Paradoxes of Our Work

The ability to hold two conflicting truths simultaneously isn’t easy.  And that’s exactly what our work in education calls us to do at this moment.

We are at a moment of crisis in public education.  Only a few pieces of evidence: the outpouring of objection and outcry at the recent SOS March, Arne Duncan’s decision this week to cut personal deals with states failing to make AYP because NCLB policy is a “slow motion train wreck,” a decade into one of the most draconian federal education policies around school accountability our country has ever witnessed, new data shows widespread, and nearly universal,crumbing confidence in local public schools, and a resounding failure to achieve any real gains in equity or performance for students, across a battery of measures.

Disappointment with schools are only a symptom. We are in a crisis of confidence around institutions of government in our country generally, and lack the stories we require to understand our fear and suffering, as described in a wonderful piece on the narrative failures of the Obama’s presidency.  As activists in education, holding on to both the hope and promise of our work, and ferocious and well-informed critique, requires a deep seated understanding of, and tolerance for, paradox–the capacity to hold two complex–and conflicting–truths simultaneously.

Here are some of the complex, conflicting truths I hold simultaneously in my work:


The system of education we have now–an outmoded industrial model based on extremely limited views of human learning and what is valuable to learn–requires radical, sweeping transformation.  The hidden curriculum of schooling instructs in racist, classist, and competitive values, and then naturalizes and normalizes this as our self-willed state.  Transformation, rethinking, wholesale change–school riots— are required.  Language matters, and even talking about “systemic” change, implying that the structures that we have now will be replaced by another system, is inadequate and limiting.

At the same time, in day-to-day practice for teachers working with kids, for principals interacting with staff members, for superintendents reconfiguring accountability systems within their district, for parents homeschooling their own children, small changes make big differences.  Ultimately, human transformation occurs in very slight, nearly imperceptible and somewhat magical shifts between two people trying to understand each other better, to heal each other, and get out of each other’s way.  When a teacher allows a student a bit more choice, when an adult recognizes the innate competence of a child, when a supervisor takes responsibility for his or her own mistakes, transformation happens.  Small changes are at the root of everything.


The institution of school is broken, corrupt, and designed  primarily to serve the interests of adults, not kids.  The greatest barrier to large-scale transformation, in my view, is adult self-interest, not a lack of skills and knowledge about how to educate better.  The system we have now serves adults, provides employment, professional identity and relative security to 2.5 million adults; it offers inadequate and in some cases toxic “service” to children, who have no political voice.  Yet as a whole, the education sector is woefully sloppy and deeply loath to acknowledge the self-interest that is at the heart of many of its activities and structures.

At the same time, our system of schooling is the only remaining democratic institution in our country that most of our children, nearly 45 million, still participate in.  There is profound value in this.  It is an agenda item of the far right to dismantle the public education system, and most of the public sector beyond it, and the people and kids who will be most harmed by this dismantlement, in terms of schools, are those with the least choice, connections and social capital.  In the words of Yvette Jackson,  Chief Executive of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, kids who are “school dependent” require schools that focus on their strengths, and full and free access to them. The current alternatives to public education, for nearly all children, are inadequate, and accessible only to those with means, choice, or luck.  Maybe all three.


Within IDEA, a just-hatching educational transformation group of which I am a part, we believe insupporting the institution of public schooling.  We are engaged in many projects, in Vermont and Mississippi and Portland, that directly engage and showcase public schools that are committed to becoming more responsive to their communities, serving children better, and creating equity within the system.

At the same time, we heartily and vigorously support all viable alternative school models, and see much of the real action of transformation and greater justice happening in places that define themselves as “outside” the public school system.   For example, see Nuestra Escuela, a highly successful “alternative” school model founded on an ethic of human caring, love and respect.  Strategically, we have a BOTH/AND strategy for supporting innovation and change, because we think mainstream public school and alternative models, including charter schools, have much to gain from collaborating and learning from each other.

Around the country, as a movement, we need teams of teachers and activists and parents and bloggers and policy thinkers who are strong enough, and big enough, and bold enough to hold all these paradoxes as they do their work in schools everyday, and with their kids.

We need individuals who are wise warriors, well-informed, cosmopolitan about the sector, who know where their work is coming from, and why–and are able to talk about the contradictions of their work without being apologetic.  Through embracing the complexities of our work, and its many shadows, we will be stronger and better and more fleet and powerful in responding to those who critique us, or who want to shut us down.

One of my mentors, Parker Palmer, of the Center for Courage and Renewal, writes knowingly of paradox, and the way in which tension between opposites can feel intolerable, tugging us one way and then the other, making us feel that our actions, beliefs and intentions are indefensible, and cancel each other out.  Yet through his long life of publically wrestling with the paradoxes of his own soul and vocation, Palmer observes, “‘truth is found not by splitting the world into either-ors but by embracing it as both-and.” Developing the capacity to sit in this tension between opposites–and I would add–to become productive in it, will be the mark of our maturing movement.

Becoming an educational activist requires that we develop the capacity to tolerate paradox–the capacity to hold two seemingly conflicting truths simultaneously in mind and heart at the same time.  At this moment in our culture we seem especially intolerant of paradox:  some critics insist that teachers are victims, while others suggest that teacher inadequacy is at the heart of our sector’s dysfunction.  Could both be true?  And if so, how would it empower us to hold both these truths, and to delve into the complexities of both? How might this make us stronger?

While the federal department of education and major education funders continue to insist that their limited agendas for “improvement” and “reform” are the one one and only way, and founded on “real” science and “real” evidence, we must take strong positions against such hostage-taking and agenda setting, while at the same time holding on the very real and human contradictions that lie at the heart of our work.  As leaders–and I’m seeing everyone who is concerned about the state of education in this country as leaders and activists–every single one of us–the stories we tell about our work must be both simple and complex. This requires a tolerance for paradox, and an understanding of the complexities of our work in education. This complexity is something we are only starting to build at IDEA, perhaps among our corps of folks here at the Coop, in myself.
Are we as activists strong enough to embrace the both-ands of our work?

Are you?

“Contradiction, paradox, the tension of opposites: These have always been at the heart of my experience, and I think I am not alone. I am tugged one way and then the other. My beliefs and my actions often seem at odds. My strengths are sometimes cancelled by my weaknesses. My self, and the world around me, seems more a study in dissonance than a harmony of the integrated whole.” -Parker Palmer, 1979


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