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Why Education Reformers Need Empathy

Imagine that I came to your office because I had heard that your organization is struggling to produce results (a diagnosis you agree with), and that I’m here to provide solutions. My team is highly qualified and has expertise in organization management, quantitative analysis, and a bunch of other things that sound impressive. I’ve come up with some great ideas that have passed theoretical muster, and I’d like to share them with you. I’m here to help. I’m here to reform. Wouldn’t you accept the offer?

Now, what if I told you that I’ve never actually worked in an office like yours? What if I said my top-notch team has analyzed the data from our own offices, but hasn’t actually walked the halls of your office? What if the lexicon I use is different than the one that you’re used to? Would you be a little suspicious of my solution?

To many teachers and school administrators, this is how education reformers can be perceived. Reformers, however qualified and well-meaning, are often relative outsiders to education (for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to equate “reformers” with “outsiders,” even though the reality is that insiders can obviously be reformers as well). Education reformers haven’t been in the trenches fighting through the pet projects of school board members, managing parents who are either disengaged or overly demanding, and being the recipients (victims?) of change initiatives that come and go on a seemingly daily basis.

In many instances, simply being an outsider is a good thing: outsiders bring best practices from other fields, can speak boldly because of their independence, and can even ignite insiders who were waiting for a new voice. In short, outsiders can shake things up. And public education in the United States certainly needs shaking.

However, outsiders face two massive pitfalls that can scuttle good intentions. First, outsiders risk misunderstanding the complexities of the education system and thus can create unintended consequences through their solutions. Second, even if the solutions proposed are good ones, outsiders may not get buy-in due to lack of insider trust.

The Role that Education Outsiders Play
Outsiders matter because they play a significant role in today’s education reform movement: politicians, entrepreneurs, Teach for America alumni (who are making moves into education leadership positions), and even MBAs (through programs like Education Pioneers and the Broad Residency). We should welcome all of these new perspectives; this is how innovation happens.

However, education reformers must also be wary of not having empathy for the conditions that teachers and school administrators face. Highlighting a potential lack of empathy, Roxanna Elden, a teacher and author, has been posting on Rick Hess’ blog about how mere differences in language can cause education insiders to distrust, or at least be suspicious of outside ideas (see here and here for posts on her perspective on education reformers).

Why Empathy Matters for Education Reformers

Before we continue, the definition of empathy is essentially the act or ability to understand what another person experiences, but not actually experience it first-hand. In the context of education, degrees of empathy could be reading a book on how a school district works (low empathy), talking to a teacher (more empathy), sitting in on a classroom (higher empathy), teaching the classroom (this is actually called "sympathy," where one actually experiences the issue at hand).

Empathy in education is critically important for two reasons. First, empathy leads to better solutions. Tim Brown, founder of the design firm IDEO, describes in a recent article about design thinking in the social sector that “in-the-field research that builds empathy for people” helps “avoid the common problem of enthusiastic ‘outsiders’ promoting inappropriate solutions and ensures that solutions are rooted in the needs and desires of the community.”

Second, empathy leads to trust. Trust is a critical prerequisite to constructive problem solving, and the lack of trust causes otherwise reasonable adults to yell at each other [insert example of a recent debate at your local school board meeting, education blog, or political roundtable]. Without trust between education insiders and outsiders, we will continue to burden ourselves by lobbing unproductive sound bites instead of getting to work on a common agenda.

How Can Reformers Develop Requisite Empathy?
What do you think? Is empathy important, and if so, how do reformers cross the empathy divide? More profoundly, how can education reformers still play their role of being an effective devil’s advocate, promoter of innovation, and system disrupter while listening to those on the inside?

I’d love to hear thoughts and stories (big and small) from you in the comments section below. To prompt discussion, here are a few seed questions:

  • Insiders: How can reformers walk in your shoes to understand your work and be more productive? What can reformers never truly understand?

  • Outsiders: What have you done to increase your empathy for insiders? Has it worked?

  • Everyone: As David Brooks recently noted in an excellent article in the NY Times, what are the limits of empathy? How important is empathy? How much empathy is needed for reformers to be effective?

I look forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts.

Full disclosure: I am a relative outsider myself. Although I have taught adult ESL as a volunteer and have had other experiences with youth and education, I have never worked full-time in a school or district. While completing my MBA at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, I worked as an Education Pioneers Fellow at the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). My experience at SFUSD convinced me that outsiders have a critical role to play in education, and I believe strongly in the mission of Education Pioneers, the Broad Residency, and other organizations that bring outside talent into the education system.

David Phillips

Former Associate Director, FSG