“But life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony.” ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   We weren’t exactly singing “kumbaya” when it ended, but the two dozen education thought leaders from across the ideological spectrum emerged from the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) conference room in Washington, D.C. smiling and shaking hands. I even got a hug and a kiss on the cheek from a man who, based on our heated blogging exchanges, had been quite my foe. I published the opening statement I had read during the January meeting, but had been forbidden to blog about all the things the group had talked about—that is, until now. This week AEI and NewSchools Venture Fund released the official summary of that closed-door roundtable discussion, and every person in the room signed it. The summary does a fine job of detailing just how complicated and fractured the current state of education reform is, without giving away who exactly said what. If you want a peek into the internal struggles of reform, it’s worth the read. Here are a few of the main points, with my interpretation following the bolded points from the summary:
  • We have different interpretations of the problems in education and therefore vary in our goals and approaches. Ed reform has branded its existence as a means to narrow the Black and Brown “achievement gap,” and some reformers fear being viewed as racists for wanting to stand up for the White kids who are being left behind.
  • There are costs and benefits to positioning educational improvement as part of the broader pursuit of social justice. To some, improving schools is inextricable from issues of poverty, criminal justice and immigration. However, others say that social justice talk just sucks the air out of productive discourse on how to advance learning.
  • Many expressed feelings of marginalization in discussions of education policy and practice. Leaders of color have long lamented being left out of reform policy discussions, but the Obama administration created similar feelings of disenfranchisement for conservatives who no longer felt they were welcome at the ed reform table.
  • Our conversation exposed some miscommunications, often rooted in false assumptions or different definitions of key terms. Not all Black ed reformers are “progressives,” for example; in fact, many Black people don’t fully understand what that label actually means. Embracing the lost art of nuance shows respect to each other’s positions.
  • These tensions have implications for our goals, tactics and coalitions. We must learn to agree to disagree, and attempt to coalesce around specific issues that we can agree on. Judging from the current political climate, this may be the most realistic expectation to have.  

A Commitment to Respectful, Productive Dialogue

At the end of the roundtable, 10 participants sat on two panels to discuss what we had learned from the day’s event. We had also agreed on a few norms for the discourse going forward—not just for the panel only, but for the way we blog and interact with each other in general. The norms are as follows:
  1. Practice Humility: We concede the limits of our own knowledge, admit that our understanding of an issue may be incorrect or incomplete, and commit to exploring disagreements with open minds.
  2. Check Assumptions: We will not make assumptions about a person’s beliefs or ascribe malicious intent to those who hold views that conflict with our own.
  3. Avoid Caricature: We will seek to represent our opponents’ arguments in terms they would recognize and avoid overly simplistic characterizations of their views.
  4. Pick Our Battles: We will not shy away from important disagreements and debates, but neither will we amplify a conflict for the sake of settling scores.
  5. Practice Courtesy: We will address personal disagreements through private conversation, limit our arguments to the issues and refrain from personal gibes.
  6. Affirm Common Values: At times of passionate disagreement, we will affirm each other’s sincere and heartfelt dedication to improving education and expanding opportunity for young people.
  7. Build Relationships: We understand the importance of building relationships across differences and will seek to build trust with people we spar with in the public discourse.
As such, the panel discussions were informative but fairly tame. Thus far, I am not aware of any public firestorms brewing among us. And with any luck, there won’t be.