The Washington Post

‘Bridging Differences’ needs more difference

“Bridging Differences” is one of my favorite blogs. I know many readers of the edweek.org feature share that taste. “Bridging Differences” is a conversation between two of America’s most erudite, most experienced and most insightful writers on education — Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch. Their words and thoughts flow in ways that make other education bloggers, particularly me, envious.

I also like the fact that they are somewhat older than me. They give me hope that if I keep taking my Lipitor, I can keep doing what I do for the foreseeable future.

The only problem is that, as interesting as they are, their blog has lost some of its delicious anticipation of friction because, for many good reasons, they don’t appear to have nearly as many differences to bridge as they once did.

The gap between Meier, a teacher and administrator who proved that progressive education could help low-income kids, and Ravitch, a policy analyst and historian who exposed progressive education’s failings, was always exaggerated. Their blog worked from the beginning because they were both independent-minded and willing to reexamine their views. It was fun to read America’s progressive heroine and America’s leading progressive critic react to each other, that brainpower running at the highest gear.

The conventional wisdom is that Ravitch has lately conceded the argument to Meier and denounced her former ties to conservative presidential administrations and federal interventions like No Child Left Behind. I think that is a simplification. Ravitch has always challenged right-wing rhetoric that did not fit with how schools worked, as Meier did with views from the left that didn’t make sense to someone who had actually taught poor children.

But for the moment, if you read their blog, they don’t seem to be challenging themselves much. They are still great writers. I love this recent Meier post: “We have a heritage of disrespect for the poor. Either they don’t know what they’re doing or they deserve what they get. (While we insist on bragging about our rags-to-riches family histories to prove the latter.)”

The same goes for a recent Ravitch post apologizing for being wrongly angry and unkind toward a hard-working policy maker : “Like every other human being, I have my frailties; I am far from perfect. I despair of the spirit of meanness that now permeates so much of our public discourse.”

The trouble with “Bridging Differences” is easily fixed. They just need to one or two more voices that both differ with them and share their ability to write persuasively — but politely — about it.

Let’s help them out with suggested new participants in their conversation. Post your ideas as comments here. I will make sure Ravitch and Meier, as well as their sponsors at Edweek, see your picks.

My favorite candidate to add more difference to Bridging Differences would be Abigail Thernstrom, the political scientist, sometime policy-maker and author of several books on the roots of our education problem. She supports many of the innovations that Meier and Ravitch distrust and shares their scholarly depth and writing ability. She is also in their age range, and again, thankfully, older than me.

I can also see adding Harvard political scientist Paul E. Peterson or Fordham Institute President Chester E. Finn Jr. They are both skilled writers with rightward leanings to keep the debate going, and explore ways to resolve our differences.

Who do you think would work? The person has to be smart, and willing to be nice, at least in this forum. Diane and Deborah deserve the best. Let’s find a way to get it for them.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.

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