Dear Edulosopher…

Editor’s note: When I heard education ethicist Jacob Fay give a talk last spring on the ethics of school closures, a brilliant idea occurred to me. What if I could convince him to collaborate with me on an advice column for the ethically conflicted, confused or challenged? Reader: he leaped at the opportunity and Dear Edulosopher was born. I get things rolling today with a question about my own ethical responsibilities as an opinionated blogger. In future installments, Fay will respond to a voter torn over how to vote on a ballot question that would expand charter schools in Massachusetts, a progressive-minded teacher who worries that she’s gotten just a little too comfortable enforcing *no-excuses* style discipline, and [insert your ethically-charged topic here.] All questions welcomed!

Dear Edulosopher:
I write a blog about the unintended consequences of education reform, and I often feature parent voices on my site. Or as has been pointed out to me on multiple occasions, I feature some parent voices. The narratives I share tend to *align* with my point of view. They feature parents on hunger strikes demanding a neighborhood school, protesting excessive discipline at charter schools, or refusing to let their kids (or grandkids) take standardized tests. What you won’t find are the stories of parents who are rallying, marching and lobbying to demand more charter schools in [insert the name of city here]. While it’s true that I’ve never been asked to run anything like this, it’s also the case that I don’t seek out these narratives like I do the parent protesters whose causes I agree with. My defense is that I have a *litmus question* I apply when it comes to evaluating parent activism: do the parents involved have any say over the thing they’re demanding? For example, if they’re pushing for more *great schools,* do they get to determine what a *great school* is? But a small part of me thinketh that I doth protesteth too much. If I make the claim to care about parent voice, shouldn’t I care about all kinds of parent voices, even if I don’t necessarily like what they’re saying?

Signed, A Conflicted Blogger

Dear Conflicted:
conflicted
Your conundrum brings to mind the oft-used, mis-attributed quote from Evelyn Beatrice Hall: *I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.* On this simplest and recognizable response, if it is truly parental voice that is important to your blog, then, to some extent, it is exciting that so many parents are using their voice to advocate for something, whether it be public schools, charter schools, all children, or their children. But Hall’s response is also unsatisfying when it comes to your question—what her claim doesn’t address is whether and who ought to provide a platform for opposing views, and in your case, whether that should be your blog! The question of valuing thus raises far trickier questions. Can we value all parental voice at the same time that we only focus on some voices? In other words, if you do not give those you disagree with space on your blog, does that mean you do not value their voice?

Can we value all parental voice at the same time that we only focus on some voices? In other words, if you do not give those you disagree with space on your blog, does that mean you do not value their voice?

Let us start by flipping your question on its head: Why might you want to include the voices of people with whom you disagree? I can think of a couple of reasons. First, doing so could help you understand what the source of disagreement is and why it matters. Is it a fundamental disagreement about values? Or is it a disagreement about what policy will best realize an agreed upon value? Sometimes these differences are not readily apparent. Realizing these points of disagreement may not help us come to any agreement, but at least we know where the rubber hits the road. Second, if you did include their comments, then more optimistically, we could find some common ground. Sharing and challenging each other’s views on the Common Core, for example, may reveal that we both want more local control of the curriculum, even though for some it is because of a concern about government interference and for others it is because of a similar concern about testing companies. Third, engaging with those whom you disagree with may help you refine and strengthen your view. Defending your view from an active critic may make you more resolute in your belief, perhaps for new reasons, but it may also help you discard some parts of your view in favor of emphasizing other parts that truly reflect what you stand for.

As we well know, some voices in education reform—particularly those closest to policymaking or those with the resources to amplify their voice—have disproportionate impacts on the decisions we make about our schools and our children. Given this, a protest-centered blog can serve an important role in providing space for voices that may be squeezed out of local, statewide, and national conversations about education.

