Civil debate about education? Two opponents offer a blueprint.
When Frederick Hess and Pedro Noguera wanted to better understand each other’s often opposite positions on education, they hashed it out in emails.Their correspondence was published earlier this year in the book “A Search for Common Ground: Conversations About the Toughest Questions in K-12 Education,” and their approach has gotten the attention of school board members and educators, who suddenly find themselves in a firestorm over mask mandates and the teaching of race.Why We Wrote ThisHow can Americans who disagree about education talk productively? Two educators with opposing views wanted to find out for themselves. The result is a book and podcast with ideas for moving forward. In the book’s preface, the duo say they have “spent much of the past few decades on opposing sides of important educational debates, with Pedro generally on the Left and Rick mostly on the Right.” Dr. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Dr. Noguera is dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. They’re often asked for advice on how to start difficult conversations. “It takes an interest in listening to one another,” says Dr. Hess in a joint Zoom call with the Monitor.“This country is so divided and it’s dangerous, because it’s becoming more and more violent,” adds Dr. Noguera. “And so modeling how to have civil debate is really important.”Rancor over COVID-19 policies, diversity and equity initiatives, and school choice has divided communities and supercharged school board meetings. Is there any way to find common ground about education amid such divisions? Some people say yes. Frederick Hess and Pedro Noguera, two education policy leaders, published a book earlier this year – “A Search for Common Ground: Conversations About the Toughest Questions in K-12 Education” – made up of in-depth emails they shared over seven months to better understand each other’s beliefs and unearth hidden agreement. They currently host a podcast, “Common Ground,” with recent episodes tackling the role of parents in education and anti-racist education. Why We Wrote ThisHow can Americans who disagree about education talk productively? Two educators with opposing views wanted to find out for themselves. The result is a book and podcast with ideas for moving forward. The authors describe themselves in the book’s preface as having “spent much of the past few decades on opposing sides of important educational debates, with Pedro generally on the Left and Rick mostly on the Right.” Dr. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, and Dr. Noguera is dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The goal of their exchange, the two write in the book, is to offer a model for those who “desire to disagree with grace and explore differences without rancor.” The book’s impact will be “up to the readers and what they do with it,” says Dr. Noguera in a phone interview. He and Dr. Hess have done a series of book tour events, mostly on Zoom, where the two live-demo talking through tough issues respectfully for their audience. They’ve spoken at the Wyoming Education Summit, at an annual meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers, and to staff of foundations like the Walton Family Foundation, among others. The most frequent feedback is that the book is a breath of fresh air, says Dr. Noguera. Fred Campos, from Bedford, Texas, is an elected school board member of the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District. He was assigned to read the book for a leadership training program he’s participating in with the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB). Frederick Hess and Pedro Noguera turned their correspondence over seven months into a book, “A Search for Common Ground: Conversations About the Toughest Questions in K-12 Education,” published by Teachers College Press. Mr. Campos listened to the audio version of the book twice and says he “loves the premise that we should not go to the extremes.” As a second-term board member, he’s adjusting to a “new era” of more polarization and increased attendance after a fairly quiet first term. The book helped him better understand why some in his community wanted a mask-optional policy – which differed from his position in favor of mask mandates. “One thing I think both authors did well is they were complimentary of one another, respectful, and that modeling is huge, whether you’re dealing with parents, other board members, or staff,” Mr. Campos says. “Light a candle”The idea for “Common Ground” started before COVID-19 and the latest waves of education furor. Even in pre-pandemic days, tension existed within the field. For Dr. Hess, disputes over education over the past few years felt more polarized than at any time in his nearly 30-year career as a K-12 educator, college professor, and researcher. One November night in 2019, Dr. Hess says he was sitting in his office, staring into space, and pondering how to actually model a different style of conversation. He started thinking about who was someone who disagreed with him on major issues and might be willing to engage in a civil dialogue. “Education is supposed to be about teaching kids how to wrestle with things, how to look past our differences, and it felt like rather than leaning on this, we’ve been as bad as anyone,” he says in a phone interview. “So I finally said, ‘I’m a big fan of ‘light a candle rather than curse darkness,’ … so I picked up the phone and called Pedro, and he was great about it.” “I immediately said yes because I appreciated the need for dialogue on these issues, and like him, I was frustrated by the tenor of the debate and the kind of paralysis that I would say characterize the field,” says Dr. Noguera. The two wrote emails to each other from January through July 2020, on 11 hot-button education topics such as school choice, the achievement gap, testing and accountability, diversity and equity, and teacher pay. They also addressed major events that hit while they were writing, such as COVID-19, the shuttering of schools, and the murder of George Floyd. Both men say they were provoked at various times by each other’s viewpoints. Because they were communicating in writing, they had time to reflect before responding and gather evidence to back their points. The two found areas of common ground on nearly every topic, especially on teacher pay and testing, after airing their differences. In a joint Zoom interview with the Monitor, the pair easily banter with each other, but say it took time to develop rapport. They’re often asked for advice on how to start difficult conversations. Dr. Hess says he thinks anyone can do it, but it takes certain skills.“It takes an interest in listening to one another. It takes the habit of pausing on your first ‘that’s wrong’ in order to listen, hear them, and ask a question instead of pushing back,” he says.“I think the need for this can’t be understated, especially now,” Dr. Noguera adds during the Zoom meeting. “This country is so divided and it’s dangerous, because it’s becoming more and more violent. And so modeling how to have civil debate is really important.” Kay Douglas is a former school board member, a senior consultant at TASB, and the instructor who assigned “Common Ground” to the leadership cohort that Mr. Campos is a part of. She says the book offers a valuable example of intentionally trying to understand and work with others. “Otherwise, we are going to self-destruct. People are so stressed and the stress level keeps going up,” she says.“Muscles that we have to build”For Dr. Noguera, learning how to debate respectfully was something he learned around his kitchen table. When he was growing up, his dad, an immigrant from Trinidad, was a police officer in New York City. He would sometimes bring home friends with conservative views on crime.“I was a kid and I’d listen to these conversations and get angry, but because they were adults and I was a kid and I wanted to engage, I had to figure out how to do that respectfully because my parents insisted on respect,” he says. As a professor, Dr. Noguera has invited people who disagree with him on policy to debate him in his classes, because he thinks it makes his ideas stronger and shows that people can disagree “without attacking an individual’s personhood.” Conjuring up the worst intentions about other people, he says, is unproductive and unhealthy for democracy. Dr. Hess agrees that subjecting his ideas to scrutiny from the other side is a way to check blind spots and make policies stronger. He compares civil dialogue to going to the gym. “Listening to somebody, actually taking care to understand why they are pushing back, answering them without going to sound bites or talking points, these things are like muscles that we have to build,” he says. “If all you do is fire off tweets or Facebook posts or talk to people who think like you, it’s like you never go to the gym to build those muscles.” In September, Dr. Hess and Dr. Noguera spoke at the Wyoming Education Summit, attended by teachers, administrators, home-school parents, and school board members.Jillian Balow, Wyoming superintendent of public instruction, says the theme of the book was particularly relevant since the state has also seen an uptick in school board meeting attendance and parents concerned about curricular materials. She’s pondering ways to make policymaking more transparent, such as establishing community teams to look through school policies and identify areas for public involvement. “We have a system that really caters to people talking past each other,” Ms. Balow says. She points to schools traditionally including parents in their own child’s learning, but providing fewer outlets for involving parents in policy or curricular decisions.“Maybe there are some opportunities … so there’s less talking past and more finding common ground,” she adds.Read More