Enter your edu-combination code

I meant to post something much earlier today but have been wrapped up in final edits of my book manuscript (before it goes to copyediting), final preparations for a presentation tomorrow, and final gazes at the trees and rooftops out my window before I move back to Brooklyn on Saturday.

I am so wrapped up in these things that I’m not sure what’s going on in education at the present hour. I gather there have been premieres of a new film, American Teacher, by Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari. I gather Mark Zuckerberg wants kids under 13 to have Facebook access for education purposes. But I don’t know enough about either of these things to write about them.

Then an op-ed by Rick Hess caught my eye: “Common Core: Giving Happy Lie to the ‘Reform Consensus.’” Hess states that many “reformy types” assume a consensus that just isn’t there, and that the small-government conservatives are finally speaking up and making this clear.

For several years now, would-be reformers have gotten away with claiming that there’s a goopy, groupthink “reform consensus.” They depict the edu-debates as a simple-minded morality play between a “reform” phalanx and “adult interests.” This line has been sold most assiduously by Democrat for Ed Reform-types and NCLB enthusiasts who think conservatives are supposed to quietly, cheerfully sign on to the grand schemes crafted by their betters.

I’m not in a position to evaluate Hess’s larger argument. But the imagined “goopy, groupthink ‘reform consensus’” has bugged me, no matter where it comes from. Many people have combinations of views that don’t align with a particular platform. And hooray for that. Without such variation, there would be no reason for an education discussion at all. You would have a set of views, you’d fight those holding the opposite views, and that would be that.

One thing that keeps me interested in education policy is the perplexing nature of almost every issue. If it weren’t perplexing, it would be just something to get done. Instead, it’s something to think about, fight for, learn more about, question oneself about, and so on. Yes, one needs to get things done at the same time; one can’t just dwell in perplexity. But the doing of the things also casts them in new perspective, as do reading, thinking, and discussion.

One doesn’t necessarily feel perplexed about everything in education; one may be sure about many things. But a hundred years ago, or a hundred days ago, one might have taken a different stance, even an opposite one. These matters change in meaning over time.

Nor does the lack of “consensus” preclude alliances of various kinds. But they are stronger if they make room for differences among the members, as long as the differences don’t render the alliance meaningless. For instance, two people working together on a curriculum may have very different ideas about school governance, but as long as school governance doesn’t figure large in their work together, they can disagree cordially and keep the work going.

There may be education groups and organizations whose members agree on most points. That has its place too. Many fine schools have a very cohesive staff who agree on the school’s goals and curriculum. The danger occurs only when the agreement gets smug–when those outside the circle are written off automatically or put under pressure to conform.

In-fighting and squabbling are sad things. Imaginary consensus is just as sad, if not sadder. What, then, is left? Hearty agreement, hearty disagreement, without shame or scorn. That, and the recognition that even the most well-considered views are approximations and that anyone can be wrong.

In search of education’s ‘sweet spot’

Are education professionals engaged in soul-searching or navel-gazing? National Journal Online’s Education Experts looks for a “sweet spot” of “common knowledge that facilitates consensus but also allows for honest differences of opinion.”

1) Washington insiders consistently underestimate current spending on K-12 education and overestimate average class size, according to a National Journal education poll conducted in association with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

2) A Fordham Institute survey found mixed responses from professors of education, with 83 percent saying it is “absolutely essential” for public school teachers to teach 21st-century skills but only 36 percent saying the same about teaching math facts.

If only 36 percent of education professors think it’s essential to teach math facts, then there’s no sweet spot, writes Bob Schaffer, a former congressman who chairs the Colorado Board of Education.

In five years, today’s 21st-century skills – whatever that really means – will already be obsolete. Math facts won’t.

Students used to be taught part of America’s greatness was its phenomenal ability to accommodate varied approaches to such fundamental and profound questions as, for example, what children should be taught. That was back in the embryonic dark ages of public education before Washington insiders knew best how to teach young citizens.

In those days, the only laboratories of democracy were referred to as “These United States.” Today, these pesky states – conceived by the 18th-century minds of men like Jefferson, Madison and Franklin – are treated as mere impediments to the kind of advanced learning necessary to sustain a great Republic.

Watch out for either/or questions, writes Steve Peha of Teaching That Makes Sense. “And” is often the right answer.