Empathy and Education Reform


Matt Candler has a piece over at the 4.0 blog that is worth reading.

Matt’s Argument

1. New Orleans has made incredible academic gains over the past decade. It has gotten from “F” to “C” faster than perhaps any failing urban district in our country’s recent history.

2. Matt identifies the following as major drivers of the reforms: charters, human capital reforms, choice, and good government regulation and oversight.

3. However, he worries that some of the above was done in a non inclusive manner with regards to the greater New Orleans community, which has caused him to reflect on how he will work going forward.

4. Getting from “C” to “A” will require less hubris from reformers.

5. Getting from “C” to “A” will require more listening to parents and families, as well as more innovation from reformers.

The History of “C” to “A”

I think Matt largely captures how New Orleans achieved results: families were empowered through choice; educators were empowered to operate their own charter schools; and government thoughtfully regulated the system.

I also think, especially right after Katrina, reformers moved very fast to create the new system. While most people were rebuilding their lives, a new education model was also built.

That being said, it’s worth noting that, today, New Orleanians support the reforms. By a 2 to 1 margin, voters think the schools are getting better. And 82% of voters think the state should remain in control of most of the schools for at least two more years.

Getting From “C” to “A”

Matt’s strategies for  getting from “C” to “A” (listening to families and students, as well as spurring more innovation) seem like areas worthy of focus. One could imagine these strategies leading to a new set of solutions. I hope 4.0 ventures do exactly that.

I would, however, encourage all these folks to stay humble. To date, New Orleans entrepreneurs have yet to create any truly new educational models. Schools like Bricolage Academy (socio-econmocially diverse, emphasis on innovation), Arthur Ashe (blended), and Collegiate Academies (no excuses) are all iterations on schools that exist elsewhere. This is not to say that these schools aren’t doing amazing things, only to note that, to use Matt’s phrase, at their inception they were not really examples of schools “that do not exist yet.”

In short, Matt’s theory of change, while plausible, has not been proven.

Empathy and Education Reform

Another way to think about this is societal empathy vs. student empathy methods of reform. In using the word “empathy,” I’m not talking about whether one cares about kids or not, but rather whether empathy for the student’s social condition or the student’s academic experience was the driving force of the initial reform.

There’s an argument to be made that test based accountability, human capital reforms, and charter reforms have largely been social empathy modes of reforms. They have been driven by desires of social justice; by concerns over racial inequality; by frustration with large unresponsive bureaucracies. Of course, these reformers cared about the student experience in the general sense (it’s unsafe, unjust, a civil rights violation, etc.) but perhaps less so in the specific academic sense (it’s boring, not engaging, etc.)

I think this has been changing over time, especially in the high-performing charter community, but the origins of the reforms do feel to have more of a social justice history.

I think what Matt is calling for is reform based more on empathy for the student academic experience.

A couple thoughts on this:

1. The social justice empathy reforms were perhaps a necessary precondition to have the opportunity to tackle student experience empathy reforms.

2. I think there is a risk that empathy for the student experience can be used to justify school based practices that actually aren’t good for students (rejecting some of the best of the no excuses model).

3. I think empathy for the student experience can be used to justify systems level practices that aren’t actually good for students (never close a school).

4. I think empathy for the student experience will likely be a key driver for the next phase of reforms.

Or, to put it another way, true empathy is about the student, not about how you want to feel. Whether the next phase of student experience empathy driven reforms succeeds or not may very well hinge on this difference being truly understood.

Sometimes doing great things for students can make you feel good, sometimes it can make you feel terrible. How you feel should of course be considered as useful information, but it should not be weighted over what the student ultimately needs.

These are really tough issues. New Orleans is lucky to have so many great people thinking about them. As more of an observer than anything else (most of my time is spent outside of New Orleans), I am eager to see what the next decade holds.

1 thought on “Empathy and Education Reform

  1. Matt Hammer

    Hi Neerav –

    I hear you’re going to be in the Bay Area. It’d be great to catch up.

    Good to see you writing about the need for grassroots organizing.

    Let me know if you have any time.

    Best, Matt

    Sent from my iPhone


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