I read Rick Hess’s books and blog. He is clear, crisp, and provocative in his positions. A former social studies teacher and professor, he is Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He frequently comments on parental choice, educational philanthropy, accountability, teacher unions, and scads of other hot topics in the federal, state, and district policy arena.
Recently, he wrote two posts on his Education Week blog carping at “educators” who complain about standards, testing, and accountability policies. He advises them to stop asking policymakers for more money, work more closely with decision-makers, and be constructive in their suggestions.
What struck me about these two posts on policy was the narrow truth of what he had to say about the goals of policymakers, the limited tools they have, and how they would welcome responsible criticism. I say “narrow” because nowhere does Hess mention or consider the biases policymakers have–they live in a different world than practitioners do–and the errors they make in their assumptions and thinking about schools, teaching, and learning.
I begin with Hess’s second post (links to his first post are contained in it) and I follow with the consequential biases that policymakers have and the mistakes they have made (and continue to make) in their thinking.
Rick Hess’s post:
“[L]et me offer a couple tips.
First, understand that policymakers are not seeking to make your life difficult. They’re responsible for spending billions in public funds and dealing with the public’s kids. They know that if someone somewhere misspends funds or harms a kid, they’ll hear about it. And, truth is, most policymakers are concerned with making sure that public resources aren’t misused or wasted. This means that policymakers typically don’t gear policies to reward all-stars; rather, they operate with an eye to what bad actors might do wrong. Except in rare cases, policy is simply not a tool for promoting excellence.
Second, policymakers can’t just make rules that only apply to bad actors. Going back to the Enlightenment, the whole logic of democratic law-making was to stop laws from being applied selectively, so that kings couldn’t create different rules for you and for me. Because rules are being applied across the board, for good actors and bad actors alike, they can’t be based on trust or good intentions. (So, for instance, legislators can write turnaround policies for all schools that objectively perform below a certain level, but they can’t treat those schools differently based upon whether or not they trust the principal or the faculty.) Moreover, since policymakers aren’t worried about those they trust to do the right thing, statutes and rules are inevitably written with an eye to those they don’t trust.
Third, keep in mind that policymakers can make people do things, but they can’t make them do them well. Policy is a blunt tool. School and system leaders will frequently tell legislators about their model program and then later wonder, in frustration, “Why don’t they just have people do X? It works.” The problem is that policymakers don’t have the levers to make schools or systems do X. They can require schools or systems to comply with punch lists–hire a parent liaison or set aside forty minutes a day for literacy instruction–but they can’t require them to do any of those things well.
The trick is that most of what we care about when it comes to teaching and learning is about how you do things, rather than whether you do them. In the end, policymakers only have three crude levers at their disposal. They can give away money for particular purposes, tell you what you must do, and tell you what you can’t do. That’s about it. Yet, with just these three blunt instruments, policymakers are under immense pressure to make the world a better place.
Fourth, if you keep these things in mind, you’ll recognize that policymakers find all of this just as frustrating as educators do. They want to be helpful, but their efforts to solve problems through policy are inevitably ham-handed, and rarely work as well as intended. They’re desperate for edu-leaders who can help them figure out workable solutions and who are demonstrating success on the ground. Approach policymakers accordingly.
In particular, this means doing three things. First, don’t demand more money. Everybody asks for money–educators and cops and universities and youth services and hospitals… If policymakers had more money to give, they’d give it. Second, if you’re approaching policymakers with an ask, make sure you use your time with them to explain that you understand their concerns and suggest how you can tackle problems that you’re all worried about (serving students better, spending funds wisely, demonstrating learning). And, third, offer solutions and let them know how they can help, other than by forking over more bucks.
If you show up identifying shared problems and explaining how you can solve a problem by making smart use of existing tools, talent, and resources, you’ll be surprised at how helpful policymakers can be and how interested they’ll be in hearing your thoughts and picking your brain for solutions.”
