Legislators’ Guide to Making Useful Education Policy, v. 2.0

I recently attended a virtual kickoff rally for Betsy Coffia, who is running for the MI State House, in the newly drawn 103rd district. I first met Betsy after she ran—unsuccessfully—for the old state House seat, more than eight years ago. We met on-line, and she wanted to meet face to face, over coffee.

Betsy asked lots of questions; we had a great conversation. Although she had worked briefly for Head Start, she admitted there were lots of theories and ideas in education policy she found murky. Personally, I was charmed by a candidate who was still hungry to know about ed policy from the perspective of a veteran teacher. In the next cycle, Betsy ran for County Commission and won—twice.

Betsy said (in 2014): “Wouldn’t it be great if there were a guide for legislators to making useful education policy?” So I sketched out one and put it up on my Education Week blog—and from there, it was picked up by Phi Delta Kappan, among other media outlets. It drew lots of commentary—mostly positive.

I just pulled it out. And wow. You wouldn’t think things would be all that different, in eight years. The 2014 version below. Comments about changes in education policy-making—the 2022 version—follow the list of ten.

#1. You don’t know education just because you went to school.

Even if you were paying attention in high school, your perspective as a student was extremely narrow and is now obsolete. Study the issues, which are more complex and resistant to change than you think. Here’s a brief list of things that, in my experience, legislators don’t know diddly about:

  • A cooperative classroom and how to achieve it
  • Formative assessment
  • Effect of class size on daily practice (not test scores)
  • Difference between standards and curriculum
  • Special education
  • Research-based value of recess and exercise
  • Differentiation vs. tracking
  • What quality teaching looks like in practice
  • The fact that ALL learning is socially constructed.

And on and on.

#2. Plan to pay many non-photo op visits to lots of schools. Do things while you’re there. Read with 3rd graders. Sit in on a high school government class or small-group discussion about Shakespeare. Play badminton in a coed gym class. Take garden-variety teachers out for coffee after your visit; let them talk, and just listen. Resist the urge to share the “good news” about legislation you’re cosponsoring. Ask questions instead.

#3. Take the tests that kids have to take. Then you’ll understand why “achievement data” and what to do with it are sources of high anxiety for public schools, teachers, and students.

#4. Be picky about what you read, listen to, and believe. Media is not fair and balanced. In an online world, information and sexy, upbeat story lines are for sale. At the very least, read both sides, with your crap detector on full alert. Consider that media often enshrines flat-out lies in the public consciousness simply because they’re a good headline or the deliverer is charismatic.

#5. Examine your assumptions. When teachers roll out unsubstantiated chestnuts (“No wonder he’s the way he is—just look at his parents!”), it’s teacher lounge talk. But, when elected officials say clueless things, voters pay attention. For example: “Incompetent teachers are being allowed to teach, and substandard service is being tolerated.” Whatever your deepest convictions about unions, teacher pay, urban poverty, or kids today, check those biases at the door. Represent everyone in your district, not just the people who agree with you.

#6. Follow the money, not the party. A lot of what’s happening in education “reform” today is centered around taking advantage of the large, previously untapped market of K-12 education. Before you get on any partisan policy bandwagon just for the thrill of passing a law, ask yourself: Who really benefits from this? Who loses?

#7. Remember you were elected to represent your constituents’ goals and desires, not some special interest group. Even if the prepackaged legislation is slick and convenient and the Koch brothers are willing to fly you someplace warm with golf courses, do the work yourself. Looking yourself in the mirror will be a lot easier in the morning.

#8. Be like Rob Portman. Change your mind and your public proclamations when the evidence is convincing. Changing your mind — if you do it publicly, and don’t try to sneak the shifts past voters with tap dancing and weasel language — makes you stronger, demonstrating that you have confidence in your own core values and leadership. After all, Diane Ravitch altered her views and earned herself a few million devotees.

Corollary: Admit when you don’t understand value-added methodology, the reason STEM is so hot, or constructivism in mathematics education. There is nothing more pathetic than a legislator trying to act like he knows something by tossing out a few buzzwords.

