The Danger of the Single Story Is Real in Our Education Debates Too

05/05/2016 08:02 pm ET Updated May 06, 2017

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of the "danger of the single story," and while she focuses most on how this impacts our ideas about countries and cultures, she makes clear that this danger exists everywhere.

Our national and local conversations about K-12 education are no exception. (Her TED Talk on this is a must-watch.)

The problem with the single story is that it creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Jennifer Berkshire, aka Edushyster, is a huge fan of the single story.

The recent piece on her site written by Emily Kaplan, is nothing more than an exercise in single stories, one about urban charters and one about affluent suburban schools. I was dumbfounded reading the sweeping generalizations about both kinds of schools but was particularly struck by the implication that suburban schools are some sort of panacea for special education students and their parents; if this writer had only taken the time to seek out authentic voices and listen, she would have learned that there are countless parents in the suburbs desperate for special education services. She would have heard how they've spent more than $2,000 of their own money to have their children tested for learning disabilities by an outside provider because the district was unwilling to test or unwilling to provide services. I certainly heard these stories as an elected school committee member in my suburban town.

I could have talked with her about a system that allowed more senior special educators to bump less senior ones out of their positions, essentially pulling the plug on longtime teacher/student relationships that were, after much hard work, leading to exciting progress for kids. In an instant, that relationship was gone. In the suburbs.

I also could have shared with her the stories of charter families whose children have flourished and whose special education services have exceeded their expectations, where the special educator was surprised with an award (on TV!) because of a nomination letter written by a special needs mom.

I recently wrote about Thornton Elementary School in Johnston, Rhode Island. Perhaps to some, their single story would be that they are a full Title I neighborhood school. But that would ignore their principal, Louise Denham, who has been with them for eight years and declares proudly that she'd send her own children, and grandchildren, to her school. It would ignore their unique and remarkable achievement last year in being the only district school whose low income population exceeds 40 percent (they have 70 percent) to beat state averages on PARCC in both math and reading. Their whole story deserved to be told.

Success Academy in New York has also found itself in the cross-hairs of the power of the single story. The New York Times video of Charlotte Dial berating a student and ripping up her paper became a symbol for many of all that is wrong with the Success Academy schools (and even the charter sector as a whole). I too have written written about my concerns about that incident and the larger issue of discipline, but it would be unfair for me to ignore all the other stories that make Success Academy what it is. We can't ignore their 22,000 applications for next year, the testimony of parents whose children attend the school and have spent a full year in class with the teacher in the video, and the observations of journalist Abby Jackson who went inside the school and saw joy, dancing, and wiggle breaks on her visit. Unlike Jennifer Berkshire who only wants to hear from the parents with negative things to say, a journalist would want to hear from all the parents because all of their stories deserve to be heard.

Central Falls, a one mile by one mile city in Rhode Island just minutes from where I live, became a national story in 2010 when the Superintendent fired all the district's teachers. But that difficult moment can't be the single story of district that has seen graduation rates rise, maths scores double, and teacher attendance improve. That single and painful story doesn't include The Central Falls/Rhode Island College Innovation Lab, described as a "unique first-in-the-nation collaboration that has the potential to provide a PK-12 and post secondary urban education model that offers a new paradigm for state and national replication."

There are countless examples of people on all sides of education debates who cling to the single story to prop up their side or their preferred narrative. Single stories play perfectly into the gotcha strategy that plagues most public discourse today, including how best to educate America's children.

But here's the problem.

No school is a single story. No district is a single story. No charter network is a single story. No school governance model is a single story. No teacher is a single story. No parent is a single story.

And most importantly, no student is a single story.

It behooves all of us to learn from the wisdom of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and fight against the single story. Not only does it perpetuate stereotypes and misunderstanding by telling an incomplete story, it also makes common ground so much harder to find.