Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Packing Up the Chessboard

August 31, 2011 By Michael J. Diedrich, Policy Associate

One could be forgiven for thinking education reform in this country is a giant chess game. After all, there appear to be two sides, the reformers and the status quo. The board is broken into clearly distinguishable “policy squares”: pawn to performance pay, queen's knight to charter school expansion.

We are used to thinking like this, and the media will indulge us by producing a public narrative laden with dramatic conflict and cunning strategies. The downside of this mindset, of course, is that we miss out on the ideas and thinkers that don't fit the black-and-white framework.

How much time gets spent considering assessment proposals from FairTest or the New York Performance Standards Consortium? Both organizations have solicited educator input in developing and implementing assessment alternatives that would be more rigorous and meaningful than the easily scored multiple choice tests that are otherwise taken for granted as the primary measure of “performance” for students and teachers.

The chessboard narrative has no place for this kind of third-player thinking, which may be why these ideas aren't discussed more.

And what about a closer examination of teacher evaluation systems like those in Maryland's Montgomery County or Minnesota's own St. Francis Public Schools? By engaging teachers in a discussion of professional practice, each system has a more nuanced and credible tool by which to evaluate teachers.

Inviting teacher input also helped Montgomery County design a teacher review and removal process that respects due process but has driven the removal or resignation of hundreds of chronically underperforming teachers. In other words, soliciting real (not token) feedback and guidance from teachers can raise professional standards without alienating teachers. Again, however, this does not fit on the chessboard.

The chessboard problem is obviously not unique to education. The story of irreconcilable conflict between two clearly-defined sides is much older than our current squabbles, and we have a natural affinity for heroes fighting monsters or virtuous rebels challenging the evil empire.

This conflict-focused approach, however, is limited in its ability to produce positive results. It is time to rethink how we want education reform to be approached.

We start with a commonly understood goal: universal student achievement, generally defined as readiness for college and career. This is a relatively new goal for our schools, so adaptation is needed. To assume that every self-described reformer OR every teacher union representative is hostile to this is to sabotage a reasonable conversation before it can get under way.

If it seems like everyone on the “other side” is in it for themselves, one must widen one's gaze. After all, the comments and actions that get heard the most in the media are those that support the zero-sum, chessboard narrative. Reality is richer.

In addition to a common goal, we have common values around education. Perhaps foremost among these in today's debates is teacher professionalism. Nearly everyone will acknowledge that teachers are professionals and ought to be treated as such.

Where we start to slip is when we forget that professionalism is comprised of many different facets, including but not limited to recruitment, preparation, support, working conditions, pay, benefits, evaluation for accountability, evaluation for improvement, and retention. Genuine, respectful change requires addressing all of these. Insisting on changing a third of these while neglecting the other two-thirds is a recipe for distrust and partial measures.

Another value too often absent from today's education discussions is fair dealing. When we buy into the chessboard narrative, we concede the idea of mutually beneficial outcomes. If we let ourselves see disagreement as insurmountable opposition or allow ourselves to demonize “the other side,” we miss out on potentially productive partnerships. Perhaps some sort of objective third party could extend a truly open invitation to each of the key stakeholders and then facilitate a healthier and more effective process by which policy is negotiated, designed, and implemented.

It is, of course, easy to decry the polarization of our public discourse or to attack reductive media narratives. One risks the appearance of platitudinous self-righteousness, blatant hypocrisy, or mealy-mouthed “on the one hand / on the other hand” cringing.

At the same time, if we are to take a serious crack at updating our schools for their modern challenges, we must put aside the chessboard mentality. There are too many good people wasting too much energy on postures and positions than seeking to understand the true interests and concerns of the other players. This is not about blame or false balance; it is about getting good things done.

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