Surely you’ve noticed how some school reform (and other) debates become downright nasty, with people on opposing sides attacking each other personally. Here, cognitive scientist Daniel Willinghamcites research that explains why. Willingham is a professor and director of graduate studies in psychology at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” His newest book is “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education.” This appeared on his Science and Education blog.

By Daniel Willingham

Passions run high in education debates because the stakes are high. When passions run high, name-calling is usually not far behind. I appreciate a good taunt as much as the next person (unless the next person is this guy).

But when the taunts go too far, or when they constitute most of a blog post, the most valuable audience — those who disagree with your or who are unsure — stop listening. I think it's fair to say that, in education policy, some of us have gone too far. People who disagree with us are depicted as not merely wrong, but evil.

This characterization is most noticeable in the what is broadly called the reform movement.

People who advocate reforms such as merit pay, the use of value-added models of teacher evaluation, charter schools, and vouchers are not merely labeled misguided because these reforms won't work. They are depicted as bad people who are unsympathetic to the difficulty of teaching and who are in the pockets of the rich.

Likewise, those who see value in teacher's unions, who are leery of current methods of teacher evaluation, who think that vouchers threaten the neighborhood character of schools are not merely wrong: they are accused of looking out for the welfare of lousy teachers.

And of course both sides are accused of “not caring about kids.”
Why am I bringing all this up on a blog called “Science and Education?” Because studies of ingroup and outgroup thinking show that people who disagree with us are seen as im moral.

A recent study (Leach, Ellemers, & Barreto, 2007) evaluated three dimensions of ingroup status: sociability, competence, and morality. They reported that we like groups we are a part of and think the group is special because it is moral. The most important reason that we deem our group superior to other groups is not that we are smarter or more likeable; we are on the side of right.

Another comforting fiction: We think that we know what people on the other side of an issue would say, or how they would behave.

For example, one study from the 1990's (Robinson, Keltner, Ward & Ross, 1995) investigated the reactions of liberals and conservatives to the Howard Beach incident: a young black man was struck and killed by a car as he was running away from a group of shite pursuers in the Howard Beach neighborhood of New York City. After reading a synopsis of the incident, subjects were asked a series of questions meant to probe what they thought about (1) who was responsible for the death (2) the role of race in the incident, (3) the severity of the criminal sentences for the white teens.
Subjects were also asked to judge how liberals and conservatives would answer these questions.

The findings showed two things: (1) we think that we are more logical and less influenced by ideology than others are; (2) we think that our group is less influenced by ideology than other groups are.

In sum, we think that people who agree with us are moral, and people who disagree with us, less so. Further, we think that we know how other people will interpret complicated situations--they will driven more by ideology than by facts.

Of all the bloggers, pundits, reporters, researchers, etc. I know, I can think of two who I would say are mean-spirited — both of them unrelentingly vitriolic, I'm guessing in some wretched effort to resolve personal disappointments.

Of the remaining hundreds, all give every evidence of sincerity and of genuine passion for education.
So this is a call for fewer blog postings that, implicitly or explicitly,  denigrate the other person's motives, or that offer a knowing nod with the claim that “we all know what those people think.”

It may be a natural bias, but it makes for a boring read.


And here’s part of a response to Willingham’s post from veteran California educator Larry Ferlazzo. This was posted on Ferlazzo’s blog:

I personally try my best to keep the tone of my posts and articles respectful, primarily because I think more people will take the time to read them than if they are not polemic. Sometimes, though, even I get driven over the edge by researchers who take no responsibility for how their studies can be destructively used or by the blatant arrogance shown by some in the name of school reform.

However, I think that the tone or words that are said or written in the school reform debate tend to be less important than another critical element. Based on my nineteen years as a community organizer prior to becoming a teacher, often times you have to sharpen one’s tone and personalize one’s opponent as part of a negotiating strategy to arrive at a compromise.

In effective community organizing, that’s the goal — to get both sides to the table to reach a compromise that’s “half a loaf, not half a baby.”

I’m not certain, though, about who in the education reform debate really wants to make a deal. Based on my experience, it seems to me that there are far more educators than so-called “school reformers” who are open to it. As Anthony Cody’s recent admirable attempt at dialogue with the Gates Foundation showed, it appears to me that their perspective is more “it’s my way or the highway.” Granted, though, I would agree that there are a few on the “other side” who might feel the same way.

I just tend to be cautious of calls for civility when they are not part of a negotiating strategy.

To radically adapt a comment from Barry Goldwater, “Extreme rhetoric in the pursuit of power to be used for making a compromise is no vice; extreme rhetoric to make one feel like they are doing something useful when they are not is no virtue.”