Performative Listening Or Faddishness?

Rick Hess has a provocative piece out chiding reformers for performative listening and offering a typology of the various forms of that activity. He’s onto something and you can see examples of what he describes around us, but his take seems wide of the mark in a subtle but meaningful way. The core problem here, I would argue, is not fake listening while stubbornly advancing a fixed agenda, rather it’s faddishness and performative listening in service of the latest fad. (And really, we could do with a bit more stick-to-itness couldn’t we?).

The reform world loves to blame the “system” for being awfully faddish, but in practice we’re no better at resisting the whims of fashion. Best I can tell, there seem to be a few reasons for this or a few missing checks on faddishness.

One, most people are careerists so they check out what’s in or popular and go with that. File that under most of what you need to know to understand life you can learn in a high school cafeteria. To be sure, it’s hardly an ill-considered thing to do in a field that doesn’t really tolerate heretics let alone support them. Few want to pay a price with funders, patrons, or favored constituencies. It’s not a lot of fun and the costs are real. Sure, hoop jumpers abound but overall I’d judge gently because it’s more that people have mortgages to pay and kids to put through college or people who depend on them. That’s real life.

A second cause, I’d suggest, is lack of broad mindset or, put differently, narrow focus in school and often life. The ed reform world, broadly speaking, is a pretty elite bunch in terms of educational background, where we live, culture, touchstones and markers, and so forth. That sort of homogeny makes it a lot easier for fads to spread. For all of the attention to diversity these days, precious little is devoted to viewpoint diversity or life experience diversity. For instance, when is the last time you heard an education organization say they want to prioritize hiring more veterans or people with a right-of-center or free market orientations and then doing it? More people saying the same thing is not actually diversity. Yet real diversity, in all its facets, very much including race, ethnicity, economic class, is a pretty good antidote to faddishness. 

And a third is a smart vigorous debate, or rather lack of one to act as a check. If Valerie Strauss or Diane Ravitch version 3.0 are the sparring partners for people who think that a system that produces the outcomes ours does needs some real change, then the debate is going to be more heat than light. What gets lost is the vigorous back and forth that’s vital to progress. Evidence and real debate about that evidence and how to think about it is the best check on faddishness. Instead, we get mostly howling at the moon and a lot of tribalism and blunt force politics.

For instance, here’s a reality: KIPP schools are, on average, pretty good. They turn out students who go on to much better educational outcomes than similar students and as a result they are literally changing lives right now. But, even taking KIPP and similar schools as the “best” at any scale raises an uncomfortable reality – they are not nearly closing the gap in outcomes overall so they are falling short of real ambitions for equity.

There are two ways to have a discussion about what that means. One, is the way we have it now. We mostly don’t. Because no one wants to say “even KIPP…” because the Greek chorus starts up right away with “even reformers say…,” followed by “some version of ‘so let’s just do more of the same’ or ‘reformers are privatizers.’ The other way to have the conversation is to say, yeah, KIPP is pretty amazing and interesting but a lot more needs to happen to get to real equity (to its credit that’s pretty much what KIPP says). But, tactically that’s a lead with your chin way in to the toxic public space we tolerate in this sector. So, rather than thoughtful, much of the debate about KIPP is all manner of claims from the crazy to the noxious, not a curious culture about what there is and is not to learn here, vigorous debate about that, and what it means to this shared effort of improving a dysfunctional system that doesn’t work for a lot of Americans. KIPP’s of course just one example, but it’s illustrative of how things are talked about publicly.

And, finally, as you no doubt noticed, things are pretty tribal right now nationally as well, so there is little cross cutting engagement and discussion. Bipartisanship or multi-partisanship is not a foolproof check on faddishness to be sure, but it’s sometimes a useful stress test. Best I can tell, much of the education world (on all sides) is more interested in ideological purity these days than the messy heterodox views many people hold on a variety of complicated questions where the evidence is conflicting or limited.

You essentially have an elite pretty cloistered group not having much of a vigorous debate because the politics are insane.

So it’s not that people aren’t listening, though some surely are not, it’s that we listen and then run from one fad to the next. In that way, performative listening is at most merely a symptom of a far bigger problem facing those who want to change the structure of American education.

Not to leave you on a down note, I don’t think this state of affairs is hopeless at all, and it seems that if they were inclined funders could play a big role in helping to address it. Really, we all could.

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