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Answer Sheet
Posted at 02:00 AM ET, 04/20/2011

Public education needs public discussion

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Diana Senechal’s book, “Repu blic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture,” will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education this November.

By Diana Senechal

One of the phrases that I hear often in education discussions is “behind the scenes.” Curriculum may be a controversial subject, but “behind the scenes,” educators are busy discussing it and devising new proposals. Policymaker X declares that online learning is the future, but “behind the scenes,” she expresses misgivings about its costs and complications. Value-added assessment seems to be moving ahead full throttle, but “behind the scenes,” experts admit to its dangers.

It seems we live in an age of P.R., where people put up a good front in public, then deal with the messier stuff behind closed doors or over drinks. To get things done, supposedly, you have to know who’s who, make the rounds, belong to the right circles. And you have to be willing to play a game: to pretend everything’s just fine (whatever you support, that is) and confine your reservations to a special time and place.

We live, also, in an age of products. Even certain kinds of class discussion have been made into products: Accountable Talk® is trademarked, for instance. This is no unique phenomenon; our schools are filled with proprietary programs and products, from educational software to pedagogical models.

None of this will go away, of course. Some of it is necessary, even good. Any important issue needs some back-room conversation; any field needs inventions. The social and private aspects of education policy may indeed bring forth good ideas. All the same, when so much is guarded, the very guardedness affects the discourse.

For one thing, it creates a culture of suspicion. A hidden agenda seems to be lurking behind every statement. I have had people jump on me for using the word “nuance”; they thought the word implied a defense of the status quo (if you want nuance, apparently, you don’t want change). I frequently hear the accusation, “You’re just an apologist for X,” when the person in question might not be an apologist for anything. The hidden message becomes more important than the overt one. No matter what a person says, someone charges that he or she is “really” up to something else.

Beyond the suspicion, there is enforced ignorance. How can we possibly assess new programs that we cannot see up close? Take the School of One, piloted in New York and poised for nationwide expansion. A few news articles explain its gist, but the details are not available to the public. Or consider the new assessments under development. They may affect every student in every subject—yet we will not see them until they have been administered, and even then our access will be limited.

Public education needs public discussion. We need forums where the information is laid bare and where arguments rest on their merits. For instance, any learning software should be available for public scrutiny. Anyone should be allowed to test it thoroughly and even examine its code. The same should hold for value-added models and anything else affecting instruction and school policy. We should be as faithful as elephants, meaning what we say, saying what we mean, remembering what we said before, and knowing what we’re talking about to begin with.

“That’s naive,” someone might object. “If you made these matters public, people would just clam up or bust. The issues are too volatile, too delicate. As for the products you mention, nothing would be gained from public discussion of them. They’re too complicated—who’s going to sit down and make sense of that code? And why are you lumping these things together—social networking and private products and elephants?”

The imaginary person has a point—well, three. Yes, education policy requires skilled negotiation. Yes, software and other education products may take a while to figure out. And yes, these are somewhat separate matters. But we still need words whose meaning does not elude us. We need ideas that can be questioned by anyone willing to take the trouble. And we need to insist on knowing what goes on in the schools—so that information does not cede to rumor and brochures, nor open dialogue to glib pitches, nor grounded ideas to costly and nebulous plans.

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By  |  02:00 AM ET, 04/20/2011

 
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