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When Did You Learn Your First Lesson About the Bush-Obama Reform Era?

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.

When Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned was released, Rick hosted a panel discussion about the book at AEI. Erica Green of the New York Times acted as moderator and asked us all a great question: "Where were you when you learned your first lesson of the Bush-Obama school reform era?" It's a question that I've been thinking about since that day, and I'd like to expound on it a bit more.

I'll admit, I was not as seasoned as my fellow panelists. As I said at the time, I was a junior in high school when President Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law, and had just finished teaching high school and was preparing to start graduate school when President Obama announced Race to the Top.

By the time I came onto the scene most of the cake was baked. I'll admit, I came to Washington, D.C. back in 2012 optimistic about the general direction of federal education policy. I bought into the bipartisan plaudits that Race to the Top and Secretary Duncan had received. I listened to folks like David Coleman talk about the goals of the Common Core and thought that it was something worth carefully considering, if not supporting. Maybe I had watched too many episodes of The West Wing, but I thought everything was just going to fall into place.

I realized that might not be so when Rick recommended that I read Jeffrey Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky's 1973 classic Implementation to help frame a chapter I was writing for a project that became Common Core Meets Education Reform. (Funny story, I actually lied to Rick and told him that I had read the book in grad school and totally understood why he was telling me to reference it. I then scurried home, immediately ordered it on Amazon, and tore through it as soon as it arrived. Ah youth!)

Pressman and Wildavsky's compelling tale of a federal works project in Oakland, California, presents a simple and intuitive framework for estimating the likelihood of a particular program working according to plan. First, estimate the likelihood that each of the steps that needs to take place for the program to be successful will actually happen. Then, combine the individual probabilities into one big cumulative probability for the entire enterprise.

Those of you who are mathematically inclined will see the issue right away. Even for a set of high-probability events, the likelihood that all of them break the right way is low. Think about a series of ten events that each has a 95 percent chance of happening. Multiply 0.95 by 0.95 ten times and you end up with 0.6, or a 60 percent chance of everything working out. Ten events with a 90 percent probability (which is still super high!) lead to a cumulative probability of only 35 percent. Change two of those ten events to a coin flip, and you're at an 11 percent cumulative probability. And this is only 10 events; the more you add, the lower the final number.

OK, no more math, I promise. The point that I'm trying to make here is just that the more complicated programs are, and the more folks that have to make key decisions, and the more veto points that are included at different levels of government, the more events get added to the chain that have to all work in order for the overall project to work. Each addition makes the overall likelihood of success decrease.

The Common Core was more than just changing standards, and teacher evaluation was more than just passing a law. Huge changes needed to be made in assessments, classroom practice, school management, and much more. Each possessed a huge chain of events that needed to work out in order for the project to be successful. Those chains were broken all over the place.

On the flip side, some of the policy changes incentivized by Race to the Top and other federal efforts had far fewer events that had to come together. Getting states to lift charter caps, for example, was really just passing a single law. Getting them to break down the "firewall" between student records and teacher records was straightforward as well. So was cutting checks to help finance charter school facilities. Fewer events, fewer actors, higher likelihood of success.

Those bullish on the federal government's ability to effect positive change should think deeply about what kinds of projects they want the federal government to tackle. The more complex the change, the less likely the federal government can get it done.

Mike McShane

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