Disagreement, in other words, can be valuable. It may be neither pleasant nor efficient, but it does have its place. Yet, it is likely that important conditions need to be in place for disagreement to be valuable in the first place. The most salient, I think, is that of open deliberation. As we well know, some voices haveyouheard03_jenniferin education reform—particularly those closest to policymaking or those with the resources to amplify their voice—have disproportionate impacts on the decisions we make about our schools and our children. Given this, a protest-centered blog can serve an important role in providing space for voices that may be squeezed out of local, statewide, and national conversations about education. Encouraging some voices, in other words, serves an egalitarian purpose. Thus, for parents who send their children to schools struggling in the face of structural injustices and seemingly draconian reform efforts (like those you mention in your question), who thus may already feel as if American social and political institutions do not recognize them, such a space might be all that more important. Still, valuing this particular goal is compatible with finding some space for deliberating with those who disagree with you. It may just be that before there can even be an open deliberation about education reform, some views need to find a hold in the conversation.

The question remains, however: What does this all mean for including the voices of those with whom you disagree on your blog? What I am suggesting is that it may be more productive to think about your question in terms of deliberation rather than valuing parental voice. This may, at the least, give you two related responses to the worry that you *doth protesteth too much*: 1) you do not think there is a fair playing field for deliberation to happen; or 2) the purpose of your blog is to submit one side of the argument to a broader, public deliberation.

Still, it is often the case that frustration around education reform builds precisely because of the lack of public deliberation. The drive toward managerial-styled, centralized decision-making or the lack of transparency in decisions to close public schools and open charters, for example, both foreclose the possibility of deliberation. In the face of such trends, it may be that what we need are examples of spaces where deliberation and disagreement can be embraced and formed into something productive. Is that what you would like your blog to do? If so, then perhaps there needs to be more room for conflicting views.

Till next time,
The Edulosopher

Jacob FayJacob Fay is a doctoral student and member of the Early Career Scholar Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as well as a graduate fellow at the Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics. He is the co-editor, with Meira Levinson, of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries. Prior to his doctoral studies, he taught eighth-grade history at the Dwight-Englewood School in New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter at @Edulosopher.

Got a question for the Edulosopher? Send it to Jennifer@haveyouheardblog.com.

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17 Comments

  1. This post reminded me of this TED talk I recently watched: https://www.ted.com/talks/julia_galef_why_you_think_you_re_right_even_if_you_re_wrong

    I am not sure if it is possible to have a balanced conversation on the internet, at least in the long run. At one time Dr. Ravitch’s blog had a fairly healthy mix of opinions on the comment pages, with some posters agreeing with each other on some topics, disagreeing on others. Many personal insults later (one poster there started to address me by what he/she thought of as the sexually degrading names Ayn Rand Rug Sniffer and Koch Sucker with the silent approval Dr. Ravitch and the other posters, for example) all the heterodox posters have been driven off the blog.

  2. No, the charter school people have their own well-funded web pages to post their opinions on. Or they can create their own free blog site. Heck, if they play their cards right, some billionaire-funded organization will even pay them to blog about charter schools (after it passes the approval of their marketing department and lawyers, of course).

    Please keep posting the truth, Edushyster! We need you!!!

    1. Thanks for engaging with my post! I hope the OP does not sound as if I am advocating for the EduShyster to stop doing what she does so well! I think my own feelings lie somewhere in between the “this space is important to amplify voices not heard elsewhere” and “it would be nice if there was *some* bit of ideological crossover.” It also does not have to be an either/or. I would imagine Jennifer would get pretty tired of hosting endless debates, without even mentioning whether or not she (or a moderator) would want to guard against the incivility that teachingeconomist mentions in his post.

      Yet, your post also raises a further question: why should my side be the one that opens up space for discussion? The money and power behind Big Reform certainly makes it feel as if those fighting against such reforms are at a disadvantage. The best answer I’ve got (for now) is this: If the sort of censorship/marketing/messaging is common place on, say, pro-charter blogs, as you describe it, then they really would not be suitable places for people to disagree. Disagreement cannot, should not, be scripted. On a blog like this one, people might have the space to disagree without worries about messaging or packaging.

      And, I guess, I’m a sucker for argument and debate. I think President Obama was absolutely correct when he noted at the DNC that disagreement is supposed to move us forward (speaking of which, as an aside, but also an example of the potential of disagreement: I loved the disagreement at the DNC–I think it is VERY healthy for the Democratic Party to have some intraparty ideological diversity.) Ideological friction can generate new ideas or new paths forward. Engaging that way might be a good bet for opponents of Big Reform, as the resources at Big Reform’s disposal indicate they are well positioned for a conflict driven by attrition.

