Why has education policy produced such little improvement?

Editor's note: This editorial originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Austin American-Statesman.

At noon on Tuesday, January 13, the Texas Legislature convened its eighty-fourth legislative session. Like many previous legislative sessions, many hours of discussions will be devoted to improving Texas education. Like many previous legislative sessions, legislators will no doubt enact new state education policies aimed at improving Texas schools.

Despite massive new education policies from previous legislative sessions, and after decades of effort, tons of money, and volumes of educational punditry and political debate, we are left with relatively little to show for considerable effort. As we go forward with future education policies, it seems wise to pause and ask an important question. Why has so much previous education policy delivered such meager improvement?

Indisputably, that question has multiple answers. But one of the most critical answers is too often overlooked: Previous state education policy has been minimally integrated with education practice. Put another way, there has been, and there still is, a cavernous gap between education policy and education practice. In order for education policy to be an effective catalyst for improved school outcomes, it must influence education practice—and education practice is under the direct control of education practitioners. These practitioners have meager influence on education policy.

Previous state and federal education policy has ignored a cardinal truth: When schools improve, that improvement will be primarily due to the actions of people in the schools. Practically speaking, what this means is that teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members are the major arbiters of school improvement, as they ultimately determine whether education policy has the desired efficacy or not.

Education policy, which consists of the laws, rules, and regulations enacted to govern the operation of our system of education, is primarily formulated in state settings and tends to be heavily influenced by the work of education think tanks, education lobby agencies, education advocacy organizations, and the practical realities of political expediency. Those who actually teach the children, manage the schools, and do the work of school boards are minimally represented in this process. This unfortunate truth creates a dual negative.

First, education policy created in this manner cannot benefit from the perspective of those who know the educational environment best. School reform policies constructed by policy elites, politicians, and others outside the school system are rarely based on sufficient understanding of the school environment and its unique cultural infrastructure to have the intended effect. Absent sufficient practitioner participation, policymakers’ understanding of schools is inevitably based on assumptions, theories, and notions about how education should be, which are seldom representative of real-world experiences in schools. More perilously, as outsiders, policymakers tend not to appreciate the complexity of teaching and learning in today’s schools. For education policy to be successful, it must be anchored in a realistic understanding of the school environment, and this cannot be achieved without authentic involvement and buy-in from those in the schools.

Secondly, and even more grievously, school professionals who are excluded from meaningful participation in the formation of education policy are likely to feel little ownership of the policy’s success. This leaves the policy void of meaningful practitioner advocacy. Further, education policy void of appropriate practitioner involvement fuels practitioners’ sense that the policy is being imposed upon them by those who not only do not fully understand the educational challenges, but also do not face any consequences for the success or failure of the policy. Some practitioners feel that their exclusion from the education policy development process demonstrates a fundamental indifference to the challenges that school personnel face, and even worse, an underlying disrespect for what they do and what they know.

Given the lack of meaningful practitioner participation, it seems unsurprising that educational practitioners greet so many policy changes with lackluster enthusiasm. To them, the issue is compliance, as opposed to improving student performance. The difference between responding to educational policy as a compliance issue vs. responding to it as an opportunity to improve student learning is not at all trivial. The level of advocacy within the school and school system is a major determinant of the quality of the results that will emanate from the reform policy.

This is not to understate or undervalue the importance of the work of policymakers. The vast majority of those involved in developing state and federal policy are not only sound thinkers with good intentions, but also experts in many aspects of the education policy landscape and committed to the task of education improvement. Clearly, their efforts are both needed and appreciated. But for policymakers’ goals to be accomplished, the gap between policymakers and practitioners must be significantly narrowed.

Undoubtedly, there are several ways to accomplish this goal. Two approaches come immediately to mind. Each has advantages and disadvantages. The first, an inclusion approach, involves broadening the participation of practitioners in policy formulation to enhance both the quality and quantity of dialogue between policymakers and practitioners. One might argue that teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members already have advocacy organizations that participate in formulating educational policy. This is true, but with few exceptions, the influence of such organizations on education policymaking is minimal at best.

The disadvantage of this approach is that some such organizations have agendas that are not always aligned—and are sometimes even at odds—with the goal of authentic school improvement. Therefore, care in selecting participating groups is necessary. In fact, the effectiveness of this approach depends on state policymakers’ ability to involve organizations that are genuinely committed to improving the education system. Assuming sufficient awareness of this concern, increasing opportunities for such organizations to participate in educational policy development is a good thing.

The second approach is the empowerment approach highlighted by Richard Elmore and Milbrey W. McLaughlin in their seminal work, Steady Work: Policy, Practice, and the Reform of American Education. This approach involves shifting much of the responsibility for designing policy closer to those whose practice it concerns. Such policy would focus heavily on desired outcomes and on empowering practitioners with flexibility and variability in determining the inputs needed to achieve such outcomes. To be effective, however, this approach requires that there be adequate procedures for monitoring results and assuring accountability.

In summary, the current chasm between education policy and practitioners must be significantly narrowed if educational policy is to drive desired education reform. In the end, education policy is good only to the extent that it is implemented and operated with fidelity and policy implementation and operations are solidly under the control of education practitioners.

Rod Paige was the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District from 1994 to 2001 and the United States Secretary of Education from 2001 to 2005. He has served on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Board of Trustees since 2005.

photo credit: cybrarian77 via Flickr