Looking to Bring ‘Civil Discourse’ to Education Debates, Ex...

EdSurge Podcast

Looking to Bring ‘Civil Discourse’ to Education Debates, Ex Superintendent Turns Editor-and-Chief

By Jenny Abamu     Nov 7, 2017

Looking to Bring ‘Civil Discourse’ to Education Debates, Ex Superintendent Turns Editor-and-Chief
John Deasy, Photo Credit: The Line

By the time John Deasy resigned his post as superintendent of the L.A. school district, he had become a polarizing figure.

In an article in The New York Times covering his resignation, Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot charter schools, put it this way: "The bitterness that had developed between Mr. Deasy and his critics impeded healthy discussion." Barr went on to ask “can we actually move forward without the extremes dominating the debate?”

This year Mr. Deasy is moving forward. And he’s trying to help lead a less bitter debate about education reform, as editor-in-chief of the new publication, The Line. It’s funded by Frontline, a software company for K-12 schools.

The second Issue of The Line, released earlier this month, features some of education’s heavy-hitters: Including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, National Education Association president Lilly Garcia, and conservative think-tank writer, Rich Hess debating the polarizing topic of school choice. It has brought both John Deasy, along with and Frontline Research and Learning Institute C.E.O. Tim Clifford, to talk about the goals of the new publication, and polarizing edtech topics.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Listen to a complete version of the interview below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

Jenny Abamu: Tell us a little bit about The Line. How did it come about?

Tim Clifford: At Frontline Education, we view our mission as being a partner to the education community. We bring both technology— and, more importantly, insights—to educators and administrators across the country. We formed the Front Line Research and Learning Institute about a year and a half ago, to really mine the data that comes across our servers every day and give the insights back to the education community.

In the very early days of forming the Research and Learning Institute, we said that we needed to find some seriously dedicated educators that could help us try to understand the data, but also to move beyond just the data and try to find a way to help spark the conversation in the community.

I met John Deasy through an introduction by a friend, and John and I sat down, and I would say in the first meeting that we had, it was pretty electric in terms of a common bond and a commitment to education and trying to improve education.

John Deasy: I had grown really worrisome about the tone of dialogue in the sector of education and social justice—not just from my own experience, but from watching colleagues’ seeming inability to actually engage in productive civil discourse. And so I talked about what's actually being lost in the ability to move forward on the agenda of supporting millions of young people in this country when we can't seem to wrestle even with facts in a civil way.

Out of that conversation, we were committed to try and create a venue in a very different form of publication that's really dedicated to the proposition that really great ideas and good learning withers without civil discourse.

Why another online publication? Did your investors not protest investing in this? I mean, civil discourse is not exactly the thing that gets you the highest ratings these days.

Clifford: When we first started having this conversation I think there was a bunch of people around the table who said, ‘Hey, we're a software company, we don't improve outcomes for kids.’ So then we started to kind peel that onion back a little bit and say, well, wait a minute, we put 300,000 substitutes into classrooms every day. We support professional-development programs for teachers. We have to recruit platforms to help districts identify the best talent and then recruit the best talent into their districts. So we do make a difference.

And as we began that discussion, it pretty much snowballed. Our investors have been behind that fully, and The Line is not an insignificant effort for us, but it's one that does make an impact on the community.

And what’s the most polarizing issue you've tackled so far?

Deasy: We had a whole issue just recently dedicated to the question, Can you have great public schools and school choice? One doesn't need to do much of a media scan to realize that that's a very heated dialogue across this country and has been for a long time. So we really tried to dig into that.

Another hallmark of the publication is that we want to learn from those that are actually leading in these very difficult situations. And then be informed by policymakers and be informed by researchers.

What is your take on the state of education technology in schools? Personalized learning has become a buzzword, but also has plenty of critics. Why do you think that technology has become a pretty polarizing issue?

Deasy: Anything that could possibly enter as a disruptor to the sector's way of doing business is always seen with skepticism and concern, and healthy skepticism is very important.

There might be at least two to three things on the edtech side that rise to the top of concerns. One is the issue that the very act of teaching as we know it with human teachers and student together is being adjusted and possibly replaced. That is a difficult conversation to thread around. There's a real worry about the isolating effect of personalized learning. So students can actually make more progress, but are they making that progress alone? And thirdly, is that whole districts are entering into really strong and thoughtful educational-technology plans. The very material itself has such a relatively short lifespan as the result of new versions and new pieces of both hardware and software come out so frequently.

It's not been like anything else we've seen. Traditionally textbooks lasted a while. The materials in the classroom lasted a while. This notion of very rapid obsolescence is a huge fiscal issue as we think about it in districts.

Do you think that's why you got a lot of pushback from the iPad situation? Because of the hardware costs? And also the short term lifespan of hardware?

Deasy: The pushback was in a couple of areas. I think the cost left as opposed to when you have a fixed budget, could you do something else with that money rather than lift all students out of poverty by giving them the same technology that adults have. And so there's a lot of stress over, ‘Hey, this money could've been used for raises,’ or ‘This money could've been used for other issues.’ It's all true, and I think that it goes back to the phrase I used in the beginning, that is students should have what the very wealthiest have. I find that very important to live by.

What can we look forward to in your work on The Line?

Clifford: We're having civil-discourse dinners across the country. We just started these, and our vision is that we can help bring people together.

You know the state of affairs in our country—it's just so divided, and we don't think it's fair to fight with each other when kids’ lives are literally at stake in front of us. And so if we can make an impact to bring people together to solve problems, that's what we hope to accomplish.

Deasy: I think a lot about future issues in dealing with power and potential conflict around the kind of forces of identity. Whether those be race, religion, gender, or ethnicity, always intersecting in and around our public schools. They're very important and usually thorny issues for a reader to manage through. Those are issues that The Line is going to absolutely wrestle with.

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