Originally posted on The NY Times
At face value, Becky Pringle and Gisele Huff would seem unlikely allies.
Pringle is the vice president of the National Educational Association, America’s largest teachers’ union. A former middle school science teacher, she has 31 years of classroom experience. Huff is the executive director of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation — a libertarian advocate for free-market, choice-based approaches to education reforms like charter schools and school vouchers.
Why are the two collaborating on a keynote presentation at a major education conference in Orlando, Fla., next week? And how did they come to be signatories, along with 26 other education leaders with wide-ranging political and ideological views, to a provocative vision for transforming American education?
The vision seeks to reimagine every aspect of the education system: moving from students as “passive vessels to be filled” to “co-creators of learning”; from “individual teachers expected to serve as content deliverers” to “networks of qualified adults facilitating learning and development”; from learning that is “localized in a school building” to learning that “occurs at many times, in many places, and through many formats”; from “standardized linear curricula divided into subjects” and “organized in age cohorts” to “contextualized curricula” matched to students’ distinctive needs, strengths and interests and organized in “diverse and shifting groups.”
For more than a decade, the field of education reform has been marked by mistrust and acrimony. How, then, did this agreement come about? The answer could provide clues about how we might confront today’s hyperpolarization, a problem that underpins many other problems in the nation’s politics and policy making.
Indeed, last year, the Pew Research Center found that “partisan antipathy” had grown deeper than at any point in the previous two decades and was impeding the ability of Congress to function. How can any people with divergent beliefs hope to solve problems together when they rarely talk with one another?
“When I first came to Washington in the late 1970s, you could walk into the Senate dining room and see people from both parties sitting and talking,” recalled Stuart Butler, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who spent 35 years at the Heritage Foundation. “Today people are not having the kinds of interactions that enable them to understand where the other person is coming from.”
The group that brought the education leaders together is Convergence: Center for Policy Resolution. Since its founding in 2009, it has been quietly connecting people with different priorities, beliefs and political leanings to build trust and foster relationships, so they can find pathways for cooperative action.
It takes time to do that. Convergence’s initiatives typically involve meetings every month or two over 18 months or longer, with lots of interaction among participants and its staff in between. The process requires skill to manage, but it’s not magical. Convergence has shown it can be repeated with reliable consistency.
Convergence is a young organization, but its work draws on decades of experience from many experts at mediation and consensus building. As a congressional staff member in the 1970s and ’80s, its president, Robert Fersh, worked to achieve bipartisan passage of legislation aimed at reducing hunger in the United States. Fersh later ran the American program of Search for Common Ground, an organization focused on conflict resolution.
“Over a period of years I kept meeting people of great decency who had different world views,” he said. “But there wasn’t a place where they could meet to bring out the best in each other and find answers that each hadn’t considered.”
While at Search for Common Ground, Fersh helped form a coalition to advance health coverage in the United States, recruiting leaders from 16 disparate national organizations and corporations with major influence on federal health policy. They met every two months for two years and, remarkably, issued an agreement in 2007 that was instrumental in expanding the federal State Child Health Insurance Program. Broad-based support for some reforms in the Affordable Care Act, including pooling arrangements and tax credits, have also been attributed to the coalition’s process.
Now, through Convergence, Fersh and his colleagues have been tackling other issues. For example, they brought together food manufacturers and retailers, insurance companies, public health advocates and consumer groups to look at ways to improve diet and nutrition in the United States.
“In every area of work people get labeled — and one common label is combatants,” said Aakif Ahmad, a co-founder of Convergence. “In the area of obesity and diet, there were strong divisions between public health and industry, problems with trust, how incremental steps were deemed ineffective, and a lot of demonization.”
Over time, individuals came to see one another beyond the labels that had divided them, and they developed a better understanding of one another’s goals and constraints. As a result, the group was able to identify a question everyone had an interest in answering: How can we work together to shift consumer demand to healthier consumption?
That has led to a series of initiatives to improve access to, and demand for, healthier food at the retail level. For instance, Square One Markets, a convenience store chain in Pennsylvania, is testing a healthy dinner kit, and the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University has developed a Grocer Retailer Scorecard.
