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Can an Obscure Law of Technology Help Explain Federal Education Policy?

For the next few weeks, Rick will be out and about discussing his new edited volume, Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned. While he's away, several of the contributors have agreed to stop by and offer their reflections on what we've learned from the Bush-Obama era. This week, you'll hear from Rick's co-editor Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice. Mike will be sharing some big-picture thoughts about why the Bush-Obama era matters and what it has to teach.

Thanks Rick for turning over the keys to the family cruiser for the week! In September, Harvard Education Press released Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned, our latest editing collaboration. I'm so happy that the contributors to the volume will be sharing their wisdom in these pages over the next couple of weeks.

As their humble editor, I'd like to offer some framing remarks.

Perhaps it's best to start outside of education. Amara's Law, named after technologist and futurist Roy Amara, states that we overestimate the effects of new technologies in the short term and underestimate their effects in the long term.

Bitcoin is potentially an example. Folks who said that Bitcoin would only get more and more valuable over the next several years clearly overstated their case. That said, blockchain computing, the programming that makes Bitcoin work, has the potential to revolutionize all sorts of fields, but over a much longer time horizon.

There were clear parallels to Amara's Law during the Bush-Obama era. Throughout those 16 years of federal education policy, wonks and advocates dramatically overstated the short term effects of their ideas. Most of those policies failed to live up to the hype. Over a longer term, however, many have the potential to fundamentally affect schooling, for good and for ill.

School accountability is a prime example. Remember, the "cascade" of remedies tied to schools' failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) wasn't that big of a deal. Fill out some more reports. Offer supplemental services. A pain, sure, but no one was going to lose their job. In fact, it wasn't until six years of failure that real teeth started to show up. Backers argued that this policy would bring all children to proficiency in just over a decade. A clear overstatement.

But the testing infrastructure and data systems that made calculating AYP possible will live on, even after most of the teeth of No Child Left Behind were jettisoned by the Every Student Succeeds Act. Remember, prior to 2001, some states had zero state-mandated testing and reporting. No Child Left Behind forever changed that, and that doesn't appear to be going away.

Teacher evaluation reform is another example. If you think back to the ambitious timelines of Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind waivers, states promised to totally revamp the way that they evaluated their teachers in a few short years. They believed that they could create systems that would meaningfully differentiate the performance of teachers, that various rewards and sanctions could be tied to those measures, and that those rewards and sanctions would improve student achievement. Yeah, it didn't go down like that.

But, like with accountability, the effort to do so created an infrastructure that will shape our discussions of teacher quality for the foreseeable future. Demonstrating that there is a wide range of teacher quality, and that teacher quality has a huge impact on students, is a bell that you can't unring. The ability to link student performance to teachers, and understand the relationship between the two, is still in its infancy but has the potential to change how we recruit teachers, prepare them, manage them, and compensate them.

The Common Core falls into this category as well. In the short term, backers of the Common Core swung for the fences, promising major instructional shifts, better assessments, and quickly. That did not pan out. What did happen was a serious, potentially long term blow to the standards movement, and national standards in particular. Pre-Common Core polling put the idea of national standards as something that the public broadly supported. Now, when people hear "national standards," they think Common Core, and while the Common Core's image has rebounded a bit recently, it is still a severely damaged brand. Those scars will live long past any mentions of Benchmarking for Success.

Policymakers and advocates would be well served to remember Amara's Law and think about the short term and long term consequences of the policies that they promote. The second- and third-order effects of policies are sometimes the ones that leave the lasting mark.

Mike McShane

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