Less insult, more discourse: How Seattle should talk about schools

It's hard to make progress when so much energy is expended and so much pain is inflicted at the first sign of disagreement. Some ideas on restoring civility among ourselves and effectiveness to school improvement efforts.

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Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn kicks off Seattle Schools' 2010 levy campaign: Sometimes Seattle unites around schools but there has been frequent discord.

It's hard to make progress when so much energy is expended and so much pain is inflicted at the first sign of disagreement. Some ideas on restoring civility among ourselves and effectiveness to school improvement efforts.

As a Seattle public school parent and as a journalist who has written about education issues, I want to add my voice to the chorus calling for civil discourse when we debate the state of our schools and consider education initiatives.

But I want to take it a step further. Civility isn’t enough.

As a journalist, I’ve had the opportunity to interview teachers, administrators, school board directors, the heads of several education advocacy groups and education service providers, bloggers, and parents. As an involved public school parent, I’ve served on two school leadership teams and have been an active PTA supporter. Though opinions often differed, in no instance did I come away with the impression that the subjects of my interviews or the people sitting around the table with me were motivated by anything other than providing the best educational outcome for all kids.

Maybe they are out there, but in Seattle’s educational realm, I personally have not encountered profit-mongers or incompetent, nefarious educators. The parents I have spoken with understand the implications of budget shortfalls and leadership changes and the limitations of a system serving nearly 48,000 students.

Everyone is aware that the debates playing out in Seattle are part of a national debate on education, which, as I’ve written several times before, has been called the civil rights struggle of our time.

So it is mind-boggling that given our common goal of success for every student and our common understanding that we are living in interesting educational times, our city cannot move forward from name calling, inertia and pendulum swinging.

Why the disconnect?     

I think it’s a question of courage.

Our current system of educational discourse in Seattle is designed to discourage bravery and forthrightness. Speak out and you risk being attacked by bloggers, union supporters, PTA leaders, eye-rolling District administrators — anyone who doesn’t share your particular concern, your sense of urgency or your point of view. 

Come out in support of charter schools or a new teacher evaluation system and you are accused of being an anti-union profiteer.

Say you want to change the culture of our school district and you risk micromanagement and being run out of town.

Complain at the lack of responsible, intelligent decision-making on the part of our school district or school leadership and you risk being ignored, dismissed as a trouble-making “ankle-biter” or are given empty promises of improvement and no follow-through.

As a parent and long-time public schools supporter, I was unprepared for the level of fury I would feel once my eldest child entered middle school and I fought to make sure she would be academically challenged. The lack of responsiveness and accountability and occasional talk-to-the-hand attitude on the part of the ever-changing stewards of my children’s education kept me up at night. I found solace on some education blogs, where I discovered I was not alone and that many of these battles had been waged before and were currently being waged at other schools in other parts of the city.

Yet as a conscientious voter and taxpayer who is hoping for stability during my kids’ remaining years in the system, I’ve been dismayed that this same sense that “we’re all in this together” does not always extend to discussions of how best to solve our educational problems. Too often ideas have been discounted because they are supported by what one side or another views as “the usual suspects.” 

I’m glad there are people in our city who are watching the progress in the rest of the country and the rest of the world and suggesting that there may be a different way of doing things. I’m glad we have innovators creating different models for teachers unions and classroom and school management and developing road maps and benchmarks.

I’m equally glad we have watchdogs, who remind our sometimes-hapless leaders to stop and think about the consequences before changing course and charging ahead, and “reality checkers,” who remind us that coalitions and recommendations are not enough.

“The mud-flinging is hard,” says Kristin Bailey-Fogarty, a Seattle public school teacher who has been outspoken in her support of education reform and the A+ Washington initiative and, as a result, has sometimes been viciously attacked in the blogosphere. "I've found the best strategy is to assume your attackers care as much about an issue as you do," she says. "People come out of the gate in attack mode, but eventually they can come to a place of reason."

It takes courage to speak out, whatever your point of view. It takes courage to back off. It takes courage to work towards consensus. It takes courage to think ahead and be fully responsible and accountable for decisions.  It takes courage to make decisions.

As people who care about education, we are all “the usual suspects.”

So let’s make the “Seattle way” the courageous way and foster an intelligent, open-minded, accountable, and respectful method of achieving the educational outcomes we all want for our kids.

Here are some concrete, productive steps we can all take now to foster healthy discourse:

  • Stop labeling.  Instead of dismissing others as deep-pocket education reformers, pushy parents, union supporters fighting to preserve the status quo or screechy bloggers, take time to examine and understand their points of view. There is usually substance behind the passion.
  • Remember that money can’t buy you love. Those with the most resources and the most powerful supporters often have the loudest voices and can be seen as bulldozing other valid points of view.  Lose the patriarchal “we know best” attitude.
  • Streamline.  There are too many coalitions, too many new initiatives, too many acronyms, too many discordant voices and often too little to show for it.  This creates confusion and apathy among our citizenry.  Stick to clear messages and achievable goals with widespread support.  Be sure to follow through.
  • Seattle Public Schools should implement a consistent response policy to inquiries and clearly designate a person and a time-frame in which to follow up.

We should all adopt and adhere to standards of civility when commenting. If we leave the troll under the bridge in Fremont, we can have more reasonable and productive discussions with people who may have differing views but share the same goals for our community.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick, longtime Crosscut contributor, is the author of "Ruminations from the Minivan" and the blog "Slice of Mid-Life."