Disagreement Should Be Our Starting Point

by Seth Saavedra │Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

Conversations around politics and education - though the distance between the two is negligible in New Mexico - tend to boil down to false dichotomies.

The usual "Us vs. Them" entrenched positions are as predictable as they are tired. When faced with any idea that rubs against our own comfortable worldviews, the tendency is to dig our heels in and prepare for battle.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone else, though I try to transcend the typical battle lines we find in education:

  • Local vs. National investments
  • Charter vs. District schools
  • Democrat vs. Republican
  • Traditionalists vs. Reformers
  • Union vs. Student interests
  • Practitioners vs. Policymakers
 

Too often our conversations on how to improve education result in less understanding and more animosity.

 

This sort of reductionist thinking and speaking leaves us little room to collaborate. Worse yet, these binaries barely acknowledge the rich spectrum of views we hold.

Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic offers a new framework for our most fraught conversations. In "A Better Way to Look at Most Every Political Issue", he suggests we frame our differences in perspectives along "equilibriums" and "limits".

Equilibriums, as Conor defines them, describe an overarching orientation towards an often disputed issue, such as abortion or drug policy. What are the status quo conditions of a particular environment?

In education the analogy could be when advocates pursue more "choice" as an equilibrium. Are a district's or state's policies, on the whole, oriented towards providing families school choice? When faced with a decision to either increase or decrease school options, what tends to be the outcome?

Meanwhile, there are those who view controversial topics in terms of limits. What are the boundaries, if any, that should be in place? Rather than focusing on the ambient tenor, they look to the edges.

Returning to school choice, someone focused on limits wants to know what are the limits on how big or small a school can be? At what point does investing in new “choices” subtract from the capacity of neighborhood public schools? How much freedom in hiring and firing should school leaders have? They might also push against any limits on school choice, portraying the role of arch-Libertarian.

 
   HB177: An earnest effort supported by a majority of NM teachers to increase their pay and provide an easier pathway to leadership.
 

The power in this reframing comes when examining the coalitions that form on these issues:

"One [coalition] forms around the position that a majority holds on the best equilibrium; the other forms around the position a majority holds on the appropriate limit. The winning coalition turns in part on what frame is more prominent at any particular moment."

In local education, faulty binaries abound. Imagine a local charter school founder who is a vocal proponent of "choice". And over there is an educator who thinks of himself as opposed to "choice" and charters. Despite the facade of opposition, when you ask both about what they want for students, there is massive agreement.

Both want individualized educations for all students and equitable access for every child, regardless of background. They both want schools centered on community wellness and high expectations. Each uses the phrase "community school" to describe their ideal school.

The charter school leader focuses on equilibriums. She wants the de facto policies of her city to encourage more school options for families. Two decades ago she found the status quo altogether too slow. So she created her school to provide another option for students in her city. To her, limits on choice are a slippery slope to a district monopoly over students.

Conversely, the educator thinks about limits. He's concerned too many options might drain a school district of funding. He worries that, without sensible limits, education will become a free-for-all that only serves the most motivated, privileged families. He’s not against a variety of school options but believes only so many schools can be sustained.

Their default perspectives center on different aspects of the same issue. They aren't, or at least shouldn’t be, mortal enemies. In fact, they agree on much more than they don't. This is instructive for us all.

 
 

To enact lasting change here, deep trust and collaboration are vital. Especially in New Mexico where resources are scant and personal relationships so valued.

Those of us in education might feel less contentious if we acknowledge “the other side” holds values and beliefs that are nearly indistinguishable from our own. An "equilibrium/limit" reframing provides a new way for us to find common ground. In turn smoothing over some of those razor sharp edges of policy disagreement that call us to battle.