Thursday, May 5, 2011

How we frame the ed reform debates is as important as the issues we're debating.

One of the more troubling things about the education reform debates is not that they happen, but how they're framed--the debates and their participants are often misrepresented. First, some folks inaccurately describe the education reform debates as two-sided or of two neatly defined camps, for example, reformers versus anti-reformers or reform versus status quo. This leads others to decry the existence of such polarized debates. Presuming to be above the debates themselves, they admonish participants to stop being so polarizing, so we can all just move forward.

First of all, there are no real two sides. There are no anti-reformers. They're all reformers; they just have different ideas about what the reforms should be and how they would be best achieved. There are certainly people who fall into different camps on certain issues, for example people who want to use pay for performance based on test scores, school-choice advocates, people who think reading should be taught by using phonics, people who think there should be no homework, and on and on and on. But there's no two camps; there's tons of them. Even people who agree with one another on many things have some pretty significant differences.

Nor is there anyone really defending the status quo. For one, at its heart the whole process of educating people means challenging the most basic of status quo's, that of being uneducated. Second, there's no one status quo, meaning everyone in the debate has different opinions about which part or practices of our education system they'd like to keep and which they'd like to change. For example, some would like to keep NCLB pretty much as is--they want to preserve the status quo in the case of NCLB. Others think the larger class sizes in places like California (and I don't care what the law says there, unless your PTA is rich, the class sizes in CA are large) are not problematic--they want to preserve that status quo. Some people think the current teacher evaluation system used in their district is pretty good as is--they want to preserve that element of the status quo.

Now there are certainly hard core ideologues who stick to one platform of belief-based policies, but those people should be ignored anyway, as knee-jerk reactions generally indicate a lack of thought and understanding (though granted it's hard to just ignore someone when they are in a position of power or have gobs of money).

This is absolutely not some sort of "why can't we all get along" statement--that's silly. People don't always get along, and when they have differences of opinion, they argue about them. Even after that, they won't necessarily end up agreeing. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. In fact, it's healthy (disclosure: I was raised by lawyers). Furthermore, when your government implements policies you don't agree with, you should protest them. That's how a democratic society is supposed to work. Finally, those who use polarizing language to urge people to stop being polarizing are practicing the equivalent of trying to get people to stop swearing by telling them to "cut the fucking cursing out, god damn it!" I don't find that particularly effective or genuine.

Yes, sometimes people (present company included), get carried away in their rancor and resort to false accusations and hyperbole. However, sometimes in the course of debate you are forced to articulate your argument in such a way that leads to a richer understanding of it. Likewise, sometimes in the course of debate someone else challenges your thinking and you change your views.

It's important to be thoughtful not just about the issues in education we're debating, but also about how we frame the debates. When we talk as if there are just two sides or two camps, we miss the finer details of the policies we're discussing, distracting from the more crucial issues and obscuring their complexity. Plus, although it seems simplistic in one way to say, "there are two sides here," it's ultimately very confusing because at different points you'll perceive people changing "sides" when really they just have a certain opinion on one issue.

When people frame the debate inaccurately, at best it's ignorant and at worst it's dishonest. Let's work harder on not being either.


  1. I'm with you on this Rachel, for the most part (and I say that jokingly :o)

    It's very unfortunate that we have to "frame" the message at all. It should make us stop and realize that too many of us have no where to go to discuss the issues in a forum where they are being heard by the people that should hear them - the decision makers. Until we can "fix" that, we are left fighting a battle of words.

    Think about it, we are now forced to the extreme of having everyday people sacrifice time they don't have, money they should save, and peace-of-mind that many have worked for years to achieve...all in order to have their voices heard on laws that should help support quality and equality in educational opportunity.

    For that reason alone, we should put aside the petty differences, unite and fight like there is no tomorrow....and remember it is for our children's tomorrows for which we fight.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Victoria!

    I agree that there aren't many (or any, really) real opportunities for public education stakeholders to give input to decision-makers (I'm actually working on a post on that topic).

    I can see I didn't make this clear in the post--it was more directed at those of us who write about education or who present it to others in some way. We must frame & represent the issues and who stands for what honestly, accurately & responsibly, regardless of our own opinions & feelings.

    Even after that, people will surely continue to disagree, but at least we can get an understanding of what the issues actually are and from there decide to make some compromises or not.

  3. Agreed on the importance of honest sophisticated framing as opposed to simplistic false dualities.
    But framing happens, whether we like it or not. There is no rhetoric that is not framed somehow. George Lakoff has argued about this in cognitive science and in politics. Frank Luntz, a republican pollster, has used framing to great effect, most notably with "re-branding" the estate tax into the death tax.
    The PR genius of Michelle Rhee and her ilk make clever acronyms (LIFO) and frame the debate as reformers vs. teachers unions. I would like to see it reframed as reformers vs. parents, as it clearly was in the case reported by USA Today. Most damning was not that there was cheating at Noyes, but they were ignoring the parents, not just the corrupt and greedy teacher's union.
    Unfortunately, I think many people, like Luntz above, see that dishonest framing (like the death tax that affects just as many people as the estate tax does) wins the day.

  4. Money controls the frame in this country. How those most affected by public education policy affect the frame? How can families in the West side of Chicago or rural Mississippi compete with Bill Gates, David Guggenheim, and the Koch brothers?


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