#9. Big and bold gets headlines, but tinkering around the edges gets results. Want to raise teacher quality? Don’t endorse firing the “lowest” quintile, publicly rank-ordering them in the newspaper, or bringing in untrained but photogenic Ivy Leaguers. Do it the old-fashioned way: careful recruitment, building teachers’ skills and knowledge, investing in their capacity and leadership over time.

#10. Honor our democratic foundations. Public education is the most democratic of our institutions, one of our best ideas as Americans. Public schools may be tattered and behind the technological curve, but systematically destroying the infrastructure of public education is profoundly selfish and immoral. Don’t be that legislator.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

From the perspective of 2022:
Some of these are evergreen–#10 especially, but I could add a half-dozen bullet points (the so-called Science of Reading, for example) to #1, as things around which most legislators have zero expertise. The invitation to visit classrooms (#2) once a foundational strategy of reformy organizations like Teach Plus, is defunct in the time of COVID.

Suggesting that legislators take statewide assessments (so they can learn about the tests’ irrelevance and weaknesses) seems downright quaint now. We’re using admittedly bogus test data from 2021 to proclaim that poor kids suffered more under remote learning (which may have also saved their lives, but oh well… learning loss!) Because hundreds of non-profits would have to close if there were no giant data sets to analyze—testing went on, under conditions rendering the results invalid.

Actual policy-making skill, tailored to real needs rather than outside organizations’ agendas—numbers 4, 5, 6 and 7—has grown considerably worse. This is a result of four years of Betsy DeVos, increasingly divisive rhetoric in the media, a poorly managed pandemic, unregulated social media, and the fact that one of our two major political parties has decided that winning is the only thing that matters and to hell with the public good. Public education is now, essentially, for sale.

I’m trying to imagine any teacher cheerily saying to any Republican representative: Check your biases at the door! Those days are over—and the way Glenn Youngkin used deceptive education policy promises to win an election ought to be a cautionary tale for all of us. So much for civic engagement and community-building. So much for re-thinking and all the other blah-blah about improving schools. The action now is locked and loaded, standing on the Capitol steps.

I was really stunned to re-read #9, to remember that there was once a time when ‘big thinkers’ in education were talking about lopping off the lowest-achieving teachers. Now, of course, we’re inviting bus drivers and lunch ladies to substitute teach.  As Peter Greene notes:  It is amazing how quickly some folks have pivoted from “We must ensure teacher and educational quality” to “We must get students into a building with the word ‘school’ in its name no matter what actually happens once we’re inside.” It turns out that an awful lot of that big talk about educational excellence and quality was insincere posturing and as long as we can get schools open and students stuffed inside with something resembling a probably-responsible adult with a pulse, that’s good enough. 

I am optimistic enough to think that writing ten new talking points for writing good education policy is something that might be useful—at some point in the future, if not today. One thing I learned from reading Ibram X Kendi is that most social beliefs and practices are, when you dig deep enough, driven by decades, even centuries, of policy. And, of course, money.

Plus ca change…

8 Comments

  1. #2: When it becomes feasible to do so again, I hope they follow your advice and visit more than just elementary schools. The vast majority of photo op school visits I’ve seen from politicians are at elementary schools. Is it because they are worried that an outspoken highschooler who disagrees with them will call them out?

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    1. (chuckling) I don’t think school visits are much of a thing anymore. It’s too bad. Every time a politician steps foot in a school, there’s a message about his/her values on display.

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  2. One thing that I’d like to see is a short reading list. It’s been a long time for me, but I am thinking of books such as “Horace’s Compromise” that might give a reader who has never taught some insight into what teaching is like. Also, I’d like to see a public discussion about the purposes of education. Seems that nowadays most people focus on test scores and on teaching kids how to be “successful” i.e. employable when they get out of school. But we should also be teaching kids to be well informed citizens and well rounded individuals, to have critical thinking skills, and to understand the diversity that constitutes America. Part of this, of course, would include giving them an accurate look at our history.

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    1. I could provide a very long list of accessible books about what’s happening in public education–anything Diane Ravitch has written. An excellent and lively book that paints an accurate picture of where we’re headed, in public education is ‘Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door’ by Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider.

      I believe that an overwhelming majority of public school teachers and parents agree with your assessment of what we should be teaching kids–including an accurate accounting of our own history. Teachers and parents aren’t making policy, however–and the people who are are often overwhelmed when there is organized resistance to good judgment.

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