Finding Common Ground in the Education Wars

A few months ago, Michael Petrilli wrote a piece exploring the common ground that most everyone can agree on related to education’s culture wars about critical race theory, anti-racist education, and diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom. As it looks like these school board feuds are ramping up rather than dying down, I wanted to share excerpts of Petrilli’s piece: 

After a crippling pandemic and way too much partisan warfare, so many of us long to get back to working together to help all students make progress. Here are five promising and praiseworthy practices that I believe most of us could get behind, regardless of our politics or our views on other issues, while doing a lot of good for millions of kids.

  1. The adoption and implementation of “culturally-affirming” instructional materials. The label is new, but the idea is not: Kids should be able to see themselves and their cultures in the books that they read. Mostly that’s about making sure the canon is inclusive and diverse, with authors and characters that represent America’s diversity. 
  2. The effort to diversify the education profession. This is simply common sense, especially because of the large demographic gulf between our student population and our educator corps. Everyone benefits from teacher diversity. It’s particularly important for students of color, especially Black students, given the growing research evidence demonstrating the positive impact on such children in having the opportunity to take classes from teachers of the same race. 
  3. Helping teachers maintain high expectations for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background. This is right in line with education reform dogma going back a generation, encapsulated by President George W. Bush’s call to end the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” 
  4. Teaching students to empathize with and understand others, especially those whose lives are more difficult than their own. This, too, is scarcely new. It’s part of “social and emotional learning,” or what others call “character education,” and has been part of great schooling since ancient times. But there’s a case to be made that, given America’s growing diversity and inequalities, it’s more important than ever for children to appreciate that some kids have it much harder than they do. And in particular, that many Black Americans face particular challenges because of racism that their fellow Americans need to better acknowledge and understand. We also need to help students learn to listen to each other, and engage with views from across the ideological spectrum—essential objectives for high-quality civics programs.
  5. Presenting the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and other painful chapters in an honest, unflinching way. Everyone should want all American children to know the evils of those institutions, given how at odds they were with the principles of our founding as well as our current aspirations. 

For education leaders that want to advance a positive agenda without alienating parents, teachers, and students, these five actions present a path forward. They sure beat fighting each other into oblivion.

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