I agree with much of what Hess has to say about the goals and tools that policymakers set and have at their disposal. I think that ignoring the different worlds that policymakers and practitioners inhabit and losing sight of biases that current policymakers have (e.g., schools are in the primary business of building human capital–students–so that the U.S. can compete in global markets) lead to the mistakes that policymakers have made in adopting and implementing policies. In ignoring these characteristics of policymakers, Hess gives an incomplete picture of educational policy in 2012. In an earlier post, I pointed out a major slip that policymakers make. Here are a few other errors.
Policymakers make two fundamental errors in thinking. They assume that redesigning, dumping, or replacing key structures—extending the school year and school day, mayoral control, charter schools, Common Core curricula, accountability through performance evaluation–will dramatically change teacher instruction and student learning. Secondly, they assume that public schools and classrooms are complicated not complex systems.
As a result of these assumptions and their ideological biases, many policymakers see schooling as a collection of complicated structures that can be broken down into discrete segments and re-engineered through algorithms and flow charts to perfection—like piloting a Boeing 737. Engineers work step-by-step in logical fashion on mostly inert objects seeking the best solutions. It is a complicated system.
But air traffic controllers, working in a complex, dynamic, and yes, messy, multilevel system such control towers, have to adapt constantly to varying weather conditions, differences among pilots, aircraft downtime, and daily peak arrivals/departures of flights. Controllers, like teachers in classrooms, work in dynamic settings and experience considerable stress that comes from multiple factors over which they have little power to alter that come into play minute-by-minute. Air traffic control like teaching is a complex system.
Many policymakers treat school system structures like mechanisms with gears and cogs. They issue directives seeking school and classroom reforms and talk as if administrators and practitioners will carry out these orders as shown in memos, flow charts, and published in policy manuals. Too many loose connections, unmapped but interdependent relationships, unpredictable events, and ambiguous directives combine into a web-like complex system confounding what policymakers seek, what administrators request, and what teachers end up doing. Re-engineering school organizations to fundamentally change classroom patterns remains a fantasy.
Compounding that fundamental error is that policymakers have only a dim idea of what teachers are thinking, much less doing everyday in their classrooms. While nearly all school board members have been students and sat a few feet away from teachers for over a dozen years, few have taught in public school classrooms. The same can be said for most federal and state policymakers. Generally, district superintendents have been teachers early in their careers but an emerging movement to hire non-educator superintendents in big cities (e.g., lawyer Joel Klein in New York, former Colorado Governor Roy Romer in Los Angeles, ex-U.S. Army generals Julius Becton in Washington, D.C. and John Stanford in Seattle) continues to spread in urban districts. [i]
The gap in first-hand knowledge of daily work conditions underscores the simple fact that teachers and policymakers live in separate worlds where experiences, values, and incentives differ dramatically.
David Labaree summed up those differences crisply:
“Teachers focus on what is particular within their own classrooms; reformers focus on what is universal across many classrooms. Teachers operate in a setting dominated by personal relations; reformers operate in a setting dominated by abstract political and social aims. Teachers draw on clinical experience; reformers draw on social scientific theory. Teachers embrace the ambiguity of classroom process and practice; reformers pursue the clarity of tables and graphs. Teachers put a premium on professional adaptability; reformers put a premium on uniformity of practices and outcomes.” [ii]
In being unable to see the world from teachers’ perspectives, policymakers intent upon transforming how teachers teach and students learn have a serious credibility problem in mobilizing teachers to support their reform agenda. And without teacher support for reform-driven policies, few significant changes will occur in daily lessons.
[i] Tim Quinn, “Preparing Non-Educators for the Superintendency,” The School Administrator, 2007, 7 (64), at: http://www.aasa.org/SchoolAdministratorArticle.aspx?id=6636, accessed May 19, 2012. The Broad Center, News Release, “Broad Superintendents Academy Graduates Outperform Their Peers in Raising Student Achievement,” August 30, 2010
[ii] David Labaree, Someone Has To Fail (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 158.