Dear Jennifer: Dissent is the Vibrancy of our Democracy
In the mid-1990s I lived in an asian country for five months. I won’t say which here on my blog, because I don’t want their censors to find this blog and ban me from entering the country. If you are curious which country, go to my vita and look for the fellowship that I received in 1996. At any rate, one of my English students cried for a solid two hours during a conversation. She was majoring in journalism in a prominent university and she was upset that she would never be able to critique the policy or social order of her homeland in her published work because of the political structure of this particular country.
Dissent is the vibrancy of our democracy.
Which brings me to an article published in EdWeek by Dr. Jennifer Jennings, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at NYU and formerly the blogger Eduwonkette. She was writing about a speech given by Secretary Arne Duncan at the recent AERA meeting in San Francisco. I was at the AERA session, I believe I was sitting next to Jennifer in fact. Below is a photo I took from my seat.
Here are a few excerpts from Dr. Jenning’s article:
I agree with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on just about nothing. I think Race to the Top is an evidence-free mess. I think the idea of a test worth teaching to is a willful misunderstanding of the science of testing. And I can’t agree with Duncan’s insistence that the cheating scandals that have garnered widespread attention in recent months are a parable about “rotten” school cultures and not a reflection on the incentives that we’ve forced upon teachers.
But as I sat on the floor of a packed ballroom in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association last week, I was embarrassed—no, humiliated—that some of my colleagues booed the secretary of education when he approached the microphone for his keynote speech. It is one thing to disagree with some of the Obama administration’s policies, to bring countervailing data to the table, and to engage in reasoned—and, one would hope, enlightened—conversation. It is another thing entirely to abdicate our most sacred responsibility as researchers—a commitment to ideas, to data, to truth, to real debate—at the altar of one-upmanship.
What saddens me is that the educational policy debate has become an overwhelming chorus of boos, of shout-downs, and of bitter personal insults, rather than a real debate about ideas and data and first principles.
If there is one lesson from this conference, Secretary Duncan, you showed America’s educational researchers that we can have a different debate—one in which we rely on ideas and open disagreement and reason, and not on schoolyard bravado.
First, I should say that most of the protest at the speech was silent. There were probably 20-30 people holding up signs that said “Not in my name.” Second, I should say that the boos that welcomed him were relegated to about 15-20 people out of perhaps 3,000 in attendance. Even if there would have been 1,000 people booing, I would have been okay with that also. What Dr. Jennings did not mention is that there was a smattering of boos during the speech also. I found myself booing when Arne Duncan stated the following bravado:
All students are motivated by high-stakes testing.
Even though I only booed once, I should have booed more and louder. If you talk with students, actually spend time in schools, you will find out Mr. Secretary, that for some students high-stakes exams actually serve as a disincentive for some students to stay in school. See my conversation about this in a Teacher College Record publication and The Voice.
On my Facebook page, there was this exchange when I posted the Edweek link to Dr. Jenning’s article. A Stanford grad school buddy posted the following:
Wow….really? How does that make us different from Joe Wilson shouting “You lie!” at President Obama? Can’t we respectfully disagree without heckling?
Dissent is the vibrancy of our democracy. It also wasn’t the internationally televised State of the Union. It was an AERA session.
A prominent educator from Chicago added:
Many have been respectful, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. The policies he promotes are killing our children, schools and communities. Arne is not the President of the United States, thank goodness. If you can think of a better way to address the pain Duncan has brought to the entire country, I would be thrilled to hear it and work with you to achieve it.
Mr. President, we desperately need you to turn attention to your Secretary, the testing companies, national standards, charters, vouchers, Louisiana, TFA, Chicago. You have met or exceeded expectations in other areas (depending on your political persuasion of course), but on education I am saddened that you are clearly dropping the ball. On this I believe that many Republicans and Democrats agree. Although there is this. Please engage. While the cat is away the mice will play.
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