Different Worlds of Policymakers and Teachers

Here’s a story about the different worlds that U.S policy makers and teachers live in and how that affects the use of new technologies in schools.

A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He came lower and shouted, “Excuse me, can you help? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.” The woman below replied, “You’re in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You’re between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and between 59 and 60 degrees west longitude.”

“You must be a teacher,” said the balloonist. “I am,” replied the woman, “How did you know?” “Well,” answered the balloonist, “everything you told me is technically correct, but I’ve no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I’m still lost. Frankly, you’ve not been much help at all. If anything, you’ve delayed my trip.”

The woman below responded, “You must be a policymaker.” “I am,” said the balloonist, “but how did you know?”

“Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You have no map, and no compass. You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise, which you’ve no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”[i]

Here is the takeway from the story.

U.S. school reforms, especially those directed toward improving how teachers teach and how students learn have been made historically by top policymakers and then delivered to principals and teachers to put into classroom practice. In many instances, this journey from policy to practice has disappointed policymakers. Often they complain about partial or distorted implementation of decisions. They see that their ideas of what a “good” school is, what effective teaching and learning are, and the importance of using new technologies for classroom lessons have been ignored by practitioners. These policymakers, however, wear blinders and fail to see that teachers are gatekeepers who decide what ideas and practices get past the classroom door.

This issue of teachers and policymakers living in different worlds is reflected in the questions that each asks when a new policy is proposed and adopted.

When adopting policies aimed at reforming what teachers do in schools, policymakers will often ask the following questions:

* Will the new policy cost more, less, or the same as the existing policy?

* Will the new policy be more, less, or the same in achieving instructional and curricular objectives than the current policy?

* What incentives and sanctions are there to reward and penalize principals and teachers charged to implement new policies?

* How can what works in some schools scale upward to encompass more schools across states and the nation? [ii]

Teachers, however, ask very different questions especially after policymakers have decided that teachers should use more, faster, and better technologies in their lessons.[iii]

* How much time and energy will we have to invest in learning the new devices and accompanying software?

* Will the time spent learning to use the new technology yield a comparable return in student learning?

* What evidence is there that the new technology will help students meet district standards and score better on tests than without these devices and software?

* When glitches in integrating hardware and software occur—and they will occur—will on-site professional and technical help be immediately available?[ii]

Note how different these questions are from ones policymakers ask. Because policymakers largely ignore teacher questions, the policy-to-practice journey often stops at the classroom door where teachers, as gatekeepers, ultimately decide what gets put into lessons and what gets put into the closet.

As researchers have established, the teacher is the most important in-school factor influencing learning. Policymakers agree with researchers on importance of teachers to classroom reforms. If so, should not teachers’ ideas, beliefs, values, and questions get respectful attention and action from decision-makers? The answer is obviously yes, but in most instances, other than consulting a few teachers, token representation on advisory groups, or occasional visits to schools, policymakers pay little attention to what teachers think or even more importantly, to the gate-keeping function they perform.

No dark motive rests behind policymakers largely ignoring that teachers determine what policies enter their classrooms. I believe that policymakers wear blinders (or perhaps suffer myopia) by living in their insulated world. Inhabiting this separate world becomes a major hazard on the road from policy to practice.[iv]



[i] Louise Locock and Annette Boaz, “Research, Policy and Practice – Worlds Apart?” Social Policy and Society, 2004, 3(4), pp. 375 – 384.

[ii] Richard Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin, Steady Work (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1988), pp. 5-14.

[iii] Larry Cuban, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 168.

[iv] The primacy of the teacher as the significant in-school factor in getting students to learn is embedded in the experiential wisdom of parents who seek out particular teachers, move to different districts, get in lotteries for charter schools, and seek out vouchers. Researchers have said as much over the decades. From the work of William Sanders in Tennessee to John Hattie’s meta-analyses to the recent findings of the Measures of Effective Teaching Project, all—and others—reaffirm what students, parents, and principals have said for years. See: William Sanders and Sandra Horn, “Research Findings from the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) Database: Implications for Educational Evaluation and Research,” Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education, 1998, 12(3) pp. 247-256, 1998; John Hattie, Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (London: Routledge, 2011); Thomas Kane, Learning about Teaching: Initial Findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project (Seattle: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2013).



Filed under school reform policies

11 responses to “Different Worlds of Policymakers and Teachers

  1. Pingback: Thinking on Future of Education | Pearltrees

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  3. Reblogged this on Cynthia Ambrose and commented:
    The image of a hot air balloonist and the teacher is apropos. This is such a relevant metaphor of what the world of teachers is truly like.

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  5. Gary Ravani

    Interestingly, there has been some “quantification” of potential teacher effects on student achievement. ETS has asserted that school effects account for around 1/3 of the variability in NAEP scores. Linda Darling-Hammond suggests teacher effects account for about 7% to 14% of measurable student achievement. So, it makes the question of the “teacher” as the most significant influence at the school problematic. Maybe yes, maybe no. Not much mention is made of text election, curriculum (some very prescriptive), general school management and climate (management concerns), support personnel (psychologists, nurses, counselors, librarians, social workers), and class size issues which all contribute, or not, to student learning. Much of this particular thrust and policy consequences rely on “value added methodology” which has been debunked enough elsewhere that i won’t comment more on it here. And then there’s King VAM himself, Saunders, a former economist specializing in agricultural statistics who seems certain student learning comes in bushels. It is an interesting point though that if, as the self-styled reformers insist, the teacher is the #1 factor in the constellation of factors affecting student learning then why aren’t teachers views a more important part of the whole reform debate? I would suggest the reason is the self-styled reformers could not care less about the causes of school underachievement. What they care about is diverting the public’s attention from the fact that student success and children’s poverty rates are closely linked and the remedies for that situation involve dramatic tax increases on the very people who fund the self-styled reformers. And that is no coincidence.

  6. Pingback: RT @Rich_Stewart1: How do we get policy makers and… | EducatorAl's Tweets

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