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Updated: Oct 28, 2023

Closing the ideological gap requires high levels of cognitive empathy.

In an article in AASA this past June, I discussed the role empathy interviews play in a leader's quest to broaden their definition of "achievement" and tell a school's real story. "Street data" (Safir, & Dugan, 2021) relies on them to build a school's profile from the ground up. Ethnographic by design, educators gather stories, artifacts, and observations from the margins, including students, their families, and staff. A school's real story is informed by these forms of qualitative and experiential data, in addition to quantitative data. The achievement gap, as we know it, unfortunately is defined exclusively by quantitative measures and as a result has distorted reality. Leaders must fill the gaps that quantitative data alone create.


Leaders must be aware of the narrow epistemology that the achievement gap embodies. As a metaphor, the "gap" in education has enjoyed a starring role in decades of education debates. Most famously the aforementioned achievement gap, and its likely cause, the opportunity gap. The metaphor has long served to drive scholarly pursuits and practical approaches to identify and examine problems of practice in the name of reform. As a lever for policy, it has no equal. Arguably, its greatest usefulness has been as a catalyst for examining the concept of "achievement" and how to measure it in the context of institutional racism and bias. It's given rise to street data, but only as an unintended benefit, not by design. Eventually, the metaphor found its way to the mainstream media and served to perpetuate negative perceptions about both sides of the divide, given rise to a new social frontier and well defined lines in the sand. It has been weaponized in the war against public education.


The ideological gap is the star of today's education debate. Like the achievement gap, it's a reflection of our society, mirroring the political division in America. Divided school communities have led to schools becoming contested places. In many communities, policies informed by inherently contradictory objectives are being enacted. For example, the contradiction of doing equity design work on the one hand and, on the other, undermining it by requiring educators to inform parents if it comes to their attention that a student requests to be identified or treated as a gender other than the biological sex or gender on the student record. Equity design work is grounded in creating psychologically safe spaces that allow student and staff agency to develop organically through empathic listening and an inclusion mindset. Leaders rely on deep listening to understand both sides of the divide.


School and district leaders are squarely pitted between factions of the school community and in some cases between and among members of the local school board. Students attending schools that are required by policy to inform their parents of their identity requests may choose not to confide in their coaches, teachers, counselors, administrators, if they are not prepared to discuss their identity with their parents, for a variety of reasons including family rejection. Eliminating the school as a vital resource to support the student at a very difficult time in that student's life is an unintended consequence of the policy. The consequence could be a matter of life and death in light of the greater risk of suicide and substance use among transgender youth.

WHAT CAN SCHOOL LEADERS DO? First and foremost, leaders must be empathic listeners if they expect to create a culture of inclusion and belonging. Empathy interviews are a useful tool to that end. Deepening your listening skill set is foundational to developing cognitive empathy and subsequently understanding other people’s thoughts, emotions, and beliefs without necessarily feeling them yourself. Unlike emotional and compassionate empathy, highly developed cognitive empathy allows leaders to put aside personal judgments, biases, and stereotypes and understand the world from both sides of the ideological gap.

Read more about leadership, empathy, and one man's quest for internal peace in that context here.

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