Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Twisty Path of Top-Down Policy

From Outcome Based Education (remember the 90s?) to Common Core to ESSA to a hundred policy initiatives on the state level, the story is usually the same: Policymakers create a policy for K-12 education, it rolls out into the real world, and before too long those same policymakers are declaring, "That's not what we meant at all." Explanations generally include "You're doing it wrong" or "Maybe we should have put a bigger PR push behind it" or "The teachers union thwarted us." Common Core fans still claim that all Common Core problems are because of trouble with the implementation.

Somehow policymakers never land on another possibility-- that the policy they created was lousy. But good or bad, education policy follows a twisty path from the Halls of Power where it's created to Actual Classrooms where teachers have to live with it. Here are all the twists that can lead to trouble.

Good luck with this
It begins with the policy generators, who might be legislators, or they might be thinky tank lobby policy wonkists who have an idea they want to push. The important detail is that the policy starts with just a handful of people who actually understand it. But the policy's first obstacle is a larger group of legislators, some of whom have absolutely no idea what we're talking about, and worse yet, some who don't even know what they don't know, but have some thoughts about how the policy could be tweaked. Let's say for our example that the group doesn't fiddle too much, and we end up with a simple policy:



Students will learn about how to produce excellence in widgets.

"Excellence" is one of those words that legislators use to get past the fact that they can't agree on what an excellent widget is. But to implement the policy, teachers will have to know what the expectation is, so the Department of Education next has to "interpret" what the regulation means.
(John King and Lamar Alexander had some spirited disagreements about ESSA on just this point).

If we're talking about federal regulations, they'll pass through both federal and state departments of education. Reports, notes, letters, and other guidance tools will be issued by state bureaucrats who have some ideas about what widget excellence should look like and some other ideas about what the policy goals really are here.

Meanwhile, school districts are scrambling to figure out what, exactly, the new policy will mean to them. This creates a cottage industry of consultants. Those will usually include university professors, each of whom has their own ideas about widget excellence and who will therefor staple some of those ideas onto the policy. "This new widget policy provides the perfect opportunity for schools to implement the two-flange widget approach that my hopefully-soon-to-be-published research will detail." There will also be a flood of consultants from the textbook and ed tech industries, who have been sitting back at the corporate offices trying to answer the question, "How do we make a case that the product which we already have ready for market will be an excellent tool for meeting the new widget standards?" (This would be the part where, during the Common Core walkup, textbook publishers slapped "Common Core Ready" stickers on their materials.)

School district superintendents start to wade through these materials, but those administrators will come in several different varieties including 1) hates the new widget rules, 2) has always felt passionate about widgets, and 3) resigned to having to make the state happy somehow. The superintendent may be interested in minimum compliance requirements, or how to game the paperwork (just look like they're complying), or tossing a few ideas of their own into the mix. They will hand the policy off to building principals, who come in the same varieties.

And at every level, many people will look at what has been handed to them and think, "That can't be right" and "fix" the flaws they see in the policy. This process is tough on good policy, but it absolutely chews up policies that were no good in the first place.

After all these levels of pass the policy games, we finally arrive at the classroom teacher. The teacher is exposed to some professional development, which will provide a view of the policy from the perspective of one of the bureaucrats, professors, or vendors mentioned above. The more professional development sessions the teacher attends, the less certain she will be about what the policy requires, because no two presenters will say exactly the same thing.

But eventually, the teacher will take the policy into the classroom. She'll use a book published by a company with one set of ideas about widget excellence to try to implement the bureaucrat's or professor's ideas in a manner that is satisfactory to both of her immediate superiors. She may think, "I'll be a good soldier and do as I'm told" or she may think, "What I was told never did make sense, so I'll just interpret it as best I can," or, after a few lessons, she may think, "This is not working for these students at all-- I'm going to scrap all of this and design my own approach."

You can think of policy implementation as a giant Plinko board with a million slots at the bottom. The policymakers can drop the chip, and not only will it not go exactly where they want, but if they drop a hundred chips at once, they will all end up in a different place. Education policy isn't just a game of telephone-- it's a game of telephone in which each player whispers to ten other players, until a million people have completely different messages.

This is what some folks are talking about when they demand vociferously that policies and materials be implanted "with fidelity," which means roughly "do what I tell you and stop thinking for yourself." But the critical problem is that actual classroom teachers are not involved until the final step. If government insists on a top-down model of education policy, they are never going to get what they think they're asking for.

Originally posted at Forbes

2 comments:

  1. 23 years of teaching and I've never read a better description. Hall of Fame post.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh yes, we are being introduced to 'Standards Mastery Framework'

    ReplyDelete