Feature                                        Pages 32-34


Shrill Debates May Be New Reality, But Coping Tactics Are Time-Tested


Polarization is antithetical to learning. It represents an unwillingness to consider new information and new evidence, undermining a culture of continuous improvement and inhibiting the search for common ground.

Although polarization permeates the public discourse on almost every important issue our country faces today, education leaders must actively guard against it in their efforts to improve outcomes for students.

The trend toward polarization is relatively recent, but the strategies for avoiding it come down to time-tested values such as civility, open-mindedness and a respect for the mission of public education. Here are a few principles to keep in mind to avoid polarization.

Acknowledge uncertainty and establish transparent learning processes.

The ambition to improve public education never has been greater, and the changes that will be necessary to bring about this improvement inevitably arouse passions and can provoke pushback if not handled with sensitivity. Leaders need to acknowledge that we often are in uncharted territory without proven solutions. Inviting all stakeholders to come to consensus on goals can create space to work on developing successful change strategies.

For example, school system leaders and teachers in Hillsborough County, Fla., agreed that there were flaws in Florida’s merit pay policies, which the state was offering districts grant money to adopt. All parties agreed it would be better for teachers to earn additional money rather than forgo the grant, so they put in place a pilot that was modified every year based on experience and feedback from teachers.

Working through issues with regular, predictable protocols (including regular face-to-face meetings) built trust that governance decisions could and would be revisited collaboratively. This openness helped when Hillsborough and its union eventually implemented a much more comprehensive and ambitious teacher evaluation system.

 Wiener feature

The Aspen Institute's Ross Wiener (right) says public school leaders cannot allow polarized views to paralyze teaching and learning.

Denver Public Schools also has used extensive committees, pilots and feedback mechanisms to build trust and confidence — and tamp down the potential for polarization. Denver offers teachers multiple avenues to help shape important district initiatives. Moreover, the district is deliberate about making sure teachers are informed about the changes made as a result of the feedback it receives, demonstrating that the collaboration process isn’t just for show. (For details, see Aspen Institute’s “Beyond Buy-In: Partnering with Practitioners to Build a Professional Growth and Accountability System for Denver’s Educators.”)

Keep communication lines open through multiple venues and with multiple audiences.

While the press used to be a bulwark against polarization, today’s fragmented media market often exacerbates ideologically driven debates. Key stakeholders — teachers, parents and board members — are likely to get at least some of their information from sources trying to advance one point of view and selectively using evidence and conjecture to skew the debate.

In this environment, districts need their own proactive communication strategy. First, this means having a short list of priorities and ensuring everything the district is doing — and communicating — can be understood as advancing these goals.

It’s easy for polarization to mount when discussions are conducted on narrow, discrete issues. Debates are kept on a higher plain when decisions are based on and justified by how well they align with and support top priorities. Many school districts also have begun developing and then explicitly referring to a set of core values that cut across everything the district does.

Second, districts need to ensure they communicate directly with stakeholders. Hills-borough County Public Schools has been masterful at executing a multipronged internal communication strategy to make sure teachers receive credible, helpful information. The vehicles have included in-school and community meetings, video chats from the superintendent, committees of teachers with regional representation, newsletters and e-blasts. (For details, see Aspen Institute’s “Building It Together: The Design and Implementation of Hillsborough County Public Schools’ Teacher Evaluation System.”)

Other superintendents also use weekly e-blasts to the community and social media outlets to convey key messages. These mediums allow districts to explain their actions without the tit-for-tat accusations that constitute front-page news, and direct communication is an increasingly important way to bring stakeholders into the process.

Explicitly use Common Core’s emphasis on deliberation and arguing from evidence.

When public education becomes political fodder, it can seem like just another political issue. We’ve seen this around the Common Core State Standards, where ad hominem attacks and irrational arguments have become a mainstay. It’s essential to counter these attacks, but it’s also important not to let these significant issues devolve into polarized debates.

By regularly drawing on the Common Core’s speaking and listening standards, education leaders can model the ultimate goal: development of skills and habits of mind that support informed, deliberative, respectful debate and resolution of important issues.

Consider this standard, taken directly from the Common Core: Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a fair hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.

When education leaders remind their stakeholders, including other educators, that this is the level of debate we are striving for, it focuses attention on the contrast between reasonable questions and ideological, polarizing attacks.

In newsletters and public addresses, explicit and repeated references to the content of Common Core and what it means for kids can reduce the impact of exaggerated attacks and create a context in which polarization is shunned. Leaders should consider featuring different standards over time to model the work we want students engaged in and to deepen appreciation for how much richer public debates would be if the Common Core’s aspirations become commonplace.

Never let it get personal.

Leading public education right now is an extremely tough job, both substantively and politically. In addition to the challenges that inevitably accompany change efforts, education leaders are being attacked in the public sphere in ways we haven’t seen before. It’s not uncommon for superintendents to be vilified personally, with accusations being made about their character and motives.

Education leaders must answer polarization by turning the other cheek. They must maintain off-line communication with key stakeholders, even if those stakeholders are the ones saying inappropriate things in public. The relationship with union leaders or their equivalent is especially important, even more so when the broader public conversation has polarizing elements. Many successful superintendents have weekly or monthly off-the-record meetings with union leaders in addition to small advisory groups of principals and teachers; these forums can convey the district’s position to trusted intermediaries and be a good way to learn when rumors are reaching a point where they must be addressed.

Education issues are in the press more than they used to be, with spokespeople increasingly willing to say outlandish things to make sure they make it into the story. System leaders can’t take the bait and reply with attacks of their own. Rather, the only way to combat polarization is to refuse to participate in it. The former head of Pittsburgh’s teacher union described his relationship with the former superintendent this way: “We were ready to go on strike. But I didn’t say [the superintendent]… doesn’t have a [expletive] clue what he’s doing…. And he didn’t say [the local union president] is an old, bald-headed union goon. We just didn’t do it. I don’t think there’s any magic to it, but I think it helped when we tried to sit down.” (For more about union-district collaboration in Pittsburgh, see Aspen Institute’s “Forging a New Partnership: The Story of Teacher Union and School District Collaboration in Pittsburgh.”)

Flame-throwers will operate on both sides — and often there are more than two sides that goad those at the top into polarizing characterizations of their adversaries. But responsible leaders stay above the fray and always keep direct lines of communication open. When the public conversation deteriorates, it’s important to ensure dueling statements in the press don’t become a primary means through which leaders communicate with one another.

Leaders at the top set the tone for everyone else in the system, and for the community at large. Especially in light of unrelenting and often unfair attacks, it takes steadfast commitment and discipline not to let polarization creep in, but this is the challenge of leadership in our time. n

Ross Wiener is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program in Washington, D.C. E-mail: ross.wiener@aspeninstitute.org. Twitter: @AspenEdSociety 

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