The three-sector approach and decision-defending

Back in college, one of my political science professors wanted to make a point to a lecture hall full of know-it-all freshman.

He asked all of us to think back to when we were first getting interested in politics and developing positions on major issues. For most of us at this inside-the-beltway university, that was early.

He asked us to write down what our positions were back then on a list of three hot-button issues he provided. We did so eagerly.

He then said to the 400 of us, “Now, consider your current positions on these issues. Please raise your hand if your opinion on issue one has changed.”

Not a single hand went up.

“Please raise your hand if your opinion on issue two has changed.”

Two hands went up.

“Please raise your hand if your opinion on issue three has changed.”

Not a single hand went up.

He had us. “I’m sure you all realize how young and uninformed your previous selves were. You probably also know how much new information has come out over the last decade and how these debates have evolved. And yet, of 1,200 possible switches, we only have two.”

Then the coup-de-grâce.

“Is it that you were unfailingly brilliant at 12 years old, or are you allowing that 12-year-old to continue dictating your political views?”

He then introduced us to the academic research. One body of literature showed that once an individual made a decision (this is particularly true in the case of juries), when new information is presented, he is far likelier to defend his stance than reconsider it. Another body of research showed that when two groups of people, each group with a different position on an issue, were asked to read the same article on the subject, members of each group later only remembered the parts of the article that aligned with their incoming views.

His point was powerful and humbling: once we make a decision, our minds are far less curious, our postures far less open, and our views far less supple than we’d like to believe.

Ever since, I’ve taken a philosophical approach to the heated, scream-past-one-another debates at Thanksgiving tables, in legislative chambers, on cable news programs, and on blogs. People are just doing what comes naturally—forcefully standing by their long-held views, each certain they are correct.

All of this was at the front of my mind as a group of us worked to gather signatures for a new public statement of principles called “America’s Disadvantaged Children and the Three-Sector Approach.” It argues that while members of the reform community continue to advance district and charter efforts, they should also support initiatives that make high-quality private schools accessible to low-income families.

By the mid-1990s, the debate over vouchers had become sufficiently prominent that just about every soul working in education had a position staked out. Unfortunately, it had mostly broken down along party lines. Most on the Right were in favor, and most on the Left were opposed.

My hope was that so much had changed during the intervening 20 years that a portion of once-opposed progressives might be willing to reconsider. The statement includes a list of these developments: the US Supreme Court ruled scholarships constitutional; numerous studies showed these programs benefit needy kids; families empowered with this choice express great satisfaction; urban districts continue to struggle despite great effort; chartering hasn’t created enough high-quality seats; and smart accountability systems can ensure only high-quality private schools participate in these programs.

But these factors and others ultimately made little or no difference. Those opposed to such programs mostly remain opposed. You’ll see that in the signatories list on the right, there’s a paucity of prominent progressive K–12 leaders.

I found this especially discouraging because the principles statement broke with choice tradition by explicitly embracing greater accountability for participating private schools. It advocates for policies that allow only high-performing schools and nix participating schools that don’t measure up.

In the end, though, this wasn’t enough to convince many of our friends on the Left to sign on. In fact, even more discouragingly, this caused many of our friends of the Right to not sign, either. Many conservatives were concerned that such accountability systems would stymie innovation, burden schools, and limit parental choice.

I was hopeful that this statement would carve out space between the two sides, offering a compromise position reflecting the principles of both and opening a path for more disadvantaged students to access great schools. But, instead, the same fault line emerged; many of those in this debate for years returned to their camps.

But I remain of a mind that the glass is half full. The academic literature on decision-making suggests that a strategy for avoiding the downsides of the defend-my-position default is to reach people with information before they begin formulating a decision.

So if you’re still relatively new to education reform, don’t be surprised if I soon darken your doorstep with a three-sector principles statement in my hand. I’m recruiting. We need not just signatories for our document but also the next generation of leaders for this important cause.

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