Paul Toner on Civil Discourse

September 2017

BY// Paul Toner | Executive Director, Teach Plus Massachusetts | Editorial Advisory Board Member, The Line

A career-long advocate of collaborative and innovative solutions to public policy issues, Paul Toner is dedicated to driving progress in education policy, association governance, board management and labor as well as government relations. A former president of the Cambridge and Massachusetts Teachers Associations, Paul is currently running for City Council in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In August, a group of educators and education advocates of diverse opinion gathered together at Boston’s Old State House for a Civil Discourse Dinner sponsored by the Frontline Research & Learning Institute.

The idea of sharing divergent ideas in a building where the Declaration of Independence was first read to Bostonians and the Queen of England addressed a crowd 100 years later seemed particularly appropriate.

On behalf of students deeply dependent on public education, one would hope that our opinions, biases, conflicts and experiences can be reconciled in something less than a century; this was a thought full of possibility at an event like that one.

At a time of polarization around all subjects, including education, it was reassuring to see and engage with people from all sides of public education issues, and to be reminded that we share the common goal of improving the K-12 experience in America. Many of these people had not been together in some time or had never met. In today’s climate, such absence does not always make the heart grow fonder. I have found that personal relationships and regular contact are the greatest salve to polarizing rhetoric. People are far less likely to engage in negative discourse, or personal attacks in the media, if they know that they will be seated together in the near future.

Having once been president of what was then a 110,000-member Massachusetts Teacher Association, I’m intimately familiar with the intensity of fixed opinion.

“Change is the law of life. …”
John F. Kennedy

We need repeated reminding of the John F. Kennedy quote that said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

As leaders and practitioners in the education space, we need not only to consider what constitutes a quality public education but the future that we are preparing students for.

Much of the way we educate was formed when American students entered into either agrarian or industrial economies. Our economy today is global and knowledge-based. Hence, our students are entering careers and professions that will demand a lifelong devotion to thinking and innovation at every level of employment.

It is just as important that we educate students as to their obligations as citizens in a democratic society, enabling them to distinguish fact from the latest social media fantasy. Such an education requires academically rigorous content. It also depends on developing critical and creative thinking and collaboration and communication skills, as well as growing the social and emotional development of young people. This sort of holistic view of public education demands open communication by everyone to plan a coherent path forward.

As different speakers at the dinner voiced different opinions, it was clear from the polite yet engaged responses that this commitment to communication can be nurtured. In fact, it was our youngest student participant who pointed out that adults in our society are not explicitly modeling the art of civil discourse and this dinner was an example of what she felt was missing in our education system.

That said, there are surely opinions that cannot be moved, nor made useful. A position that public education must be dismantled and should no longer be part of American public commitment is untenable. It is equally untenable, and unrealistic, that we cling to the idea that an education model that served us in the 1950s can well serve our increasingly diverse student populations today. Personalized and student-centered learning do not portend the end of public education but the natural progression of a system to meet the individual needs of students

We also need to be wary of labels that instantly categorize, or demonize, any approach that truly has a student’s best interests in mind.

It is too easy to hear “market-based solutions” or “corporate education” and quickly label these proponents as evil profiteers. We forget that for-profit companies build the schools, publish the books, make the paper and pencils and, increasingly, provide the technologies that free teachers from onerous administrative tasks. Such technological advances often allow teachers more time for lesson planning or student interaction. It should not be heresy to suggest that their hearts may be in the right place.

It is equally true that unions demanding fair wages and reasonable working conditions for teachers have not forgotten their students, nor is every single criticism of a traditional public school an indictment of the teachers who work there.

We cannot fail to recognize the importance of poverty in failing schools. Nor can we see poverty as the only determining factor in any school’s failure.

Too often, it is assumed that civility in communication is synonymous with passivity or political correctness or even cowardice. On the contrary, I often think of Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan arguing by day but having a beer at night. Or more recently, Senator John McCain politely but firmly correcting a woman suggesting that Barack Obama was Muslim and not an American citizen. Correcting her brought him no immediate political advantage but his example is recognized as the right thing to have done by almost everyone.

“Real leadership requires the recognition of differing opinion and the legitimacy of advocates from all sides.”
Paul Toner

If you have been an educator, or observed enough school districts, schools, classrooms or students it is unlikely that you believe that there is some magic bullet that will turn around underperforming schools.

You need only see the differences between children in the same family to know that getting to the best solution for millions of very different children from very different backgrounds will require tailored approaches and the best ideas from everyone.

Dinners like the one at the Old State House open our minds to new and varied ideas and to an appreciation for the people behind them. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also a lot of fun.

A Publication of the
Frontline Research & Learning Institute

On Common Ground

The Line is a new publication for education leaders from education leaders, dedicated to encouraging civil discourse and action around the most challenging issues facing our nation’s schools.


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