Achievement Gap

Is This ‘Better Conversation’? The Importance of Dialogue With Dissenters

I spend a fair bit of time on social media engaging with people opposed to policies Education Post supports, including test-based accountability and high-quality charter schools. One person I have “met” online took up my challenge to offer an alternative to test-based accountability. The other wrote a blog post raising concerns that some North Carolina charter schools are becoming increasingly segregated. Both articles are worth reading for education reformers willing to reflect on how our policies are working in practice and whether they are leading to unintended negative consequences. It doesn’t mean our policies are wrong. It could mean they are being misused or there could be a more benign explanation. Policy is about choices and I happen to believe that the absence of accountability and choice is far worse than their presence. But I understand that others disagree. It’s also important to distinguish good from bad implementation. Good policy implemented badly, which unfortunately is often the case, will never get the intended results. It’s hard to argue against good charter schools that are closing achievement gaps, though many charter critics do. It’s hard to argue that we don’t need meaningful accountability, though many educators insist that organic accountability is built into the system and that dedicated, well-meaning teachers and administrators mostly act in the best interests of kids. While I don’t doubt that, the system also has built-in political and financial incentives that often put the needs of children behind those of adults and the biggest losers are always the kids most at risk. In any case, Ed Detective is an anonymous blogger who really does not like test-based accountability, mostly because he does not trust testing. From the way standardized tests are designed and administered to the way they are scored and used to hold schools and teachers accountable, he is against them. Instead, he proposes a three-part system of accountability based on peer review, performance assessments that include student work, and student-teacher feedback. He freely admits (on Twitter) that these measures are mostly, if not entirely, subjective, but believes they are still useful and accurate reflections of student achievement and teacher effectiveness. I agree they are useful. I’m not convinced they are consistently accurate. Ed Detective and I have only met online. I don’t know his real name or where he teaches. I don’t even know if he’s a “he.” I considered publishing his blog post but, after consulting with my colleagues at Education Post, we have decided that unless there are extreme and compelling reasons for secrecy, anonymous blog posts are inconsistent with our overall mission and we don’t want to set a precedent. Nevertheless, his views are online for anyone who wants to read them. Rita Rathbone is a magnet school coordinator in Durham, North Carolina, and has been a teacher for 16 years. I met her at the Network for Public Education conference in Raleigh last April. As a graduate of Duke University, I have a soft spot for her hometown and our conversations led to her blog post. According to Rathbone, Durham has 13 charter schools with another on the way this fall. While most Durham charters are more reflective of the district’s demographics, several serve a majority-White population that has reduced the diversity in the traditional district. She believes this is intentional and thinks that the state acquiesces in perpetuating segregation. She insists she is not against all charter schools but asks if more regulation is needed. In the spirit of “better conversation,” I highlight both pieces for our readers. More important, I hope they stimulate the kind of respectful dialogue that helps build consensus toward our common goal of high-quality schools for all kids. I am pretty sure that most of us are for that.
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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