Educational Policymakers and Teachers Live in Different Worlds

Here’s a story about the different worlds that U.S policy makers and teachers live in and how that fact may well affect what gets past the classroom door.

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 takeaway from the story.

Historically, federal, state, and district policymakers have determined school reforms in the U.S., especially those changes directed toward improving how teachers teach and how students learn. Once decided upon, these policy decisions flow downward to principals and then teachers. In many instances, this journey from policy to classroom practice has disappointed policymakers.

Often, policymakers 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. Policymakers and teachers live in different worlds.

This issue of teachers and policymakers living in different worlds is reflected in the questions that each asks. Consider the questions that policymakers often ask when adopting a new policy aimed at improving what occurs in what and how teachers teach:

* 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 get picked up by other schools across, districts, states and the nation?

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

* 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.

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 in putting classroom reforms into practice. [iii] 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.


[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] 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 Uncategorized

5 responses to “Educational Policymakers and Teachers Live in Different Worlds

  1. Milbrey W McLaughlin

    good one!

  2. Explains the failure of the ~$200 Million Victorian DOE Ultranet, a web based Sys to do ALL things at school (The Machine that goes Bing) ~12 pilot schools over 6 years trialing Dev. Managers NO care for Teacher feedback(DevilInDetail)at the school level. Gr8 idea bad implementation. 2 guys from the pilot schools Dev a better Sys-now used by over 1000 schools.

  3. Matt Schuelka

    Hi Larry, my name is Dr. Matt Schuelka, and I am a Lecturer at the University of Minnesota. I am teaching a class this semester called ‘Educational Reform in International Contexts’ and we have already read (and enjoyed) your short book, ‘Why is it so hard to get good schools?’ and now this post is serving as an excellent discussion to open our class on policy analysis this week.

    Here are my students comments and questions that came up in our discussion, that we wanted to share with you:
    – How do we begin to close the gap between teachers and policymakers? What have you seen that are good or effective practices?
    – Do education policymakers have to have experience as teachers in order to make education policy? (Asked from a student from China, where there are requirements like this)
    – What is the responsibility of teachers in this equation? Is it only the responsibility of policymakers to know what happens at the classroom level, or do teachers also have a responsibility to be engaged in politics and policymaking?
    – What examples are there from other countries where there is better education policy design and implementation?
    – What is the relationship between federal, state, and local education policy? Should the federal government even make any policies related to teachers directly?
    – What is the role of teacher empowerment in the implementation policy? Should teachers be allowed to veto education policy?
    – In Ghana, teachers do not have the power to translate policy and have some say about the curriculum into their own practices. What is your view on policy translation by teachers and their role in policy fidelity?
    – What are the fundamental factors that cause misunderstanding between policymakers and teachers?
    – Love the short story!
    – Can we ever close the gap between teachers and policymakers. SHOULD we close the gap? What recommendations do you have on this?
    – How can teachers be better familiar with policies? In Teachers College in Korea, I learned about the mechanics of teaching, but not really about what education policy says or how to consider policy. Is there more that teacher training institutions can do?

    Thanks again, Larry, for all of your thoughtful posts and the work that you continue to do for education in this country and around the world. Don’t feel obligated to reply to all of the questions above, but just wanted to share our discussion with you!

    • larrycuban

      Dear Matt,

      Appreciate very much your sending students’ questions about my recent post. I am so glad that it triggered these very thoughtful responses. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s