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Why we can’t all get along over school reform

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Why can’t we all get along in the battle over school reform? Here is one view, from veteran educator Larry Ferlazzo, who teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California.  He has written five books on education, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher, and has his own popular resource-sharing blog.

By Larry Ferlazzo

I hate tension. But I love what can come out of that tension.

When I reflect on the most important growth experiences in my life — whether it was the first kiss on a date, being invited into a new city to organize a powerful multiethnic community organization, or learning how to become a teacher — just to name a few — they were all filled with tension.

In the context of democratic public life, no significant change — none — ever comes without tension.

There are profound differences about the future direction our public education system should take. This week there were two calls for those of us with those differing opinions to get along for the sake of the children. Both of those calls were from people and groups who are well-intentioned and whose work I respect: Elliot Haspel publishes an email newsletter that I receive and like about education research and wrote a piece in The Washington Post; Educate Our State, a parents group in California about whom I’ve previously posted, issued a call for cooperation between teachers and superintendents to implement the newly approved district waivers here from No Child Left Behind awarded by the U.S. Education Department.

However, both calls for cooperation indicate a lack of awareness of how tension is essential in our public life.

Tension is the only way these profound differences of opinions can be resolved. In the democratic tradition, this tension (which comes from the French root word meaning “to stretch”) is the first step towards negotiation. Through negotiation, a compromise is reached (both parties stretch), and then depolarization follows.

American history is replete with examples of social change achieved through this process.

However, in order for it to work, both sides have to want to “make a deal.” When one side refuses, the result is often a toxic atmosphere and dysfunction. Just look at Washington, D.C. right now.

I see countless examples across the country of teachers demonstrating a willingness to come to the table to compromise. In fact, over the past hundred years, that’s what teachers unions have been doing regularly in collective bargaining — ensuring that they and their students get “half a loaf,” not “half a baby.”

In this battle over the future of public education, however, I see many who describe themselves as ”school reformers” unwilling to compromise (or perhaps with little experience or understanding of that word). I see districts and states making federal commitments in the name of teachers without their consultation; I see well-financed “school reform” organizations parachuting into local communities without invitation to organize their own agendas; I see some state legislatures decimating education funding with little or no hesitation.

I have a suggestion for those who are calling for less tension in the name of helping children: The best thing you can do for those kids is to organize more people to create more tension so that those who are presently unwilling to come to the negotiating table feel compelled by public pressure to do so.