Partisan (from Webster): a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person — especially one exhibiting blind, prejudiced and unreasoning allegiance.

Partisanship is ubiquitous these days. It’s hard to pick up a newspaper and not find a story that refers to it. Social media amplify partisanship. Having “followers” almost guarantees it, and services like Twitter encourage it by providing immediacy without nuance. Being partisan (belonging to factions and believing in causes) is natural for thoughtful people in a vibrant society. But extreme partisanship (blind, prejudiced and unreasoning allegiance) is not. It’s an aberration that transforms believers into adherents and corrodes society.

You are likely thinking “politics” as you read this, and you would be right — politics has become extraordinarily partisan (and vulgar). But other areas of public life have become partisan as well. Education is chief among them.

This was on my mind recently, when I agreed to write occasional essays on education for Forbes. Partisanship has coarsened public discourse about education. Reformers such as Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and Campbell Brown represent one faction, denouncing their opponents with vehemence, scorn and certitude. They rail about lazy teachers, greedy unions, failing schools, achievement gaps and an apathetic education establishment.  Alas, the opposing faction rails about the reformists in return, often with the same degree of conviction and contempt. I don’t want to add to this dysfunction.

I follow education-related issues closely. I know people can be passionate about them. I respect that passion. I have strong opinions of my own. I voice them freely. But education is complicated and nuanced, and making sound judgments requires differing viewpoints, an open mind, and a modicum of humility. None of these qualities is associated with extreme partisanship.

I was reminded of this when reading the text of a recent speech by Michael Bloomberg to the NAACP, in which he urged more charter schools, more teacher accountability and higher expectations for our students. When Bloomberg became mayor of New York City nearly two decades ago, these formed the core of his education agenda. They were essential dogma for the reformist faction. Over the ensuing years, most educators moved on: There were no magic bullets, they agreed, and education is more complicated than tests and high expectations. Not so for Bloomberg. With “unreasoning allegiance” he promotes the same ideas and vilifies the same opposing factions. I’m guessing his speech was rousing for his followers.

There are many topics in education that are worth our attention. Most are not simple. We can discuss them (and disagree!) without devolving into factions; we should try.

  • Some charter schools are spectacular institutions that serve their students well. Others are failures. Charter schools are valuable because we can learn from success and failure. But the notion that charter schools can somehow replace public schools is plainly foolish. Do we want to depend on private entrepreneurs to provide something as essential as universal public education?
  • Accountability has become a common but meaningless education catchphrase, like “efficiency” was a hundred years ago. Accountable for what? If the answer is merely “test scores,” we profoundly demean education. In any case, research and commonsense show that test-based accountability is neither valid nor reliable. We surely need accountability, but accountability improves education only when it’s paired with trust. That’s not easy.
  • Some people claim that merely setting “high expectations” will vastly improve education. But expectations are inseparable from standards, which are vital to sound education. Encouraging “high expectations” in isolation is meaningless. It’s also duplicitous, suggesting that teachers currently have low expectations (without any evidence). The purpose is to create villains, nothing more.
  • Reducing (and eliminating!) achievement gaps is a worthy goal. But how we measure those gaps is critical, and using tests alone shortchanges already disadvantaged students. By forcing schools to focus mainly on the test scores of disadvantaged students, we deprive them of essentials that will best help them succeed beyond K-12. In education as in medicine, first do no harm.
  • Unions can sometimes be self-indulgent. Unions can say and do foolish things. But unions have played a crucial role in improving American education, and they continue to do so. Those who set out to diminish union influence ignore the history and realities of education. Attacking unions moves education backward, not forward.
  • Elementary teachers are generalists by design. Yet we create curricula based on frameworks such as the Common Core or the Next Generation Science Standards that require teachers to be experts. Pretending that this works will create a mess. Frameworks and standards are great … but not if they can’t be implemented in the real world.

I will write about each of these issues in future months. Each is complicated and nuanced. I don’t pretend to have simple answers (or, for some, any answers at all), but I do know that finding answers requires the humility of an open mind rather than the arrogance of a partisan.



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