      1. Welcome, Edulosopher – and the legion of fans that you will soon be attracting! As I think is evident from my intro to installment #1 of Dear Edulosopher, I’m beyond excited about this project, and I loved your answer to my initial question. And to the so-and-so who remarked to me that it was very “philosopher” of you to say a pretty clear cut thing in a very long winded way, I couldn’t disagree more. It’s precisely the Edulosopher’s deliberate-ness that I so appreciate.

        I’m somewhat unique in the #edreform wars “space” in that I spend a lot of time engaging with people with whom I disagree. I meet up with them face to face, I talk to them on the phone, we email, etc. But I will confess that as I enter year four of being an opinionated blogger, my enthusiasm for some of this has begun to wane. I’ve grown weary of people, on either side of the debate, who seem unable to move beyond talking points–especially if their primary mode is what I think of as vitriolic talking points! And I have way too many exchanges in which I chronicle some unintended consequence of education reform and the response is: “yeah – but the data shows that it’s working!” I’ve also found, again and again, that as I engage with reform advocates, I’m the only critic they’ve ever talked to. While I agree with Teaching Economist that it’s a problem when a blog, say, lacks any diversity of opinion, I think it’s a much more serious problem when the group thinkers have all the money and the power!

        I’m not actually interested in debate for debate’s sake. These issues consume me because they’re so big and fundamental – and I’m after exchanges that get at that. Which is why I’m so excited to have met up with a real-life ethicist. I’m definitely going to continue – and expand – my efforts to get opposing points of view on this page. But I’m also going to push harder than I have in the past to get people to really acknowledge the ethical implications of their positions as I work to interrogate my own. If, for example, you happen to work for a charter network that has a bold plan for expansion in a particular urban area, what is your obligation to the kids who will never be part of your network? Or if you believe in unions as I obviously do, what is the unions obligation beyond the self-interest of its individual members?

        In the mean time, I’m interested in what ethically challenging topic the Edulosopher will take on next!

  3. Dear Edulosopher,

    If I am an educator who is a dues-paying member of a teachers’ union, and the union is pursuing a campaign against charter schools that disseminates “fact sheets” like this one:
    https://saveourpublicschoolsma.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/SOPS-4page.pdf
    that contain statements like these that seem false and intentionally deceptive:

    “A study of charter high schools in Boston showed that only 40 percent of those enrolled as freshmen made it to graduation, compared to 80 percent of those enrolled in the Boston Public Schools.”

    and:

    “The tightly controlled atmosphere in charter schools may in part explain why charter school students struggle in college. According to a 2015 report by the Boston Opportunity Agenda, students who graduated from the BPS had a greater chance of success in college, with 50 percent of BPS high school graduates – but only 42 percent of Boston charter high school graduates – obtaining a college degree within six years.”

    then should I, as a teacher devoted to veritas, feel any moral obligation to object, to ask my union to stop disseminating inaccurate and misleading information?

    You do?

    Yikes. What about if I think the union’s campaign is helpful to my future salary prospects, and I promise I’ll give a portion of my salary to excellent charities?

    1. Thanks, Stephen. You raise some interesting points. Let me respond, in my typical long-winded way! 🙂

      If you think an institution, even one you are part of, is disseminating false information to purposefully deceive people, then I am sure you would *feel* some obligation to object. But how you act, and what you do, is ultimately a much more complex decision that balances that concern among others. You bring up the union campaign as being beneficial to your future salary prospects as one competing consideration–i.e. concerns about self-interest, so let us start there. I think that sort of reason would not support remaining quiet. But I also do not think that is the sort of reasoning at stake. It is, basically, a straw man. You’d have to hold the view that unions are just callous, self-serving organizations. Sure, one of unions primary goals is to protect their members. But they are also organizations of teachers, who work hard for children, work hard for schools, and are often asked/required/obligated to respond to challenges that the rest of the country is happy letting them handle. The partnerships that contribute to and support the SOS report certainly pushes us toward viewing unions as much more complex organizations with complex aims and purposes. So, in short, I highly doubt that teachers and unions are solely thinking about future salary prospects.

