The sun had turned the grass a fluorescent shade of green. My wife’s tulips glowed ivory and red and yellow. Our next-door neighbor was pushing her toddler in his tree swing. A Saturday as lovely and ordinary as you can get.
I wandered over to the neighbor’s yard for a chat. I did not expect her to change my thinking about some of the hottest issues in education.
As we talked, the details of her job came out. She teaches middle school in a neighboring state. The challenges of mandated testing—Common Core and all that—are making life difficult for her, her colleagues, and her students.
That brought me to my usual place of ambivalence on Common Core.
On the one hand, it’s hard to think of a more noble profession than teaching. The teachers I know work long hours and are unflagging in their dedication. On the other hand, I can see the urgent need to equip U.S. kids to thrive in a brutally competitive world, and that may mean adding rigor to the learning experience.
On the third hand (yeah, I know), teachers’ unions leave me skeptical. In my state, at least, they wield tremendous power. They spill a ton of ink on shaping public opinion. So when I hear the buzz against Common Core, I can’t tell whether it’s the teachers talking or the unions.
As a result of this, the dark side of my brain starts wondering, maybe teachers doth protest too much. Maybe they’re too resistant to change. I don’t like those thoughts, but I don’t know enough to gauge their truth.
But then, during the chat with my neighbor, something clicked. It dawned on me that, of all the teachers I’ve talked with about Common Core, No Child Left Behind, etc., not a single one was happy with the changes in the educational landscape.
Yes, unions are powerful, but not powerful enough to create that kind of unanimity. Rather, something important is being said here, it is coming from the mouths of teachers themselves, and I need to listen to them afresh.
That led me, in turn, to dig deeper into the pros and cons of Common Core. Guess what? As with just about every issue, there’s way more nuance and complexity than meets the eye. The two largest U.S. teachers’ unions supported Common Core at first. So did many teachers. Opposition to Common Core is not coming from one end of the political spectrum, but rather from across the spectrum (though each “side” has its own reasons).
To think all this started with a casual neighborly chat.
Here’s the point. In the field of dialogue, we talk a lot about process, and that’s good. Academics and practitioners have designed some terrifically effective approaches to facilitating dialogue in structured settings.
But, as I point out in my book, there’s inestimable value in fostering dialogue as a habit of the heart as well—something so fundamental to our deepest selves that, when presented with an opportunity like this Saturday chat, we instinctively respond with curiosity and compassion. Equipped with this habit of the heart, we are continually ready to see opportunities to listen, learn more, connect with others, and bridge divides.
And trust me, those opportunities are everywhere.
P.S. If you want to educate yourself on the Common Core debate, try these articles for starters: a Wall Street Journal op-ed generally in favor of Common Core, a piece from education historian Diane Ravitch on her opposition, and a USNews survey of who’s for, who’s against, and why.