What would Plato say about ed reform?

This piece was originally published at EdNews Colorado.

I have had the honor of being a teacher fellow at the Aspen Institute for the past year, with another year left in my fellowship. The teacher leader fellows met once in February, and we have been attending the general Aspen Seminar throughout this summer.

The Aspen Seminar, which I just completed, touched on the values that our society holds and how these values are often in tension with one other. These tensions lead to, well, more tensions in our society as we navigate and shift among the values. Our seminar discussions have made me think a lot about attitudes and values as they relate to education.

What are the values that lead to the tensions we see today in education reform? Should we concern ourselves with trying to identify and then manage them?

The Aspen Seminar is a forum based on the writings of great thinkers past and present. Through the readings and discussions, participants better understand the “human challenges facing organizations and communities they serve.” What lofty goals these are amid the splendor and beauty of Aspen!

As we read through the usual suspects of the great thinkers – Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, King, Locke, with an occasional woman thrown into the mix – the moderators asked us to categorize the readings by the values they expressed. The moderators proposed four values that acted as two pairs of opposing ideas. The four values proposed were liberty, equality, community and efficiency. This “value compass” is based on James O’Toole’s book The Executive’s Compass: Business and the Good Society.

Since most Americans are not extremists, they tend to float near their pole and slide side to side or up and down based on the various trade-offs between the values. The tensions among these four ideas create what some might view as a constant state of stalemate. So, for example, the tension between liberty (individual desires) and community (collective good) can be expressed through policies such as banning smoking in public, which protects people (community) from individual smokers (liberty).

Marx would certainly be in the lower quadrant when it comes to the choice between equality and liberty. The pursuit of the good society, according to O’Toole, involves maneuvering among the four poles. While there are many takes on the definition of the “good society,” for my purpose let us view it as a “just” society.

I have problems with O’Toole’s “efficiency” value. In my view (thank you to our seminar’s moderator, Rob Reich, for planting this idea in my head), efficiency is not necessary for the good of society. It might impact the relative quality of a good society, but it is not necessary for the survival of society. I think O’Toole used efficiency as a nod to the business community. Perhaps, as our moderator suggested, “security” might be better suited as a value.

Do the above four values represent the ongoing debate in education reform? Do they explain the various tensions between those who advocate for choice – as in vouchers or charters – versus those who maintain the importance of the greater society and the importance of attending local schools? Does it speak to concerns some have with federal policies such as No Child Left Behind and their impact on local school districts? Does it help us to understand the concern some educators have with being forced to use canned curriculum versus individual teacher curriculum?

We can also apply the compass to the role that teachers’ unions play in education. Does the union value equality when it uses pay scales that do not differentiate effectiveness – to the detriment of the individual teacher’s ability (liberty)? Does Teach for America value efficiency over community when it places teachers in schools with little input fromschool staff and parents and comparatively little teacher training?

Feel free to reject the entire idea of a polar reality and come up with one of your own schemes or representations. Introduce values that you believe are missing. The idea of this exercise is to try and distill our current debate and conversation around education reform into the essential components so that we might understand each position better and perhaps, just perhaps, find areas of agreement.

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