Education Reform and Our Better Angels

February 11, 2012

This week the New Haven Independent made the decision to close its doors to commenters. As someone who has been using the Internet to discuss politics since a young age it’s not difficult to understand the decision. The reason that most people have a rule that politics is not discussed at the dinner table is that people get heated, views are strong, and feelings get hurt. Places that allow free form comments like the Independent may have some good discussions but as Bass points out too often it turns nasty and negative. If discussions are to be successful they usually require moderation to keep tempers in check. Too often people engage in these discussions with the purpose of promoting an agenda instead of learning from others, and that is where they turn sour.

Yet powerful opinion has the power to drive discussion and bring new insights to old issues. Gadflies like Jon Pelto have managed to shape some of the debates and use research and rhetoric to show different sides to issues facing the state of Connecticut. Some of the most powerful writing at the New York Times comes from opinion writers like Nick Kristof and Tom Friedman. Yet these widely circulated opinion makers are not immune from controversy. We saw that this week when the Courant took down a cartoon by Bob Englehart after he was eviscerated for some insensitive comments. Colin McEnroe wrote a thoughtful analysis on the issue but then he too was torn to shreds by some commenters on twitter. Unfortunately it seems tempers might be a little high to address the substantive issue at hand.

Education reform is a complicated subject that I am not an expert in. My exposure involved attending a public school in the suburbs of Connecticut, working on a Board of Education Campaign, attending briefings on the issues while I interned for Congressman Larson, and attending a Connecticut Forum panel on the topic. I have also seen Waiting for Superman and as a matter of full disclosure I have friends who are teachers. So I have had exposure from many sides but do not have a dog in the fight.

From the outside looking in, the questions seem to revolve less around education reform and more around power and accountability. Good school teachers and districts rightfully would like to be left alone so they can continue doing what they do best. The hard part is figuring out how to address the poorly performing districts and students. There is a faction that believes teachers are the biggest independent variable and in spite of all the other factors involved if you have excellent teachers these other issues can be overcome. Others point out that teachers are not the only factor and if students are not doing well then it’s not the fault of the teachers but administrators or parents or society as a whole.

Who is right? Both sides. Good teachers are important to education; they are powerful forces for good in the lives of their students. Teachers are and should be evaluated and given help if they are not doing well. If they still are having trouble then it is in the best interest of everyone that they find a different field. There will be plenty of good teachers to take their place. However it is not enough to address the issue of teachers alone. Other factors like infrastructure, public health, and language barriers need to be tackled if all students are going to perform at the same level.

Unfortunately everyone is already fired up. Instead of collaborating and working together to find the best solutions for the students it seems both sides of the reform debate are ready to march into war. The harsh rhetoric on the tenure reform debate seems unwarranted after viewing the Governor’s proposal. The two sides of the education reform debate want the same thing: a good education for the children. I do not believe their ideas are that far apart. Yet after reading some of the critiques of the plan you would think that they are on different planets.

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.