      What I just said also just assumes that the statements are indeed false and intentionally deceptive. If an institution is pushing false and deceptive information, then that would be a strong reason to act. But in this case, whether that is so is also debatable.

      Let’s look at the first claim you offer. It is no secret that many charter schools have extremely high attrition rates. Some students are pushed out and some are pulled out. So there are a number of reasons why students leave. I am not aware of many charters that actually refill their class sizes (if anybody has a good example, please share!). BPS, on the other hand, cannot push students out in the ways available to charter schools. BPS is required to educate every child, and BPS schools pick up the cast-offs from charter schools. But, there is also a fair amount of mobility within BPS schools. So, the comparison between a single charter school and BPS is not entirely fair. They are different sorts of organizations. But the fact still stands that charter schools can *expect* students who leave or are asked to leave can still find an education at BPS. There is no such fall back for BPS. So, I’m not really convinced that this is an example of a false or purposefully misleading claim. Its not a terribly good comparison, we might want to use a different one (I’d suggest as much, at least), and I’d wonder which study it refers to.

      As to the second point, the data seems to originate from DESE, so if you (as your union member self) have a problem with its veracity, then you should take it up with them. But, leaving that aside, it looks like the SOS report highlights the 2006 cohort rather than the 2007 cohort (which is 50% for BPS, 51% for charters). Obviously, that is more favorable for proponents of public schools to point out the discrepancy there. But it’s not false. The Boston Opportunity Agenda Report card on which the SOS report draws is also pretty even-keeled, as far as things go. I might call out the first part of the SOS claim–it is assuming a causal relationship and I do not know the research there well enough to confidently say one thing or another. From a moral perspective, though, I do find rigid behavioral requirements problematic. Again, I would also not rate this claim as entirely false and intentionally deceitful.

      Is there room to talk about these claims? To disagree about them? OF COURSE! And, if I was a union member who doubted these claims, raising my voice about my concerns is not objectionable in the least. But, as Jennifer points out, debate for debate’s sake is not entirely productive. Its tiring. It makes people angry. It ignores the big fundamental questions about why we care so much about educating children! So, I’d want to make sure that my efforts would lead somewhere, that my arguments were not based on straw men, and that I had the best grasp of the information I could possibly have (that is not to say I would need to know more than anyone else). None of these requirements assumes hegemony of belief, either.

    2. “If an institution is pushing false and deceptive information, then that would be a strong reason to act. But in this case, whether that is so is also debatable.”

      I agree with your gentle intimation that one needs to be cautious about implying deception, if facts are in doubt. I think I have exercised proper caution in this instance.

      In respect to this:
      “A study of charter high schools in Boston showed that only 40 percent of those enrolled as freshmen made it to graduation, compared to 80 percent of those enrolled in the Boston Public Schools.”

      This past May I communicated with Save Our Schools and long-time teachers union personnel in an attempt to determine the origins of that statement.. Without attempting at all to defend its validity, they pointed me to Kathy Skinner’s 2009 report for the Mass Teachers Association, which stated:

      “Looking at it another way, for every five freshmen enrolled in Boston’s charter high schools in the fall of 2008 there were only two seniors: Senior enrollment was 42 percent of freshmen enrollment. In contrast, for every five freshmen enrolled in the Boston Public Schools that fall there were four seniors: Senior enrollment was 81 percent of freshmen enrollment.”

      There’s a huge unwarranted leap from taking a snapshot of enrollment in 9th and 12th grades at a moment in time and jumping to conclusions about how many freshmen make it to graduation. For example: 1) Senior enrollment doesn’t assure making it to graduation 2) many, most or, in theory, all seniors may be incoming transfers after some, many, or all freshman have transferred/dropped out 3) some of the freshmen and/or seniors may be repeating a year, swelling class enrollment, and may graduate a year late 4) some new high schools (like Boston Prep in 2008) may have a freshman class but not yet any senior class. As those I communicated with seemed well aware, in this instance the difference in rate of incoming transfers especially severely warps the figures in ways that render the comparison deceptive.

