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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Less Sympathy, More Empathy

By Rick Hess — March 19, 2012 5 min read
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Educators and “reformers” have a knack for sympathy. They feel for the kids, decry achievement gaps, and remind us that we need to do better. Champions of reform are intent on building cultures that “put kids first” and that remind everyone “it’s about the kids.” As one impassioned twenty-something district official told me, “We’re doing the right thing and we’re doing it for the right reasons--so what the hell is the hold-up?”

Another kind of sympathy, one that would-be reformers often radiate, is: “I know those poor teachers are scared of change, but X is the right thing to do.” This crocodile-tear sympathy does nothing to clarify whether the concerns of “those” teachers are legitimate or addressable. It presumes they lack the reformer’s virtue and that any doubts represent the triumph of their petty fears over their concern for kids. This stance may feel great, but it makes it hard to win converts or to identify and address problems with the proposals in question.

The problem is that by approaching this as a question of sympathy it’s all about how the speaker thinks the world should work, and the speaker’s frustration that the world’s not working that way. The emotion is understandable, but something vital is missing.

What’s missing is any appreciation for the world around you. It’s fine to say that everyone should do “the right thing for the kids.” The thing is, people can honestly disagree about what that thing is--or whether your actions are helping. In fact, sympathy, and the righteous anger that ensues, often undercuts the ability to understand how or why the world is working as it is (because the sympathizer already knows how and why--it’s because their opponents don’t care enough about doing the right thing).

Consider the reformer crusading to do away with step-and-lane compensation or seniority-based school assignment. (For the record, I agree with the reformer on both points.) As one state chief said to me, “We know the unions will fight to the death on this, but what I don’t get is why the members let them. This stuff makes it harder for teachers to avoid colleagues who aren’t doing the job and chews up dollars we could use to pay new or high-needs teachers.” The problem is that he skipped over the fact that veteran teachers (e.g. typically those most engaged in the union) entered schooling ten or twenty years ago under an implicit bargain, played by those rules (waiting their turn and earning their masters), and feel like the “reformers” are now trying to renege on their end of the deal.

Right or wrong, the teachers who adopt that stance are hardly being unreasonable. It’s not clear why impassioned slogans or speeches will change their minds. In fact, it’s natural for those teachers to argue (and believe) that these “problematic” norms are the backbone of a professional culture which is good for kids. While it may seem nonsensical to would-be reformers, many veteran teachers honestly believe that abolishing these rhythms will undermine the profession, hurting their students. Cage-busting leaders need to start not by focusing on what they think these teachers should want, but by recognizing this reality, getting concrete about the problems to be solved, and focusing on solving them. If they can’t, it’s time to get into the politics of changing policy.

Say you’re in charge of your district’s virtual school. You make it possible for students to take advanced courses and specialized offerings. Yet, you find that principals aren’t as supportive as you’d expect. As one district tech coordinator told me, “For some reason our principals don’t seem to understand how good this is for the kids.” Well, let’s empathize with the principals for a moment.

In your district, online courses require students to have to have a full-time, certified teacher in the classroom. That’s an expense the principal must cover, meaning a high school with students taking online classes each period throughout the day is effectively losing one entire full-time teaching position. Unless whole classes of kids are taking online offerings together, in lieu of school offerings (e.g. 28 tenth-graders are taking world language at the same time), the school still has to offer the same complement of classes it would have. And if only a half-dozen students are taking online classes during a given period, class sizes school wide will increase. Moreover, in some states, a portion of the student funding stream flows to the online school. Whether or not it’s good for the individual kid, the principal might reasonably regard virtual course-taking as a bad deal for most of her students--it threatens to boost class size and redirect resources from the school’s brick-and-mortar classrooms.

Note, I’m not saying the veteran teachers or the recalcitrant principal are “right.” I’m saying that they’re not being unreasonable. If sympathy has you so worked up that you don’t recognize this, you risk turning every honest disagreement into a self-righteous throwdown; one where you’re rolling the boulder and the objects of your disdain are trying to push it back down the mountain. Empathy allows us to ask: Are there ways to solve this problem that also work for those who see things differently? Can we alter teacher pay and assignment so as to address legitimate concerns about how the new system will work? Can we alter rules around virtual school staffing or tweak funding models to make these things work for and not against a principal’s school-level efforts? Can we discuss reforms in ways that respect the possibility of good-faith disagreement?

Empathy helps us see the challenge from different perspectives. It lets us consider why those who oppose our noble efforts might see things differently, better understand their concerns, and perhaps identify opportunities to solve problems together. By abandoning sweeping proclamations for specific queries, it allows us to isolate opportunities for agreement and the more limited number of places where we’ll need to have the knock-down, drag-out fights. Empathy is ultimately the difference between cage-busters who implode amidst endless battles and those who, studying their Sun-Tzu, operate with determination and deliberation.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.