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What Education Policy Can and Can't Do

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Marc Porter Magee, Ph.D, President and Founder of 50CAN. 50CAN is an education reform advocacy group that identifies and supports local leaders building reform movements within their states to make sure that every child has access to a great school.

In "Cage-Busting Leadership," Rick approaches education policy with a healthy dose of skepticism--and the world of school reform certainly provides fodder for that perspective. But while we need to take seriously the missteps and shortcomings of education policy, we can't let the challenge of getting policy right provide an excuse for inaction. Instead, we need to get better at learning what education policy can and can't do.

Rick outlines three reasons why it's hard to get education policy right:

#1. Policy deals with the floor, not the ceiling. Policy makers "don't gear policies to the needs or strengths of all-stars; rather, they work with an eye to what bad actors might do wrong," Rick writes. Since policy must be applied uniformly, this means a lot of education policy is actually getting in the way of good teachers and principals.

#2. Policy can make you do things but it can't make you do them well. "Policy is a blunt tool," Rick writes. The trouble is, when it comes to educating our kids--particularly those who need the greatest support--what we care most about is "how you do these things, rather than whether you do them" and "policymakers can't make anyone 'do whatever it takes.'"

#3. Policymakers have a limited toolbox. Rick argues that "policy makers really only have three crude tools at their disposal. They can give money away for particular purposes, tell you what you must do, and tell you what you can't do." And to make sure public money is spent wisely, policy makers have three choices: regulate inputs by writing rules about how dollars get spent, regular outcomes by insisting on certain results, or simply "trust people to do the right thing."

It all sounds pretty pessimistic, and yet we know from history that public policy can be an incredible force for good in the world. As the Brookings Institution's Paul Light documented a decade ago, there are numerous examples of big problems solved through thoughtful public policy, including:

• Rebuilding Europe after WWII.
• Ensuring safe food and drinking water.
• Promoting financial security in retirement.
• Improving air quality.
• Strengthening the nation's highway system.
• Promoting space exploration.

It's an inspiring list. But it's also hard to work on education policy and not come away incredibly humbled by the challenge of--and obstacles to--getting it right. Education Trust's Kati Haycock has an interesting perspective on why education policy is so difficult. She argues that, unlike most of the policy successes highlighted by people like Paul Light, education reform is "a second wave policy challenge."

First wave challenges, she explains, are overcome by providing a service or product people don't have yet--for example, the boost America received when it first provided universal access to public schooling for all kids, or when the G.I. Bill and Pell grants opened the doors to college to a broad cross-section of society rather than a privileged few.

Here's a more contemporary example: the amazing results the Gates Foundation and others have secured in the fight against malaria. Through the use of anti-malarial drugs, safe insecticides and long-lasting bed nets "malaria incidence has fallen by at least 50 percent in one-third of the countries where the disease is endemic."

Second wave challenges are different, and far more complicated. They're not overcome just by providing a service, but instead by providing a service very well and at scale. That is the challenge we face in public education as we work to reduce educational inequities and regain America's leadership in the world: any further gains in educational outcomes will mostly come from figuring out the public policies that nurture and extend excellence in our schools.

That, it turns out, is really difficult. But there are at least three reasons to be optimistic about the potential of education policy.

First, there is one big area in education where we still lack universal services that we know can make a big difference by increasing access: pre-K. There's no reason we can't marshal the resources to go much further in making sure that every child has the opportunity to receive a great early childhood education.

Second, we can do much better in setting smart regulations for inputs and outputs in education. There are so many things we have gotten terribly wrong, the real challenge is deciding where to start: weak state standards, poorly written assessments, teaching credentials disconnected from performance, ineffectual charter accountability, rigid tenure systems, antiquated seat time requirements, and on and on. When it comes to education regulations, there are a lot of low-hanging problems we can solve.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we can make better use of the most potent asset we have in education: parents' deep love and concern for their children. Rick's policy formula leaves that out. Beyond regulating inputs and outputs, Rick says the only other option is "to trust people to do the right thing." But when it comes to education, we aren't talking about "people," we are talking about parents. And no one will ever care for children the way their parents do.

We need to do a much better job at tapping into parents' love, understanding and concern for their children, and make that an engine to drive excellence in our schools. That means giving parents real choices over where their children go to school. But it also means investing in tools and support systems to help families make well informed decisions, and devising creative new ways for parent voices to be heard not only during the choice process but throughout their child's educational journey.

Providing a great education to every child in America is the biggest challenge of our time. We know that great schools change everything, but we still have a lot to learn if we're going to make our goal--great schools for all--a reality. For those who want to put their passion to work on behalf of kids, and who are willing to face big policy challenges along the way, there is no better place to make a difference than education advocacy.

- Marc Porter Magee, Ph. D

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