J.C. Bowman Viewpoint: Are You Listening


JC Bowman

Like most people, I get upset with elected officials from time to time, at every level. Almost every single time for me it derives from two things: 1) their inability to understand an issue they can readily solve; and, 2) their failure to listen. I try very hard not to personalize issues, but admittedly it is difficult when I see repeat offenders.
Peter Schuck, the Simeon E. Baldwin Professor of Law Emeritus at Yale University, and the author of the book Why Government Fails So Often, and How It Can Do Better, states “the deep structures of our policy system – perverse incentives, collective irrationality, poor information, systematic inflexibility, lack of credibility with necessary stakeholders, the superior speed, flexibility, and incentives of private markets, obstacles to implementation, the inherent limits of law as a policy instrument, and a mediocre and degraded bureaucracy – are the main causes of policy failure and mismanagement. Most mismanagement is a symptom and consequence of these deeper forces.” I am not going to challenge the theory. It is true the way we create public policy decisions is often not efficient. In the hands of some elected or appointed officials, the mistakes are often repeated and frequently made worse.
Author Randall Worley wrote: “Hearing is a passive, no-brainer experience like breathing or blinking; it doesn’t require any effort. However, listening is intentional attention. Most humans are ‘hard of listening’ rather than ‘hard of hearing.’” Some people do not pick up the indicators when something is going on in society, because they are tone-deaf. Some politicians and policymakers are so isolated they do not hear from necessary stakeholders directly, only from the people they surround themselves with daily. This is deeply problematic. Glancing over the resumes of many bureaucrats, what will leap out at you is the lack of life experience of many of them. It does take skills to navigate bureaucracy, but paraphrasing Dr. Schuck: we have a “mediocre and degraded bureaucracy” in charge and “lack of credibility with necessary stakeholders” at work. Listening skills become even more important. For the tone-deaf, I am not sure there is an explanation possible.
So, what can we do? It is simple. We need to step up our demand to be heard. I recently watched an appointed official discuss stakeholder input in her decision-making process knowing the statement was not exactly truthful. Certainly, she may be “listening” to one or two stakeholders that can be paraded out to validate the decision. However, it certainly is not inclusive. The research will validate that stakeholder demands for inclusion rise when stakeholders do not trust those engaged to give appropriate regard to stakeholder concerns. There are 330 million people in the United States, and no two people think exactly alike. A diversity of opinion nourishes and strengthens our nation. Many state and federal agencies would benefit from understanding a range of ways stakeholders can be included in decision-making and implementation.
In education, we understand that not every student has the same academic needs, interests, and goals, but many schools still offer courses and provide instruction that treats students as if they are the same. The COVID-19 Pandemic has created an opportunity for schools and districts to address issues that may have remained unattainable months ago. Everyone should be making plans for the future. While we expect the state to lead on issues, this is one place we need our state Department of Educations to act more like a clearinghouse of ideas, and let our local schools and districts take control of their needs and priorities for the children they serve. Imagine if federal and state guidance only served as “a baseline” on issues of this nature. What else is possible? Top-down leadership is problematic, has been problematic, and will remain problematic, as long as policy failures and implementation are fostered by bureaucrats, and our policymakers do not listen to those with skin in the game.
Every day there is an outpouring of questions about re-opening schools. Our local schools need concrete answers before school resumes. We need answers on attendance, including truancy. Somebody has to focus on Staff and Teacher Absences due to COVID Regulations. Districts understand that will likely mean an increasing need for funding for substitute teachers. We can fully expect transportation costs to increase. Another increase will be on building maintenance and cleanliness in our school buildings. Wearing a mask should probably be optional, never mandatory in schools. The state will need to lessen accountability standards for the likely future as educators focus on other pertinent needs of their communities. There are so many issues in which districts, schools, parents, teachers, and students desperately need answers.
We need more stakeholder involvement, not a committee of hand-selected bureaucrats that rubber stamps a white paper generated by an out-of-state group, or repackaged guidelines from another state. Many people and their organizations would gladly help, if only they were asked. None of us have time to engage in public relations puffery, or bureaucratic back-slapping and mutual accolades. There is work to be done. It is time we get back to business, and start getting specific answers to critical questions, or the next policy failure in public education may be our last. That may be an expensive education lesson we all learn. The question is, are you listening? Is anybody listening?


JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.