Guest Column

Responding to the Rhetoric of the Radical Right

by DOUGLAS REEVES


They are calling your board members. They are sending direct mail to your teachers and administrators. They are broadcasting radio and television programs to the voters in your school district.

They are members of the radical right, and their message is simple and devastating: public education is a failure, public school administrators are incompetent and dangerous, and our children are suffering because of a mixture of excessive national control, psycho-sexual social experiments and insufficient wariness by parents.

Although few of the organized critics of public education would give themselves the label of "radical right," astonishing similarities can be found in their rhetoric. Some of this is due to the power of talk radio and the Internet, both of which can magnify erroneous stories and, through mere repetition, give them credibility. Some speakers and consultants make a living traveling from one school system to another, offering to assist parents who, they argue, would otherwise be helpless prey to the schemers in charge of the local school system.

The same allegations are made throughout the nation:

* Performance assessment is a means of psychological testing, usually with sexual overtones, innuendo and invasions of family privacy.

* Standardized tests, School-to-Work and Title 1 programs are means by which the federal government and Fortune 500 companies will label children for life, force them into undesirable jobs and enter their families' personal data in an international data base.

* Educational standards are a means of removing local control of education and imposing a political and social agenda on children that will reduce their ability to learn the basics.

* Federal funds of any kind are inherently corrupting and must be rejected, regardless of the consequences for children who receive nutritional and educational benefits from these funds.

Religious Overtones

These arguments are made more problematic when they are wrapped in a religious context. The implication appears to be that holding the beliefs of the radical right is an indication of one's religious faith. As a result, challenges to the stories and arguments of the radical right are regarded as challenges to religious faith of the movement's adherents, and these challenges provide further evidence that the superintendent is a godless educrat who cannot be trusted with our children.

Superintendents have employed one of three strategies in responding to the rumors, innuendo and attacks of the radical right:

Strategy 1: Ignore them.

Many superintendents take the position that the radical right is more bark than bite and that their small numbers make these issues not worth the fight. These superintendents tolerate occasional outbursts at school board meetings, biting columns in the newspaper and anonymous mailings to parents and district employees because these school leaders remain firm in the conviction that their version of the truth will overcome the allegations of the critics. These superintendents also reason that some charges are so wild that they should not be dignified with a response and that any public engagement of the radical right gives it more credit than it deserves.

This strategy is appealing, and certainly less stressful than fighting with people whose debate tactics are rarely governed by rules of evidence or propriety. Unfortunately, it is also dangerous. By the time students are boycotting tests and classes and new school board members are calling for the superintendent's resignation, it usually is too late to engage in rational debate.

Strategy 2: Fight them at every turn.

Superintendents who use this exhausting strategy can go to bed at night certain that they are fighting for a good cause and defending public education, but they also provide a convenient villain on whom the radical right can focus. In addition to being fatiguing, the practice of continuous fighting diverts the limited time of a school leader from the priorities of student achievement, employee motivation and policy direction.

Strategy 3: Confront them strategically.

If neither ignoring the radical right nor continuous fighting is effective, what can a school leader do? The best answer is strategic confrontation. This strategy has four elements.

First, never fight alone. Although superintendents may frequently feel quite isolated, they are not alone in the fight against the radical right. The most effective allies in a battle to fight rumor with truth can be groups of ministers, business people and retirees. These groups can be essential voices of reason in your community in combat the incessant call of talk radio or lurid stories.

Second, attack the premise and conclusions, not just facts. Many letters, speeches and articles from the radical right are laced with legitimate statistics and factual evidence. The lie is in the use of those facts to reach their politically preordained conclusions. While these critics may provide correct details of inappropriate math tests in Kansas, improper teacher conduct in Montana, weird social studies tests in Texas and poor textbooks in Oklahoma, these isolated instances do not justify the conclusion that a national conspiracy will doom students to poor educational practices.

Keeping One’s Cool

Third, focus on accuracy, not politics. Although the political and educational philosophies of some radical right critics may strike school leaders as repugnant, a visceral response based on values and political beliefs throws jet fuel onto a raging blaze. The superintendent must provide responses that consistently focus on accuracy: "They said this, but they are mistaken; they referred to that incident, but it never happened here; they claimed this, but this conclusion doesn't follow from the evidence at hand." When defenders of public education label their opponents as ignorant racists, it doesn't advance the cause of reason.

Fourth, keep your cool. When critics question your integrity, challenge your motives and repeat unsubstantiated allegations as fact, it is tempting to respond with righteous indignation. Nevertheless, effective leaders do not respond to these provocations in kind. While your opponents prefer a volatile mixture of emotion, religion and politics, the advocates of public education are best served by consistent respect for their opponents as individuals, a laser-like focus on the truth and an unswerving commitment to the best interests of children.

Douglas Reeves is director of the Center for Performance Assessment, 1660 South Albion, Suite 1110, Denver, Colo. 80222. E-mail: testdoctor@aol.com