Tuesday, October 2, 2007

A Bushism for education policy: Attack the idea, not the idea haver

My proposal for education policy wonks and wonkettes: let's attack the ideas, not the people who had them. Why? For one, it's intellectually lazy. If you have beef with someone's claims or proposals, it should be easy to identify why they're wrong. Second, it makes for sloppy conversation. Using people's names as cognitive shortcuts for a broad set of ideas results in our not knowing to what exactly the speaker objects.

A prime example of this problem is the reaction to Jonathan Kozol's partial fast, which is Kozol's attempt to draw attention to what he sees as the injustices of NCLB. Rather than engaging with Kozol on what is wrong with the ideas he's putting forth, some outlets have taken this opportunity to vitriolically attack him, using his name as a proxy for the big, bad opponents of "real reform." (Image above courtesy of Education Next.)

I can understand that some may disagree with Kozol about, for example, the effects of NCLB on disadvantaged children, the utility of a hunger strike to address these issues, or any number of the other arguments he's advanced since 1964. It's not my opinion, but I get where his opponents could disagree. But rather than initiating an intelligent conversation about what's wrong with his argument, we've seen a series of posts that go after him. (Sidenote: this is ironic coming from those who support TFA because of its "effect on the conscience of a generation." No other writer has drawn more attention to poor and minority kids than Kozol.)

To be fair, I am as guilty of this cerebral sloppiness as anyone else. When I first heard about the Fordham Fellows and its associated blog, my vision was of wonks and wonkettes, hunched over Hpnotic martinis at Old Ebbitt Grill, scheming to marketize public education. So I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading the posts of the Fordham Fellows, each of whom has something thoughtful and unique to say about education reform.

From Gabrielle Capone's painfully honest essay about how hard school reform is, to Zach Blattner's thoughts on how "reading sometimes sucks" because we make kids read boring passages all the time; Maya Wallace's grasp for a creative policy solution to give kids more time with adults without killing the teachers themselves to Cait Ferrell's thoughts on race in America; Liam Honigsberg's proposal on how to measure teacher effectiveness to Kate Sullivan's insight on whether separate can ever truly be equal, and Cecilia Le's reflections on bipartisanship, these are folks who are really thinking. You should check out their blog here.


Matthew K. Tabor said...

I'm not certain that it's always 'cerebral sloppiness' - in the case of individuals, there's often little difference between the man and the ideas.

And really, if the man isn't living the ideas, there's a problem. I felt quite good the last time I was personally attacked - it validated that I was, in fact, the embodiment of the ideas I was professing.

eduwonkette said...

Hi Matthew,

If everyone only stood for one idea, you are correct (though I still think that going after individuals is not the best way to have a discussion).

But as I eat ice cream before dinner, let's imagine that I stand only for the right to eat ice cream before dinner. You think that eating (Cherry Garcia) ice cream before dinner is morally reprehensible, so attacking me means attacking my professed right to pre-dinner sweets. But if I like Longhorn football and ice cream before dinner and you attack me, does it mean you are anti-Longhorns, anti-ice cream, or both? This is a silly example, granted - but what do you think about this argument?

Footnote: It's my sense that Kozol attackers were longtime Kozol attackers, i.e. before the partial fast, so the partial fast is not the cause of their attack (inconsistency btw espoused values and behavior) but a consequence of their not liking whatever it is they didn't like before. I'm still not sure what that is.

RDT said...

I've been thinking about this and wondering if its partly because so many of the ideas promoted to reform education (e.g. performance-based pay, weighted student funding) are based not on hard data -- or even o the soft data of day-to-day personal experience -- but on the gut instincts and general philosophical outlook of their proponents.