Friday, April 3, 2015

Hess: Helping Policymakers Make Policy

As part of the ongoing online conversation tied to the upcoming (or already-ongoing) launch of his Cage Busting Teachers, Rick Hess yesterday offered four pieces of advice for "how public employees can thrive in public bureaucracies." That is not a bad way to look at the problem, but I believe some of his specific advice needs tweaking. Here are his four tips.

First, believe it or not, teachers have a sympathetic audience.

I think that's true. I've said before that one of the lessons real teachers can learn from Teach for America is that there are a whole bunch of folks out there who think that supporting teachers is a Noble and Good. There is still plenty of public support for teachers and the teaching profession.

But Hess is being disingenuous when he quotes a Teaching Ambassador who says, "What fascinated me was this perception that folks at [the U.S. Department of Education] would look at us and think, 'They're just teachers.'" This is on par with Arne Duncan saying, "I just don't understand why states are putting so much emphasis on standardized testing."

There are sympathetic folks among policymakers, but there are also policymakers like Andrew Cuomo who have been quite explicit in explaining that teachers are what's wrong with the education system and they have to be rooted out and brought to heel. And the USED does in fact enlist teacher ambassadors, who are carefully screened and vetted and allowed to visit the table from time to time. But a teacher would have to have lived under a rock not to have noticed that our last decade of school reform has been implemented without any attempt to include teachers in the design of policy, and also implemented with the foundational assumption (sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit) that teachers are a problem to be fixed and not experts and collaborators to be included.

So teachers do have some sympathetic folks in the policymaker audience, but we also have some folks who have already declared us public education enemy number one. Hess's advice is useful up to a point-- teachers should not assume that just because someone is a bureaucrat or reformster that he must also hate or disrespect teachers-- but it's pretty clear at this stage of the game that many policymakers are not at all interested in what teachers have to say.

Second, keep in mind that policymakers can make people do things, but they can't make them do them well. 

This is one of Hess's more useful insights, and he has offered it more than a few times as an explanation of why some aspects of education reform are such a clusterfinagle. And his explanation of the idea here is illuminating.

Worse, policymakers know that their good ideas often go south once they're implemented, which makes them hesitant to trust those on the ground. That's why they're eager to find sympathetic professionals who can help figure out how to ensure that policies actually do what they're supposed to do. Policymakers aren't writing laws for people they know and trust; they're writing them for strangers who they're entrusting with the public's kids.

He quotes Randy Dorn, who has worked on every side of the ed-and-legislation biz. Dorn points out that politics are about relationships. This points to what I've always considered the huge disadvantage of teachers (and many other professionals)-- we have jobs, and we work all day. The power of a lobbyist is not just that he can promise money and toys and assistance-- it's that he doesn't have to be anywhere else during the day. The lobbyist is free to hang around capitals and create personal relationships with legislators all day every day, while working Americans are busy doing their actual jobs, thereby remaining strangers to the policymakers.

Hess's point is that since policy is a blunt instrument, legislators are looking for partners to help them make the policy work. I frankly don't have an answer for this. I have a job. I work for a living. I can't hop in the car and make the four hour drive to Harrisburg to let legislators get to know my face and understand where I'm coming from, and while I'd like to put the burden of connecting with constituents on them, they've got a job to do, too.  And often that reach comes too late. If, as Hess writes, they're looking for professionals to help make the policy work as it should, they've already skipped the part where they should have asked the professionals advice about creating the policy in the first place.

Third, keep in mind that rules are written heavy-handedly . . . on purpose, with an eye to stopping obvious stupidity.

Nope. Don't buy this one. This is, in fact, why many rules don't work. When you try to strap everyone into the same constricting straightjacket, two things happen. First, your good actors, the people who were doing a good job and were a positive force-- those folks are diminished and made less effective because you've got them all wrapped up in this regulatory straightjacket. Second, the obvious stupidity that you set out to stop goes on anyway, or reappears in a different form.

Oh, and a third thing-- your rule is so obviously dumb and heavy-handed that you reduce everyone's respect for and adherence with your rules, so that over time you think you have to be even more heavy-handed which hampers your good people even more and creates brand new forms of bad stupidity and makes it hard to get anybody to pay attention to you even when you do have a good rule to implement.

How do I know this? Because it's Basic Classroom Management 101. It is bad policy for running my classroom, and it is bad policy for running a state or country. If this is how rules are written, then we've located one of policymakers basic huge mistakes.

Fourth, when educators do get the chance to speak to policymakers or in public hearings, they often do so in ways that don't help their cause.

Yeah, I'd like to deny this one, but I can't. Too many folks have this mental image of standing up before Power and speaking out in Righteous Indignation a Truth of such blinding, burning strength that their opponents cower and say, sadly, "Yes, I see now that I am a terrible person who has been terribly wrong, and now I will do what you ask and beg forgiveness for being such an ass." The internet has not helped. And yet, this scenario plays out in real life exactly none times.

That is not to say that the old objection of, "Well, we just can't listen to you when you're so rude and strident" holds up. People keep raising their voices till they the believe they've been heard. , and a lot of people in education have been feeling ignored for a while now. The rule here is simple: if you don't want people to scream at you, listen to them when they talk to you. But Hess is correct-- when you get the chance to be heard, you have to consider your audience.

Now, I don't agree with all of Hess's specific examples of this. For instance, his number one is "Don't ask for money." This must not apply to everyone, because the charter school lobby keeps asking for money, and they keep getting it. For that matter, public education is not always asking for more money so much as it's asking to at least keep them money that it has previously received. One of the mottos of ed reform continues to be, "Throwing money at public schools is wasteful, but throwing money at charters and ed-related corporations is awesome."

But he is absolutely correct that in dealing with policymakers, or any other carbon-based life forms, it is most effective to frame your own requests in terms of how they will address your audience's concerns. Any presentation to anybody must, at some point, address the question of Why You Should Care. The blunt force answer in politics is "You should care because if you don't at least act like you agree with me, I will make your re-election very hard," and that has its place. But policymakers do have concerns of their own, and they are worth factoring into any attempt to influence them.

Of course, what Hess doesn't address is that in the current ed reform landscape, there are some influential figures whose interests have no overlap at all with the interests of teachers. More importantly, the basic requisite for these kinds of conversations is for all parties to be honest about their concerns, and the reformster landscape is littered with people who show no signs of being remotely honest about what they want and what their goals are. To have these kinds of conversation, we have to have trust, and to have trust, we have to have honesty, and many policymakers and the influential figures who are trying to call shots haven't brought that quality to the table yet.

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