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The Landmark Case Of Us V. Them

Patrick Riccards, CEO of the education advocacy group ConnCAN, has published a short piece on his personal blog in which he decries the “vicious and fact-free attacks” in education debates.

The post lists a bunch of “if/then” statements to illustrate how market-based reform policy positions are attacked on personal grounds, such as, “If one provides philanthropic support to improve public schools, then one must be a profiteer looking to make personal fortunes off public education.” He summarizes the situation with a shot of his own: “Yes, there are no attacks that are too vicious or too devoid of fact for the defenders of the status quo.” What of his fellow reformers? They “simply have to stand and take the attacks and the vitriol, no matter how ridiculous.”

Mr. Riccards is dead right that name-calling, ascription of base motives, and the abuse of empirical evidence are rampant in education debates. I myself have criticized the unfairness of several of his “if/then” statements, including the accusations of profiteering and equating policy views with being “anti-teacher.”

But anyone who thinks that this behavior is concentrated on one “side” or the other must be wearing blinders.

To be clear, I don’t mean to single out Mr. Riccards (who is, from what I can tell, a thoughtful guy). His sentiments are very common. In fact, they’re so common that you’ll hear the same complaints from those he accuses, who are convinced that it is actually the “reformers” who engage in personal attacks and misinterpretations of research.

That’s because this kind of rhetoric has to some degree become the rule, not the exception. For every allegation from “defenders of the status quo” that philanthropists are really profiteers or that market-based reforms are a form of “teacher-bashing,” there is an ad hominem accusation from the other “side” – charging that support for traditionally union-advocated policies means you’re putting compensation and job security “above the needs of children,” or that opposition to test-based accountability means you don’t care whether schools improve .

Similarly, the idea that the overuse, misinterpretation, or selective presentation of empirical evidence is exclusive to either camp is, to be frank, laughable.

I don’t know if this kind of behavior is more common on one “side” than the other, but I do believe that the discrepancy is too small to be particularly meaningful, and I’m certain it’s nowhere near large enough to support a blanket statement.

Education debates, like most policy discourses, are polarized. We are often arguing premises under the guise of empirical facts, and it’s always difficult to remove one’s self from confirmation bias and knee-jerk, intolerant responses. No one is immune (least of all me).

So let’s all ease back from the self-righteousness. It’s as “vicious and fact-free” an attack as any other.

- Matt Di Carlo

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Matthew Di Carlo

Matthew Di Carlo is a senior research fellow at the non-profit Albert Shanker Institute in Washington, D.C. His current research focuses mostly on education polic...