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What if Education Policy Were More Like Astronomy? The Value of 'Soft Power'

This month, Rick is out catching up on various and sundry projects that piled up during the rollout of Letters to a Young Education Reformer. In his stead, we've got a terrific slate of guest bloggers. Up this week is Ashley Jochim, a senior research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

As my family heads down to eastern Oregon today to watch the solar eclipse, I can't help but think about how different things might be if education policy was akin to astronomy. You see, while eclipses are rare events, they are entirely predictable ones—shaped by well understood physical phenomenon like the orbit of the earth around the sun and the moon around the earth.

Education policy turns out to be a poor substitute for the laws of Newtonian physics. Cause, effect, and prediction are all elusive in the realm of school reform. Efforts to scale programs and policies often end with disappointment, as optimism is quickly tempered by wide-ranging and disparate results.

The limits on policymakers' ability to instill the types of ambitious changes they seek is aptly captured by what Richard Elmore called the "noble lie" of public policy. Elmore argued that policymakers pretend they can decide things. But in practice, they are unable to influence implementation because educators and administrators possess significant discretion and are constrained by countervailing organizational and political realities.

Education policy is less predictable because its impacts depend, in large part, on people: teachers, principals, administrators, as well as parents, taxpayers, and citizens. These individuals have varying capacities, commitments, and opinions and work in widely different environments. Public policy attempts to reconcile this otherwise chaotic system by channeling people's effort towards some common goals. But these are set via the political process and are often compromised and ambiguous. Laws and regulations are then enforced by bureaucracies, which have their own biases and are difficult for political leaders to control.

The end result is that government's formal powers are incomplete. Policymakers at all levels of government have more authority than private citizens, control more money, and possess enforcement powers that can exert influence. But these powers are modest compared to the problems they seek to resolve and can be circumscribed by those inside and outside of government.

At this writing, Trump ostensibly holds the most powerful government office in the world, and yet, he's learning that there's very little he can accomplish on his own. Congress, the courts, state and local governments, and private citizens can block actions and actively undermine the president's agenda. The less cooperation he receives, the less effective his formal powers become. As President Truman lamented with the election of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, "He will say 'do this, do that,' and nothing will happen. Poor Ike--it won't be a bit like the Army. He'll find it very frustrating."

Like presidents, state and district superintendents and administrators in state education agencies and the U.S. Department of Education cannot be effective without gaining the cooperation of others. Teachers, principals, central office staff members, board members, and interest groups all have their own jobs to do and ways of ignoring or thwarting initiatives spawned from Washington, DC, state capitols, and districts. Or to put it in the words of Renly Baratheon from Game of Thrones, "A man without friends is a man without power."

In recent years, these limits on government's formal powers have proven frustrating for those who seek to leverage policy to support improvement in K-12 education. Reforms launched from Washington, DC and state capitols on Common Core standards, teacher evaluation, and school improvement have run aground in the face of states' and districts' uneven capacity and varying commitment to the reform agendas advanced from elsewhere.

What's a policy wonk to do in the face of these dilemmas? One answer is to demand more of those whose cooperation policymakers require by becoming more prescriptive, less discretionary, and more punitive. Such actions rely on what political scientist Joseph Nye called "hard power"—carrots and sticks that coerce or compel people to change what they do. This strategy, emphasized under both Bush and Obama and numerous state and district superintendents, can be effective at getting narrow compliance for a time, but it comes with political costs. Just as threatening a wayward teenager can spur more rebellion, forcing states, districts, and educators to do something that lacks buy-in can backfire disastrously, setting reform back, rather than moving it forward.

Facing the limits of hard power, reform-minded policymakers ought to remember the second kind of power described by Nye. "Soft power" enables officials to influence others via "attraction"—i.e., by reshaping the agendas and preferences of others. Rather than forcing someone to do something, soft power motivates people to act and to align their support towards someone else's cause. This may seem like it's too good to be true, but it's far more common than it would appear. Traditional public education institutions like locally elected school boards are buttressed in large part by soft power: deeply engrained beliefs that such institutions are good, even when they do not benefit the individuals directly. The Every Student Succeeds Act creates opportunities for soft power to work for reform. Financial transparency requirements could be leveraged to build support for greater resource equity, thereby disrupting the political juggernaut that has confronted those looking to address funding inequities.

Wielded effectively, soft power might make education just a little like astronomy—exerting forces akin to the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun. Without it, education policy will remain vulnerable to the unpredictability that characterizes most human systems.

—Ashley Jochim

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