Thursday, February 28, 2013

What is the point of arguing with government officials?

What is the point of arguing with someone whose job requires him to defend certain practices? My recent Twitter exchanges with the director of our state’s Department of Education, like my Q&A with our local school superintendent last year, tended to go in circles while probably aggravating everyone involved. Why bother?

Two reasons, I guess. First, though I may not persuade these officials, I might succeed in shedding light on their positions, and possibly in revealing flaws in their reasoning. The questions that don’t get answered can shed as much light as the ones that do. I’d like to know whether Jason Glass is making any effort to measure what is being sacrificed to increase reading and math test scores, and how he weighs the benefits of test score gains against those sacrifices. He either has to give an answer that I can hold up to public scrutiny, or remain silent and allow us to assume the worst.

The second reason is that it’s important for government officials to hear what people are concerned—and angry—about. Thanks to the internet and social media, many government officials can now be publicly confronted about their policies and practices in a way that wasn’t possible before. What Glenn Greenwald says about journalists here is also true of government officials:
One of the good things about the change the media has undergone is that it has amplified voices. So if you criticize a member of the journalist class, 15, 20 years ago they could easily ignore you, and the only way to hear about it was basically a letter to the editor—it was purely a one-way conversation. Now, it’s a two-way conversation, so if you’re a journalist, and you write something deceitful or propagandistic or sloppy or wrong, everywhere you turn, you’re going to hear it: in your email, on Twitter, in the comment section of what you write, you’re going to be besieged with criticism, and blogs have really fueled that. Something like that influences people and affects how they work.
Or at least it can. I don’t enjoy these exchanges, but I want to do my small part to make that aspect of the internet a reality.

Credit to Glass and Murley for making themselves available in this way. They could probably still get away with an imperious silence—though not as easily as in the pre-internet age.


Karen W said...

I tend to think of speaking up at a forum or other public conversations (like your Twitter exchange) as being primarily about the audience in the sense that 1) it is important that we live in a country where we are free to question and criticize government officials and, while it isn't necessarily easy or pleasant (public speaking! conflict!), it shouldn't be an unusual occurrence; and 2) even if you can't persuade the government official at that moment in time, you might either get other people to start thinking about your questions too or to realize that they aren't alone in thinking what you've expressed publicly (and maybe they'll start speaking up too).

Of course, I think I always hope I'll be able to persuade the government official too--but I don't really expect to be able to do it with any one particular conversation.

Doris said...

This is slightly off the main topic of your post here but relevant to the debate you were having w/ Glass. Each week or two, my family has been reading through a chapter from a Holt World History book. It looks to be about a 6-8th grade level. I won't go into the reasons here, other than to mention that my kids mostly enjoy the experience--they enjoy seeing how the representations mesh with what they have learned in school and they frequently want to pursue topics further by looking them up on the internet. In the interests of full disclosure, I'll also acknowledge that my youngest looks forward to the "standardized test practice" section.

Right now we are in the midst of reading about ancient Greece, the birth of democracy, and so on. I was flipping ahead to preview the material and ran across a "Social Studies Skills" page focusing on "Economics." And what do you think the specific topic is? "Analyzing Costs and Benefits." So perhaps next time you engage in a Twitter battle w/ Glass, you could recommend this book to him. The section on Analyzing Costs and Benefits has a very lucid subsection called "Learn the Skill." The authors suggest that students make a visual chart--with benefits in one column and costs in the other.

Karen W said...

Here's a comment in a similar theme from Catherine Johnson at KTM: "I've been talking back for 7 years . . . The result: . . . people now generally accept that it is legal to criticize the school"

"Before I began the Parents Forum, speaking 'ill' of the school was like speaking ill of God, or America. It was blasphemous **and** unpatriotic."

David said...

What about "arguing" with your feet? By that I mean boycotting standardized tests, and actively encouraging others to do the same. I think that would get the attention of educational officials quickly, and it would really put you and others who feel as you do in a position of power.