      As for this statement in the SOS flyer:
      “According to a 2015 report by the Boston Opportunity Agenda, students who graduated from the BPS had a greater chance of success in college, with 50 percent of BPS high school graduates – but only 42 percent of Boston charter high school graduates – obtaining a college degree within six years.”

      Starting last December, I repeatedly warned a whole host of Mass Teachers Association personnel away from that misunderstanding of the underlying DESE data that the BOA Report card attempted with varying success to convey. I’ve also addressed the issue on this blog, as well as on others, perhaps most recently starting half way through my first comment here:
      https://andreagabor.com/2016/07/25/will-massachusetts-learn-from-michigans-charter-calamity/
      I’d be curious if you don’t find what I say in my 2 messages there persuasive.

      At this stage, key players of the SOS/MTA team seem aware that both of those statements in their “fact sheet” are invalid.

      I do agree with your implication that sometime you have to deny there’s anyone in the closet when the bad guys loom, win at all costs, etc. It strikes me as unseemly, though, and perhaps tactically unsound in the long run for the MTA, MASC, and allies to be aggressively supplying school committee members, legislators, teachers, students and the general public with a substantial blend of factually inaccurate information.

      I do thank you for engaging here; it’s a special treat after absorbing your wonderfully provocative book. Please feel no need to reply to this message… I look forward to your next Q/A.

  4. For those who haven’t had a chance to examine the book, Dilemmas in Educational Ethics, that Jacob Fay prepared in collaboration with former Boston middle school teacher, Meira Levinson, who is now a Professor of Education at Harvard, this Amazon review sums it up well:

    “This text will be an outstanding tool for an undergraduate seminar I teach entitled ‘Education, Ethics and Change.’ It provides six richly detailed case studies along with six commentaries for each case. My students and I are sure to enjoy discussing these cases and the commentaries that accompany them. Students will also have outstanding models for an original case study they will write. Each case study focuses on a current educational issue that generates different solutions depending upon each individual’s moral perspective. A valuable addition to the growing body of literature about the ethical issues teachers face daily.”

    ==
    The commentaries are concise representations of an impressively diverse set of views… Just in respect to two of the book topics, one on the questionable value of charter schools and the other on the motivations for, and effects of, school assignment policies in Boston, some of the commentary authors are:
    * Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute
    * Andres Alonso, Harvard GSE
    * Frederick Hess, American Enterprise Institute
    * Harry Brighouse, director of the Ctr for Ethics and Education at U. Wisconsin
    * Pedro Noguera, Professor of Education, NYU
    * Ayo Magwood, high school history teacher
    * Patrician Jehlen, vice-chair of the Mass Senate education committee

    Many are superb. Jehlen’s is the most clear, logical rationale for not expanding charter schools in Massachusetts that I’ve ever encountered. One regret: would have been good to have an additional perspective correcting some, I think defective, analysis of attrition data at the particular school that was the subject of the charter case study, and more broadly placing that school in the context of others in Boston and nationwide, explaining how the research techniques of CREDO, Angrist and others have sought to overcome obstacles to elucidating the impacts of such schools.

    Here, I certainly appreciate Jennifer’s allowance of a diverse set of views among those who comment. Would be pleased to see “stories of parents who are rallying, marching and lobbying to demand more charter schools”. The notion that one finds in some other environments that such parents are deluded pawns of billionaires generates eye-rolling.

    1. Thanks, Stephen, for the kind plugging of the book. Meira and I do hope that it will be useful for all, as well as generative of conversation. I’d be interested to hear more about why you think the attrition analysis in the charter case is defective. Shoot me an e-mail, as I don’t want to have a one-on-one conversation in the comments section, especially when many readers probably have not read the book. Or maybe this can be a future question…

  5. I really appreciate your efforts to reach the “ethically challenged.” Too often those who push education reform these days are heavily afflicted with the disease of Affluenza: a disease which causes outright blindness.

  6. There’s so much false equivalence in the education debates that it’s nearly an impossible subject to tackle.

    This line is an understatement: “The money and power behind Big Reform certainly makes it feel as if those fighting against such reforms are at a disadvantage.”

    As noted, a charter school that is entirely free to pick and choose its students and push out any it doesn’t want — while the “reform” sector denies that this happens and the wider world is oblivious — simply can’t be compared to a public school. (Yes, an individual public school can keep out or kick out a challenging student, but that child is still the responsibility of the school district/system, while a charter school never has to give a thought to an unwanted student again.)

