What I Learned at the Revolution (with apologies to Peggy Noonan)

Attending the Network for Public Education conference in Chicago several weeks ago was an uplifting and energizing experience for me. Like many educators I was dispirited and exhausted by the constant drumbeat of testing, scapegoating teachers, and the corporatization and colonization of our schools. But seeing the teachers, parents and students working together in Chicago gave me hope that we do indeed have the power to reclaim our schools. (There was a distinct dearth of Teacher Education faculty like myself there but I’ll write more about that in future post.)

Spending the weekend with such a group of impassioned people has motivated me to step up my own activism first by re-activating this blog (which has lain dormant for about 5 years). I’ll also be working more on the the outreach work we need to do to connect with teachers, parents, and legislators here in deepest darkest Lake Wobegon (For those of you familiar with Prairie Home Companion I really do live close to the real Sidetrack Tap and ChatterBox Café!)

At NPE I learned something that was alluded all weekend to but never spoken to directly (that I know of). I’ve been involved in several education movements during my 40+ years as an educator, and they all have foundered. Although all of the movements claimed to be “grassroots” they were for the most part movements of teachers and teacher educators. This time it appears to be different as parents, students and even some school administrators are genuinely involved (as can be seen by the number of students opting out of the tests this spring). It is the involvement of parents and students that makes the success of this movement possible. So therein lies the key question; how do we get more parents involved to keep this movement growing?

As educators we have a tendency to talk about ideas, and what data may show. We want to share what we know about education as a tool for making change. Indeed, that is the kind of information I see in most of the blogs I read. This is certainly important information and we need our bloggers to keep this information flowing to the public. But our differences about schools aren’t really about data and knowledge; they are about beliefs.

Many folks have come to believe the myth that schools are failing, but this is never really based on data. The discourse is irrational because it is based on belief not on logic or information. Unfortunately data are of no consequence in an irrational argument (I think I stole that line from someone but I’ve been using it for so long I can’t remember who!). There is even some research that indicates that the more we confront belief with data, the more ingrained that belief becomes. It’s counterintuitive, but fighting belief with data may have the reverse outcome of what we expect! (Keohane, 2010).

As such we have to seek ways to promote a movement against testing and corporatization in ways that address beliefs and feelings or else our message will fall on deaf ears. I’m certainly not implying that we resort to the kind of scare tactics favored by some on the far right (“Our nation is at risk! The Common Core will make your kids gay!”). But I am suggesting our pitch must start with the personal to move belief. The parents involved in this movement have shown us the way. They believe (as we do) that current test-driven practices are bad for their children. Thus, our efforts to stop the testing and reform juggernaut must start with something as simple as “ The out of control focus on testing in our schools is bad for your kids and bad for our country.” Parents understand this message about their children, which can them be followed by story showing how it is bad, and then by the data.

I’m an academic by profession, and to be honest engaging the irrational first is uncomfortable to me, as it feels somehow unethical to work in this way. But truth be told, this is the way most of the world works. As much as I would like to imagine that everyone thinks and processes information like I do, in fact they don’t (and we should all probably be thankful for that!) Engaging parents where they are, just was we would with any other learner, may give us the best chance for strengthening our movement, and derailing this runaway train.


Keohane, J. (2010) How facts backfire. Boston,com . Retrieved from http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/11/how_facts_backfire/?page=4

I can be reached at sehornstein@yahoo.com


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s