The Twisty Top-Down Policy Path To The Classroom

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.

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.

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.

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