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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

Why Education Policy’s Big Listening Moment Doesn’t Involve Much Listening

By Rick Hess — December 17, 2018 3 min read
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The education space has been gripped by a newfound love of listening. The same advocates and funders who, a few years back, were exhorting us to embrace a pretty specific slate of Big “R” Reforms (like test-heavy teacher evaluation and the Common Core) are now eager to listen and are busy exhorting others to join them. Meanwhile, those who felt ignored, slighted, and locked-out when Big “R” Reform was flying high are snidely pooh-poohing all this ostentatious listening as a dollar short and a day late.

I find this “we’re ready to listen” meme a decidedly mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s healthy. I mean, over the past decade or more, education policy did become increasingly disconnected from—or even hostile to—the concerns of many families and educators. And far too many advocates, funders, and policymakers have seemed deaf to the resulting complaints.

On the other hand, this enthusiasm is more than a little discomfiting. After all, many who insist that they’re eager to listen have proffered little evidence that they’re actually listening. Indeed, having already moved on from yesterday’s agenda (and pivoted to personalization, social and emotional learning, career and technical education, research-practice partnerships, early education, et al.), the complaints they’re hearing feel like old news. More tellingly, when it comes to critical feedback on today’s agenda, the listening—especially to criticism—is markedly less receptive.

In fact, because much of the listening seems detached from an effort to learn much that’s relevant to what comes next, the whole thing feels a lot like performance art. For convenience, here’s a quick primer on the most common kinds of performative listening:

There’s “Listening as a Toll.” You can tell when someone is in this mode, because you see them silently thinking, “How long do I have to listen before I can explain what we need to do?” This is especially evident among policy wonks who concede that this or that effort stumbled, but that they now know the best practices and design strategies that’ll solve the problem. They’ve already intuited all the concerns the audience may raise, so they’re eager to share the new “new thing” and get on with making it happen.

There’s “Listening to Show I’m New Here.” This is most evident when talking to officials at a foundation or advocacy group who have tiptoed away from yesterday’s agenda. In the face of bitterness about yesterday’s agenda, the new officials are discreetly distancing themselves from their predecessors. This is mostly about doing penance and cleaning the slate by throwing gentle shade at the prior leadership. Since the new agenda is baked, there’s not much need for input; rather, the ritual of listening is mostly about cultivating support for the new agenda.

There’s “Listening as a Substitute for Reflection.” It turns out that sitting down, taking notes, rubbing one’s chin, and nodding attentively is a powerful way of showing respect for an audience, without actually having to weigh their arguments or recalibrate one’s assumptions. Listening ostentatiously to complaints about test-based accountability or elaborate teacher evaluation systems, even while secretly knowing that the complainants “just don’t get it,” for instance, is a lot easier than having to square one’s convictions with the frustrating realities that have marked these efforts.

The interesting question is why so much of the listening seems performative rather than genuine. The simple answer is that, for those invested in the sureties of Big “R” Reform, listening is mostly a stratagem. In any era, Big “R” Reform exists as a self-reinforcing, insular dogma—leaving little room for meaningful listening. If one is emotionally invested in a bold, sweeping agenda to “fix” American education, it’s tough to regard disagreement, dissent, or skepticism as anything other than a moral failure.

And that’s a big problem. At any given moment, the most timely and useful feedback is also the most likely to be tuned out. After all, what counts as “constructive” or “serious” criticism depends on the passions and sureties of the moment. Indeed, right now, many avid listeners who’ve decided it’s important to hear critiques of teacher evaluation are nonetheless quick to dismiss the concerns that get voiced when it comes to restorative justice, state “equity” plans, SEL, or early childhood programs.

Listening is only meaningful when listeners are hoping to learn something. It’s only when someone can concede they’re uncertain about school improvement that listening is valuable for more than PR purposes. This requires curiosity, openness, and reflection, posing quite a challenge when the mantra is “go big, be bold, and be impatient.

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.

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