    The “reform” sector has a huge infrastructure of operations whose sole function is to promote “reform” policies, and an army of paid people doing so. I often wonder if there are any individual voices anywhere speaking up for “reform” policies who aren’t doing it for pay or other personal benefit.

    The false-equivalence question is a huge thing for an ethicist to address.

    Another crucial question is the “lifeboat” issue. If a charter school benefits an individual child (generally because that child is among a handpicked student population in the charter, vs. a public school that serves all students), is that all that matters? Or is the greater good — the fact that the charter school drains resources from the public school system, harming the remaining children in the public school system — what matters? That’s the heart of the debate about charter schools.

    1. CarolineSF: “The money and power behind Big Reform certainly makes it feel as if those fighting against such reforms are at a disadvantage.”

      Here in Massachusetts, those against charter schools have masses of money to spend and far more political power than the charter school enthusiasts.

      Though they may ultimately be somewhat outspent, they seem to me more experienced and savvy in wielding that money and power, much of which derives from teachers in every community. One key question is whether union organizers are providing those teachers properly with accurate information upon which to decide how most appropriately to wield their political power. I’ve provided a sample of reasons above why my answer to that would be that they are not.

      CarolineSF: “As noted, a charter school that is entirely free to pick and choose its students and push out any it doesn’t want — while the ‘reform’ sector denies that this happens and the wider world is oblivious — simply can’t be compared to a public school.”

      Here in Massachusetts, charter school admission is lottery-based, attrition is substantially lower at charter schools than the schools that the students would otherwise have attended. And there’s some accountability for schools that are not successfully able to retain students… Our state department of education recently closed a charter school in my neighborhood with the fact that its attrition was relatively high being cited as a key reason. In Boston, there are efforts to make it easier for families with less spare time, bureaucracy-maneuvering skill, or motivation to send kids to charter schools via a simplified, unified enrollment system, but such efforts are vehemently opposed by the teachers unions who don’t want to lose a key talking point and further entrench charter schools.

      CarolineSF: “Yes, an individual public school can keep out or kick out a challenging student, but that child is still the responsibility of the school district/system, while a charter school never has to give a thought to an unwanted student again.”

      The very most challenging students in this state are often sent out of district to special schools operated by 501(c)3 nonprofits, in some cases under state supervision — not the same as, but in many ways analogous to, the circumstances of charter schools.

      CarolineSF: “I often wonder if there are any individual voices anywhere speaking up for ‘reform’ policies who aren’t doing it for pay or other personal benefit.”

      Does sending one’s child to a charter school qualify as speaking up for “reform” policies? I guess it could be considered “personal benefit”.

      CarolineSF: “Or is the greater good — the fact that the charter school drains resources from the public school system, harming the remaining children in the public school system — what matters?”

      Here in Massachusetts, we have a ballot question this November on whether to raise the cap on charter schools, and its success or failure will most likely depend on the public’s perception of that issue: what would be the impact on the remaining children of more children attending charter schools? Ballotpedia has fact checked the claim “Do Massachusetts charter schools ‘drain’ funding from traditional public schools?” and judged it “technically true” but “misleading” and “false”. But one could still argue the point.

      In Boston over the past twenty years, alongside an expanding charter sector, the Boston Public Schools system claims, with good reason, to be substantially improving: http://www.bostonpublicschools.org/domain/238

      Rather than detracting from public schools, is it plausibly the case that charter schools and accompanying reforms have helped encourage and assist improved public school performance, benefited their students?

      1. Sir – while I very much appreciate your enthusiastic commenting, I think you’re missing the point, if not the spirit, of the Edulosopher endeavor. We’re starting from the POV that all of these edu-questions, including the one we’re spending all of our time debating in Massachusetts right now, are ethically fraught. Jacob is at this very moment penning a response to someone who is agonizing over how he’ll vote on Question 2. So on this thread at least I’d hope that you’d eschew the usual arguments that “expanding charters is a no brainer and here’s another study to prove it and here’s another study that proves the unions are wrong.” Thanks for your consideration!

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