth of all generalizations. Undoubtedly, there are some ideology-driven people in the camp pushing aggressive reform - those, for example, who see vouchers as an end and not a means. And I'm sure there are plenty of pragmatists among those who are more incremental in their approach.

But as a generalization, I think this frame fits.

Some examples: On Monday, I posted a subtitled video of Denver school board member Arturo Jimenez addressing Spanish-speaking parents in their native tongue just before a vote on placing another campus of the West Denver Prep charter school in northwest Denver. I posted it because it was an impassioned and fascinating bit of rhetoric, and because it's an excellent example of the ideological approach to school reform.

In his three-minute talk, Jimenez argues against West Denver Prep not because the school doesn't get results, but because he fears it will produce students who do not think for themselves but rather become cogs in a machine, "engineers who upon graduating from college build bomb components meant to destroy..."

He believes that Latino children must be educated in their native language as well as English, and in such a way that produces "leaders," who make the key decisions affecting their future, rather than ceding them to others. Schools like West Denver Prep, he implies, do not produce such leaders, but rather subservient followers.

"Our dream is that we are not this nation's beasts of burden, especially when we have gone to college," he says.

Similarly, Jimenez's colleague, Andrea Merida, argues at the same meeting against the West Denver Prep campus because a traditional neighborhood school, Valdez, was poised to become a dual immersion English-Spanish K-8 school. That plan is now dead, to be replaced by the high-performing charter school.

The Valdez program, Merida says, "is incredibly important really to our integration as Latinos into this says to Latino children that it's OK to be Latino, it's OK to speak Spanish. And it says to Anglo kids and other non-Spanish dominant kids that it's OK to feel uncomfortable with a language other than English...We need to do a better job supporting schools that families actually want and stop allowing other schools to poach from them."

Merida and Jimenez make eloquent cases for their positions. Here's what I think is the essence of their ideological argument:

Schools like West Denver Prep and KIPP are not respectful of Latino culture. Instead, they expect all children to conform to a code of behavior acceptable to the nation's power structure. These schools do not truly prepare students to become leaders in their communities, but rather cogs in a machine designed to perpetuate the status quo.

I'm a pragmatist. I disagree with this position because I see such schools preparing students to become high-functioning adults with the ability to do the kind of academic work that trains people to think critically. But I have no doubt that Jimenez and Merida are sincere in their beliefs about different kinds of schools.

As a pragmatist, and speaking only for myself, I support successful urban charter schools, the state's school autonomy law and other policy changes to allow for new models. I also support schools, be they traditional neighborhood schools, magnets, charters, what have you, that promote socio-economic integration.

I support these schools and socio-economic integration because I have seen with my own eyes how these approaches help significant numbers of individual kids - some of whom would otherwise fail - succeed in high school, go to college and graduate. Whatever works, I'm for.

There is a difference between people who view some issues through an ideological lens and ideologues. Ideologues are blindly loyal to their ideology and are impossible to move off a position. I do not believe Jimenez and Merida are ideologues - I certainly hope they aren't - but rather passionate advocates for their set of beliefs.

It is important that people locked in seemingly intractable disputes pull back and consider the perspective of their adversaries. Far too often in heated education debates, everyone fails to do this. If we're to move forward, in Denver, and in Colorado, it is time for us to start listening more carefully to one another.