Keeping an Open Mind about the Education Reform Debate

Written by: Janay Richmond

Date: September 23, 2015

My colleagues have been working hard to put together NCRP’s very first Philamplify debate, Reform Strategies for Education, inspired by our recent assessment of the Walton Family Foundation. As someone who’s worked with youth in the past, I couldn’t be more excited for this event, to be held on September 29 from 3-4:30pm ET at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C. I’m hoping it will bring forth an honest conversation about education in America that will help forge a new path towards equity for our students. While my hopes may be a bit ambitious for an hour and a half-long discussion, I’d like to maintain that real change can happen if all participants, including the live and streaming audiences, approach it with an open mind.

I can’t help but think about the work of Leon Festinger on cognitive dissonance and psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionist Frantz Fanon’s famous statement referencing this theory:

“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with information that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that does not fit in with the core belief.”

We may not go about our daily lives thinking of the term “cognitive dissonance,” but we’ve all seen this theory materialized. We’ve seen presidential poll numbers that don’t change regardless of the policies some candidates bring forth. We’ve seen studies in newspapers or sometimes comical takes of the data on television proving that people will agree or disagree with the same policy based merely upon whose idea they believe it is. We can probably also think of instances of it in our own communities and within the work we do. For example, one of our nonprofit members recently talked to me about this theory and how cognitive dissonance is a major obstacle in their work for economic equity.

Any lawyer will tell you that it’s possible to argue any point, and as my colleague mentioned in his post earlier this week, there are clear arguments for each side of the education debate. But what we often fail to do is take a look at the facts and respect the evidence that they present. We’ve spent three-and-a-half decades since the first charter school law was written tied to our respective viewpoints, bringing forth arguments that ignore or deny the very real facts and subsequently the very real lives that hang in the balance because of it. This is what cognitive dissonance has looked like in education.

While there have been more studies on the theory itself and less about what to do to combat these instances of cognitive dissonance, Dr. John M. Grohol offered some pretty simple advice he borrowed from Socrates: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” We have become so set on being “right” and “winning” that we’ve left little room for folks to allow new evidence to bring about a refreshed and refined perspective. This is unwise.

On Tuesday September 29th, our instincts to protect our ideology at all costs must come second to our shared concern for the well-being of America’s children. I look forward to this month’s debate, and I hope all participants will join in with their hearts set on finding a solution for equitable education for all children in our country, even if that means dealing with our own internal conflict to bring about a worthy resolution.

If you haven’t already, register now to attend this FREE event! You can tune in on the live webcast or attend in person.

Janay Richmond is a field associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP and @JanayRichmond1 on Twitter and join the #PhilamplifyDebate conversation!