Friday, January 18, 2013

Here's To A New Year of Conflict!

As always, I tend to forget to post my newspaper columns online: here is my "All In Perspective" column that ran in the Hill Country News, Georgetown Advocate, and Jarrell Star Ledger in late December/early January.

“When we dare to create conflict, we enable the very best thinking." Margaret Heffernan
In her lecture series “Dare to Disagree,” retired CEO and author Margaret Heffernan points out that most of us would prefer to avoid conflict. If the status quo is not too terribly uncomfortable, we embrace what Heffernan calls “Willful Blindness.” We blissfully ignore warning signs, and even when faced with uncomfortable truths, we often choose ‘going along to get along.

The Willful Blindness dynamic plays a significant role in local elections. For example, when the local guy announces his candidacy for city council, school board, dog-catcher, etc., his friends and acquaintances are happy to endorse him. One hears comments like, “Bob coached my son’s baseball team back in ’92- he was great with the kids!” Or, “Dave sold me a truck last year- he was real nice, ya know?” Unfortunately, while Bob and Dave might be really nice guys, they might just happen to have really lousy policy ideas, but friends are reluctant to ask the tough questions of such ‘nice guys.’

Even worse, if we point out Bob or Dave’s lousy policy ideas, local folks can get pretty upset. Those who dare to question are often accused of being ‘too personal’ and ‘mean-spirited.’ Never mind that nice-guy Bob thinks public schools should do away with grades or that Dave wants the city to tax walking on sidewalks. No one wants to create conflict with Bob and Dave, and they are often duly elected.

Once elected, local government officials rarely conflict with each other; if you review records of your local school board decisions, you will find that most trustees vote in lock-step with each other. On the rare occasion when one board member challenges the status quo, he or she is usually labeled a ‘trouble-maker’ and is likely to be run out of town on a rail.

One of the most marked examples of Willful Blindness in America is our ostrich-approach to public education. Parents especially often become emotionally attached to the local school, and are reluctant to even acknowledge the existence of glaring problems. Sometimes we hear discussion of problems in those “other” school districts, but any public education criticisms are usually followed with, “but we live in a good district.” Sadly, the mindset is not “We place our children in the public school because we trust the school district,” but has become, “We trust the school district because we placed our children in the public school.” Few parents want to know that their child has received a sub-par education.

Unfortunately the Willful Blindness dynamic is a huge obstacle to reform in public education. There are still many individuals who are afraid to change the status quo (and certainly those who wield power and fortune from the status quo don’t want change.) But these are our children, and the future of the nation rests in their hands. Public education does not exist to provide job security for teachers or wealth for superintendents.

We should not be afraid to ask serious questions: Why do school districts spend so much on curriculum fads every few years? Why are only 50% of public education employees actually teachers? Why does California have 1.6 million more students, but Texas has 52,000 more public education employees? Why have public education expenditures grown so much faster than enrollment rates? Why is it okay for the district to have over $1 billion in debt? Why do education dollars follow the district instead of the students? And so on.

Yes, our toughest questions create conflict, and folks do get upset. But the truth matters, and Heffernan is right; engaging in conflict can allow us to do our best thinking. Of course good questions should be asked respectfully and without ad hominem rhetoric. We must not be afraid to question and be questioned.

With that in mind, may your New Year be filled with productive conflict!

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