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The Art & Importance Of Compromise

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My wife and I watched the movie Extraordinary Measures last night. Starring Harrison Ford, it’s based on a true story of the fight by a family and a scientist to create medicine that would allow children to survive a terrible illness. During that long struggle, they had to make many difficult compromises, but they did so while “keeping their eyes on the prize” — making the medicine and getting it out to children.

During my community organizing career, the goal of our work was to get to the negotiating table and to compromise. The key, however, was to ensure that we got half a loaf, not half a baby. We always kept in mind our end goals and the concept behind “The importance of being unprincipled.”

In the midst of being relentlessly attacked (as many teachers rightfully feel is happening to us now), however, it’s easy to lose sight of that idea, especially if many of your attackers operate like they are self-righteous ideologues with a monopoly on the truth. A member of the Los Angeles School Board recently offered one reason why Los Angeles teachers might be reacting so negatively to efforts by the group Parent Revolution and their allies: “When you declare war on people, you have to expect them to act like combatants.” And, unfortunately, these attacks are likely to continue.

In the midst of this poisoned atmosphere, I hope we teachers (including me) can keep our eyes on the prize — helping our students become life-long learners, working with their families to enhance lives and communities, and maintaining and sustaining our professional dignity. This politics involved in this process will need to include conflict and, at times, rancor, though it’s important to not burn bridges. It will also need to include following Saul Alinsky’s axiom that “the price of criticism is a constructive alternative,” which includes proposals like “Transforming School Conditions: Building Bridges to the Education System That Students And Teachers Deserve” and the upcoming book, Teaching 2030.

And it will include compromise — of the half a loaf, and not half a baby variety. Though I don’t know all the ins-and-outs of it, I’d be inclined to put the recent Massachusetts Teachers Association proposal on teacher evaluation in that category, and there are others.  I’d be interested in hearing from readers about other examples that you believe have been good compromises out there, and what have been the key elements in getting there.

I didn’t include this in my Education Predictions for 2011 because it may fall more into the “wishful thinking” category, but I do hope that in 2011 all of us in the education world can keep in mind the word roots of “compromising.”

In 1600, it meant “showing signs of future excellence.”

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this great post!

  2. Hi Larry,
    As always, a great post.

    First, like you, I came to teaching late from another world altogether. After ten years now, I can say that I’ve never seen a group of people–colleagues–more willing to consider new ideas on a constant basis than teachers. I checked out the link to “Transforming School Conditions…” and many of the things you write about on Strauss’ blog as included in this proposal are ideas that have been swirling out there since I started (probably long before) and which I and many of the folks I work with have tried to embrace (or would like to be allowed the opportunity to) whether we’re supported by admin at the school site/district level or not. I’m sure constructive ideas abound at every school, in every district and even I would suggest in every union local (on this last note, as our electeds have slashed some $19 billion from ed funding over the past few years some of the best work in terms of new broad-based student-centered policy prescriptions and initiatives has emanated from the California Teachers Association and its locals, a story that the union simply must get better about touting far and wide).

    That said, my past experience in the political realm (I worked in energy as the electricity sector in CA was being deregulated) –not so much community organizing, but did a bit of that too–leads me to believe that the “ed reform”crowd has no intention in compromising even half a loaf.

    I haven’t seen “Extraordinary Measures,” but the story of making a medicine and getting it to sick kids is probably not very analogous to what’s going on here.

    The billionaire reform club (as it’s been called) and those who march to its tune, are utterly convinced that the same neo-liberal economic principles that have held sway over much of our political economy over the last couple of decades need to be applied to public education–perhaps the last bastion of the public sector, other than police and fire protection, that hasn’t been destroyed.

    When I talk about “neoliberal principles,” I mean free market rule, strangling public expenditures, replacing the notion of “public good” with “individual responsibility,” low taxes and fiscal austerity, and other policies that benefit the financiers now center of our economic system: deregulation, privitization, decimation of unions etc.

    No better place to see these principles in action than the recent last minute rider attached to Congress’ Continuing (budget) Resolution allowing non-certified, teachers in training to be designated “highly qualified,” a special gift most observers believe to the well-connected, billionaire funded Teach for America program. In practice, this could very well incentive cash-strapped school districts to lay-off seasoned professional teachers only to replace them with much lower paid, two-years-and-out novices. Wall Street would approve I’m sure.

    This is not so much about putting forward a single constructive alternative in the face of criticism in order to get to the table where we can then compromise into somehow sharing a loaf. We can and should continue to put forward great programs to revamp teacher evaluations, for example, but when Congress at the behest of deep-pocket supporters sneaks in an amendment that aims to de-professionalize our ranks, we need to be clear-eyed about what’s going on. We’re in a fight in defense of, dare I say it, the principle of public education as a public trust…a true public good.

    All indications are that the public—when they are really allowed to weigh in–are still with us. We saw this in the DC mayoral race, state Senate races in NYC, and even the CA Governor’s race, where Jerry Brown was the candidate who talked about protecting public education.

    I suspect Michelle Rhee and her supporters get this, which is why she decided to form her “grassroots” money laundering operation to sway local, state and national elections with millions or maybe even “billions!” Groups like “Parent Revolution” are not parent revolutions at all, but astro-turf operations wholly owned and operated by big-time charter supporters…and this is why things are not going so smoothly for them when real parents begin to learn who and what’s behind the petitions they’re being asked to sign.

    So rather than talk about the importance of compromise I would suggest that we operate exactly as you advocate here as dignified and competent professionals charged with shepherding our students into becoming “life-long learners.” Part of that role is that we continue to constantly work on improving and enhancing our profession for the betterment of all. But at the same time we need to move closer to our families and local communities in the development of strong, “forces to be reckoned with’ political alliances fundamentally committed to preserving and strengthening the institution and principle of public education.

    Thanks for the soapbox and Happy New Year!

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