[NOTE: The topic of the appropriate tone for making and debating points in education reform will not die; thus, I am reposting two pieces on tone, both originally posted at Daily Kos in 2012 (See pt. 1 HERE, and pt. 2 HERE); pt. 3 is original and intended as a prelude to the release of Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, which is drawing some criticism for her tone (see my review HERE). Let me be clear that it is absolutely true that tone matters, but I also have learned that the charge of inappropriate tone tends to come from those in power to put the powerless in their “place” and from those who have no substantive point to make. In the end, I call for addressing the credibility and validity of the claims being made first and then, if relevant, we can discuss tone.]
During my 18-year career teaching high school English in rural South Carolina, a foundational unit of study included a nine-week focus on non-fiction, highlighting argumentation. In that unit, we examined carefully the lineage of making arguments that depended on ethical authority—spanning from Henry David Thoreau to Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr.
An important point, I believed, for young people was how these powerful and influential writers committed themselves to embodying the principles they called for in everyone. In other words, to have ethical authority, all of us must walk the talk. Otherwise, our claims are discredited by our hypocrisy.
Especially in my 30-years as a teacher of young people—many of which were also spent coaching—and in my challenging life as a father for 24 years now, I have found that young people are greatly impressed by adults who practice what they preach, but are quick to discount those of us who venture into hypocrisy.
And thus, I feel compelled to offer all the education reformers who find themselves concerned about the tone of educators, scholars, and academics who are raising a growing voice against education reform that does not hold up to the weight of evidence and increasingly offering alternatives to the failed accountability era built on standards and high-stakes testing, charter school expansion, Teach for America, VAM, merit pay, and related free-market policies a mirror to their own hypocrisy.
If you are an education reformer speaking from a position of privilege or power (Secretary of Education or USDOE official, governor, superintendent of education, billionaire, EdWeek blogger, think tank member, self-appointed leader of a reform organization, etc.) and you have made or intend to make a claim of inappropriate tone aimed at a K-12 teacher, an education researcher, or an education scholar, I must note that any of the following immediately discredits you as having ethical authority, and thus, the mirror:
- If you use “no excuses” discourse, stop it. “No excuses” language implies those of us who teach are making excuses. We aren’t. It is an ugly, ugly implication, and it fails the tone argument.
- If you wave “miracle” schools up as examples of what we all should be doing, stop it. “Miracle” schools don’t exist, and if they did, see above. To suggest some people are simply working harder but the rest of us can’t cut it, again, is an ugly, ugly claim. It too fails the tone argument.
- If you label those of us who support public education as foundational to the U.S. democracy as part of the “government school lobby,” you are being purposefully dismissive and triggering intentionally the anti-government sentiment among the libertarian streak in the U.S. This is misleading, and thus, fails the tone argument for its snark.
- If you accuse any in education of “defending the status quo,” especially after acknowledging the historical and current struggles of high-poverty, high-minority schools, you are making a vicious and malicious claim about people that is untrue. The great irony of such a claim is that it is not only an ugly charge but a foolish argument made by accountability advocates who are calling for a continuation of the ineffective accountability status quo.
- If you accuse any educator of believing that poor children, children of color, or English language learners cannot learn, you have scraped the bottom of the ugly claim barrel. The rare people who genuinely believe such bigotry do exist, but they often have stated such in ways that we can confront and expose. But the vast majority of educators in no way believe such and to imply it is the worst sort of slander.
- If you say teachers don’t want to be held accountable because we speak out against misguided accountability, once, again, stop it. This is more of the laziness and gravy-train narrative that has no place in conversations about professional educators. It is a damned lie.
- If you say experience and certification do not matter—either directly or by supporting TFA—you are discounting an entire profession and central principles of all professions. Experience and qualifications matter. Period. Apply this ridiculous claim to the medical profession and you’ll see the folly. Or airline pilots.
- If you have no experience or background as a K-12 teacher, hold your tongue until you have listened carefully to those who have taught and those who do teach. Your ill-founded arrogance is offensive.
Those who hold positions of privilege are often quick to question the tone of those they deem beneath them. That in itself calls into question the issue of tone. But in the education reform debate, it is also becoming more and more common to promote a false image of MLK as a passive voice in order to keep subordinates in our place.
That, too, is a lie.
King, especially, carried the torch lit by Gandhi that rejected framing either man as a passive leader. They called for non-violent non-cooperation—nothing passive about it.
To call a political appointee someone without qualifications or experience is not a personal attack; it is a fact. And it is something Gandhi and King did.
So let’s stop that game as well.
I end here, then, with a solemn pledge.
If any person in the education reform movement who is concerned about tone will take the first step to reject the mirror items above and to commit to never stooping to them again, I too will join you and likewise honor a similar list of concerns.
Since the reformers have all the power, however, I must ask them to go first—that is, if tone really is the issue (and I suspect it is not).