When Pringle and Huff joined the Convergence process in 2013, they were, like many other participants, doubtful about what would come of it. The group seemed almost irreconcilable: charter school leaders, advocates of school choice (like Huff), union leaders (like Pringle), proponents of standardized testing alongside people who felt that over-testing was destroying the system.
Kelly Young, who directs the Education Reimagined initiative for Convergence, recalls that at the beginning, “there was a lot of skepticism about whether dialogue could lead to real action and about whether it was more productive to sit with like-minded people or with people who have diverse perspectives.”
But Huff said the progress the group made, in both their relationships and the substance of the agreement, was a “complete shock” to her. “At the end of the last meeting, Becky had to leave a little early, and she tapped me on the shoulder and asked, ‘Will you walk out with me?’ She embraced me and said, ‘You changed my life.’ And I said, ‘You changed mine.’”
Pringle felt something similar: “Gisele is a very strong and forceful person, as am I. We certainly were aggressive in sharing our viewpoints, but we both gained a level of respect for each other and explored questions together in a way that allowed us to see each other’s humanity.”
Significantly, participants all came to align behind a single vision statement — and now they are actively communicating and advancing that vision nationwide through their organizations and networks. They host meetings with educational networks, superintendents, principals, teachers and philanthropists, reach out to libraries, museums and after-school programs, and identify and connect pioneers in learner-centered education.
“It means something,” said Huff, “when two presidents of the national unions who represent three million teachers are willing to put their names to a document that doesn’t have anything to do with unionism.”
“When you’re not in a room with people, you assign an intent, and often it’s a negative intent,” added Pringle. “I hope what I learned in this setting is transferrable. I hope I will give others the benefit of the doubt, and that when I go into my world I will talk differently about people with differing opinions.”
How do you create a context that lets such trust develop among people who, at early meetings, are predictably cool or even confrontational?
Convergence staff and facilitators work to create a “safe space,” maintaining a strict neutrality and ensuring that everyone feels heard, says Fersh. It’s important that participants “feel they’re not in a place that’s already cooked or leaning toward any solutions.”
One facilitator, David Fairman of the Consensus Building Institute, said another crucial step is “to make sure that people recognize when they are articulating their own views, rather than characterizing the views or the motivation of others.” Initially, participants had to be reminded of this, but over time, they began doing it instinctively.
Convergence staff members look continually for opportunities to forge connections among participants. They begin meetings with “connecting” questions — for example: “When did you know that education was of great importance to you?” — that are designed to reveal people’s values and experiences, rather than highlight their disagreements. The objective is not to sweep differences under the rug, but to build rapport that a group needs to grapple effectively with its differences.
Another key is to identify a frame that energizes everybody, but is not so broad that it is meaningless. “For us the gold standard is that the dialogue has to lead to action,” said Fersh. To do that, he said, there are intermediate goals: “Can you get people to the table and sustain their presence? Can you find agreements that are worth fighting for? And can you keep people together to keep working over time to make sure something happens?”
In the education initiative, said Young: “We started with a lot of obvious questions. Could we have a conversation about how to attract, retain and support high quality educators? Or create collaborative working environments in schools? Or about how technology can be used productively?”
In the end, she said, people converged on the notion that they had to do far more than tinker around the edges of a broken system held over from a bygone industrial age. “There was a lot of conversation that the current system is ill designed to create 21st century outcomes for students,” said Young. “But there wasn’t alignment around what a new system could look like. People really wanted to be part of that conversation.”
To be sure, not all disagreements can produce common plans of action. Many can only be decided through hard political battles. Nevertheless, there are many potential conversations to be had in which groups of people who have historically seen one another as adversaries can discover common values and goals.
“Convergence is filling a crucial missing piece in the way problems get solved and ideas move ahead in public policy and the political field,” said Butler, who has participated in some of its initiatives. “I’ve found a yearning for this. Among the political class in Washington and state level groups, it’s really quite remarkable how eager people are to take part in these kinds of conversations.”
“Our political culture is masking a lot of common sense and mutual respect and common decency in large swaths of public life,” adds Fairman. “Our country is not floundering and going under. We have a lot of extraordinarily talented people who are willing to come together, despite strong differences, and work out good solutions to public issues. To do that, however, they do sometimes need help in structuring the conversation.”