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Saturday Solutions: Beware of “either-or” thinking

October 2, 2010

The more time I spend in the education reform community, and the more time I spend debating those who disagree with me, the more I understand how dangerous it can be to oversimplify things.

For instance, I’ve encountered way too many people who feel you must be either pro-teacher OR pro-student. You must be either pro-neighborhood school OR pro-charter school. You must be either pro-corporate reform OR pro-status quo. You must either be willing to sacrifice everything for your needy students OR be a bad teacher.

Thoughtful people understand that such distinctions are crude and unnecessary. Those of us who work to preserve teachers’ rights and create healthy working conditions do so because we believe children are better served when their teachers are free to think and focus on instruction instead of school politics. Charter schools were originally meant to capitalize on teacher expertise and help improve the quality of all schools, and they can still do that. Resisting the imposition of unproven reforms does not preclude someone from working to improve schools in other ways. And effective teachers know the importance of setting boundaries on one’s time and energy, to preserve the energy and emotional stability good teaching requires.

Yet there are many people out there (particularly this fall…) who are using these kinds of false distinctions to try to rhetorically disarm their opponents. They’re probably aware that their arguments, or the evidence behind them, don’t stand up to careful scrutiny. Or, they’re confused when confronted with surprisingly credible arguments that nevertheless make them uncomfortable. So, they deflect to emotional appeals (“Do you really care about the children?”) or faulty logic (“It’s either this bad method or nothing at all“) to hide the fact that they may be uninformed, struggling with cognitive dissonance, or being deliberately manipulative.

So, as you navigate the school reform discussion– or any political discussion for that matter– be on the look-out for people who attempt to force you into a corner. If you’re put in a position to choose between either this or that, stop for a moment and question whether those really are your only options. In this kind of discussion, things are rarely if ever that simple, and if someone is trying to make it so, then there is probably something wrong with what they’re saying.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. markfriedman1 permalink
    October 2, 2010 2:26 pm

    False dichotomies have been a strong rhetorical device used by political advocates for the corporate ed reform push. Effective breakdowns such as this post are a powerful way to deconstruct that damaging message. Widespread organizing of parents, community members, teachers and educators who are critical of these policies’ damage to public education is also necessary connected step in creating alternatives to our current educational reality.

    • October 2, 2010 10:28 pm

      False dichotomies have been used by both sides. Perhaps the most disturbing thing I have witnessed in this “debate” has been an aggressive disregard for multiple perspectives. There’s no dialogue because the sharply drawn battle lines prevent it. Instead, everything the other side puts forth is all wrong, not based on actual content, but because of who said it. Balance is better than barricades, but the Reform Wars have elevated the latter while ignoring the former.

      Not being on either side, it is painful to witness because so much of the “debate” is obfuscatory dodge-ball couched in emotional froth instead of critical thinking.

      • markfriedman1 permalink
        October 3, 2010 11:03 am

        Mr. Hageman, your response interests me. I agree that many, if not most, of the major participants in the current education reform debate (at least on a national level) have been sucked into some use of false dichotomies and acceptance of limited perspectives on complex issues. However, if we could possibly split the camps into two sides (which we can’t easily or accurately do), is it fair to say that all sides have employed this rhetorical strategy equally? I’m hesitant just because I realize that there is a multi-dimensional quality to where many groups come from, even when it may appear as though there is equal disregard for multiple perspectives. I’m interested to hear more of your thoughts on this though.

    • October 5, 2010 6:28 pm

      I could not agree more Mark and Sabrina. It seems as if education reform has recently (or not so recently) devolved into one large false dichotomy. That’s why I got together with a group of nationally renown political strategists to start The VIVA Project (Voice Idea Vision Action) We believe classroom teachers hold the key to eliminating the over-simplification and the red herrings and that their voice needs to be heard more frequently, louder and directly by politicians and appointed officials. There are currently teachers from all over the country working together (our website allows teachers in different places & times to share their ideas and brainstorm together) to develop a set of action items for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. A small sub-group directed by the larger group will prepare a report, which will be delivered in person to Mr. Duncan. I hope you two join the conversation now and pass the word on to other teachers.

  2. John Young permalink
    October 3, 2010 6:48 am

    Whatever you do, don’t take the bait on status quo. Somehow, the reformers have hijacked the VERY term that describes them! Unending attempts to reform IS the status quo in public education. Those currently accused of being in the status quo are actually fighting for stability and solid, research based practice like smaller classes. More people need to see through the ruse of the reformers. They have the high ground after the Education Nation “summit”, we need to cut them at the knees and it starts with calling them out on just who supports and is delivering the tired, stale, doomed to fail, status quo!

    • October 3, 2010 7:46 pm

      Families all over America thank you for manning the barricades, John, really they do.

  3. lisa permalink
    October 3, 2010 10:38 am

    Charter schools will hurt public schools in that they have the students and parents who want to go there, so they have the advantage of commitment. The same is true of school choice. What about the students ho do not have the family support?

  4. October 3, 2010 7:28 pm

    Many, most, all, by my score card, Mark.. As to splitting up the camps, it’s quite doable in broad strokes: Corp-reform vs. Uni-form. It’s labor vs. management dressed up and gone prime time.

    Is it fair to say that both sides have employed this rhetoric equally? Well, no. Uni-form is way ahead in that regard, at least out loud. Sorry. You guys are soaking in it as a matter of course, and it’s wholly divorced from the facts on the ground because of it’s absolutist nature. It would have a perverse charm if it wasn’t such a serious issue for so many kids and their families. But they are the pawns in this game, so what can they do?

    Corp-reform, being in the ascendency, isn’t really paying a lot of attention to Uni, but Uni is wholly focused on Corp. This is why Uni, regardless of the issues, is going to lose and lose badly. The Uni meta-narrative is in full capitulation mode, its sound and fury signifying something far afield from what the choirmasters envisioned when they handed out the hymnals.

    “You suck and are completely wrong; I demand respect, now give me something” doesn’t have much of a track record as far as successful strategies go, regardless of the domain. It’s strictly a CYA maneuver, designed to explain away defeat and shift blame for its genesis, and the result will be just what Uni fears most: bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.


  1. Saturday Solutions: Beware of “either-or” thinking (via Failing Schools) « Transparent Christina

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