Listening, Federal Style

On this morning’s Today Show, Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth discussed her March 2009 piece on the new leaders in the Obama administration.  EdSec Arne Duncan was included in the discussion, focusing on his desire to launch a national listening tour as he embarks on a major national initiative to improve our public schools.

Regardless of how many dollars end up in the economic stimulus package for public education (and Eduflack assumes that the U.S. Senate will scale back some of the U.S. House’s cockeyed optimism), now is the time for action.  As we discussed last week, that action which will have the most impact cannot be a one-way discussion, it requires an open tent that incorporates the multiple viewpoints and multiple organizations and individuals who are committed to the larger view of improving the quality and outcomes of public education, particularly in those communities that have struggled to get the resources, the teachers, and the academic gains necessary to ensure all kids are getting the opportunity promised to them.
Listening tours can be important, particularly if they evolve into full-fledged dialogues.  Listening is the first step, but the EdSec needs to engage with key stakeholder audiences, understanding why they believe what they believe, knowing what it will take to change both thinking and behavior, and discovering what is necessary to bring together a loud, enthusiastic, and diverse chorus singing of ED’s commitment to closing the achievement gap and improving all our public schools.
So as Secretary Duncan begins planning for his tour, I recommend he take a look at the listening tour model we implemented as part of the National Reading Panel’s early work.  The model is a simple one, one that takes into account geographic differences and the wide range of stakeholders necessary to bring about lasting education improvements.
First, look at the geography.  Make sure you’re hearing from the diverse corners of the United States.  That means visits to New England, the mid-Atlantic, the MidWest, the Southwest, and the West Coast.  It means spending time in the “key” stakes, the Pennsylvanias, Ohios, Floridas, Texases, and Californias of the world (I assume you know Illinois pretty well by now).  But it also means visiting other states that are often left out of the process, like Alabama, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Arizona, and Idaho, for instance.  All offer us some key thinking on education reform, both for our urban centers, our suburban bases, and our rural communities.
Second, at each of these whistle stops, bring together multiple audiences.  When the NRP went out into the field, we ensured each regional hearing included specific stakeholder testimony from teachers, teacher educators, researchers, community organizations, business leaders, school administrators, and policymakers.  All of these are important to your mission.  But you need to clearly distinguish between primary and secondary audiences, those who will move your agenda themselves and those will support the movement.  As you move beyond the Beltway, be sure you are talking with classroom teachers, state policymakers (the governors, the chief state school officers, and those who are advising them), business leaders, and parents.  
Why?  Successful advocacy is all about a squeeze play that leads to real change.  We recognize that improvements come at the district or school level, as local education leaders implement the programs, approaches, and interventions necessary to improving our schools.  Such change comes from influence at the top, where governors (who are becoming even more important to ed reforms as they must now determine how best to spend the educational block grants provided them under the stimulus package) and the business community (that has specific thoughts about what changes are needed from our schools to improve classroom learning and meet future economic opportunities).  This is complemented by pressure from the grassroots, with educators and parents calling for the sorts of changes and improvements they’ve been hungry for for far too long
Listening, yes.  Dialogue, absolutely.  Engagement, a necessity.  Hopefully, ED will make this a meaningful exercise designed to build public support for the changes that are coming, while gaining necessary input to make those changes even stronger and more valuable.  Headlines are great.  Long-term, systemic school improvement is even better.

134 thoughts on “Listening, Federal Style

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