There were plenty of responses to last week’s pieces tearing apart Rick Hess’ and Michael Petrilli’s op-ed accusing fellow school reformers of race-baiting for raising concerns about efforts by congressional Republican powers John Kline and Lamar Alexander to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions. Certainly many of them were supportive of your editor’s argument — as well as that of other reformers — that the two erstwhile reformers failed to make their case against their colleagues in the movement.
But a few were annoyed with the essays. Why? Because I had essentially claimed that the arguments Hess or Petrilli have offered on No Child reauthorizaions and other issues displayed their myopia on race and lack of concern for the futures of children from poor and minority backgrounds. From where they sit, your editor failed to show mutual respect and goodwill to them and their arguments. And this view extends to my treatment of the proposals offered up by Kline and Alexander (the latter of whom is holding hearings today on No Child reauthorization).
Certainly your editor understands why they make this argument. After all, folks within Beltway policy and educational research circles tend to embrace what I call the Goodwill Presupposition of Debate. That is, the assumption in any discussion, especially those related to battles over the reform of American public education, that everyone involved are men and women of goodwill, whose ideas and policy positions reflect their desire for to provide children, along with the families and communities in which they live, the best they deserve. Based on that theory, we should be less-strident in our criticism of those with whom we disagree, and in fact, give their ideas the benefit of doubt.
All of this is well and good if you want to believe it. But there are myriad problems with the Goodwill Presupposition as a guiding principle in rhetoric and debate, especially when it comes to matters that affect the futures of children.
The first is that the Goodwill Presupposition assumes that all ideas and policies as morally equal. This isn’t true. As with intellectual consideration of issues, some ideas and practices can be proven as morally inferior to others based on the historical record, on data and evidence, and on the moral codes, Judeo-Christian-Muslim as well as humanist and atheist, that are at the heart of our world.
Outside of education policy discussions, for example, we would not assume that state-sanctioned segregation — from America’s Jim Crow, to South Africa’s Apartheid, to the separatism practiced in Israel against native Arabs — is morally equal to equality for all people under law. This is because history, along with the Golden Rule, has shown us that no law that treats some people as inferior to others has any moral standing to the idea that all men are granted inalienable rights by God and mankind.
The second problem with the Goodwill Presupposition is that it assumes that the consequences of ideas, policies, and practices are morally equal and valid. If ideas can be found invalid intellectually based on empirical evidence, why can’t they be found morally unsound?
As we have learned over the past century, practices such as ability-tracking have been proven to do little to improve the quality of education for children, especially for those from poor and minority backgrounds Just as importantly, decades of evidence has shown that the consequences of ability-tracking have been dire for the futures kids already denied opportunities for high-quality teaching and curricula. There is no more reason to treat ability-tracking as an morally- and intellectually-equal practice to expanding school choice.
Thirdly, by assuming that everyone involved in debates and political battles all share the same good intentions, the Goodwill Supposition demands that we ignore evidence that shows otherwise. Certainly you can’t know the heart and mind of an opponent. But to assume that all are people of goodwill, even amid evidence otherwise, is to give some people greater credence than they deserve — especially if the morality and moral consequences of that for which they advocate are inferior and in fact, damaging to their fellow men and women.
For example, I don’t know American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten’s heart and mind. But I can argue that her defense of near-lifetime employment and teacher dismissal policies that keep criminally abusive teachers in classrooms to harm children is morally as well as intellectually indefensible. As both a moral being and an intellectually-reasonable person, there is more than enough evidence for me to be skeptical of Weingarten and her advocacy.
Finally, the Goodwill Supposition is a form of moral relativism that neither Jesus nor Socrates would find tolerable. If some ideas and their consequences are immoral and their consequences violate all codes of morality, then you cannot regard them as equals to those which are morally valid both in theory and result.
If we give all ideas, policies, and practices equal moral footing regardless of evidence and precept, we are essentially saying that lies are equal to honesty, fabrication is akin to objective facts, and that propaganda is no different than evidence. What is the point of scholarly inquiry or discussion if everything has validity?
But the consequences of this thinking extend beyond debate: What is the point of doing the right thing when doing wrong is just as good? Why should you advocate for bending the arc of history toward progress when regressive ideas and practices have equal validity? Particularly for reformers, unquestioned practice of the Goodwill Presupposition can harm the movement’s moral mission.
Put simply, neither the plans to eviscerate No Child offered by Kline and Alexander, nor the defenses of them by Hess and Petrilli, deserve to be given equal moral or intellectual weight to either the current law or the arguments defending it. This is because the policy proposals of the former are morally, as well as empirically, inferior to the latter. This isn’t to say that any of these men are terrible people. It is to say this: The call by Kline and Alexander (along with Hess and Petrilli) to end subgroup accountability measures that expose how poorly states, school operators, and those who work within them are educating our most-vulnerable children, who are the least of us Christ called us to look after is a violation of our moral obligation as Americans and as human beings.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be principled and respectful in our debates and disagreements with our opponents. Such decorum is not only necessary, but demanded of us as children of God and members of the family of man. It also doesn’t mean that we can’t get along; after all, as Jesus would command, we can hate the argument and still love the people who make it, especially since we are all fallible. It doesn’t even mean that every debate involves moral considerations; this is certainly true when it comes to discussions over what policies will be most-effective in expanding choice or improving teacher quality. Any belief otherwise is an embrace of thoughtless and counterproductive dogmatism.
But it does mean in those debates that do involve moral issues, giving all arguments equal weight is absolutely senseless. Especially because public policy is a clear communication of our moral expectations as citizens. Just as importantly, expecting people to not call things as they are based on both evidence and morality is simply unacceptable.