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Policy Windows Aren't All They're Cracked Up to Be

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.

One of my favorite scenes from The Simpsons was when Mr. Burns went to the doctor for a checkup. After writing his Social Security number 000-00-0002 ("Damn Roosevelt!"), Mr. Burns is told that he has every disease ("Are you sure you haven't made thousands of mistakes?" "No, I'm afraid not.").

But, it turns out that Mr. Burns is OK because, as the doctor explains, all of his diseases are trying to rush through the door at the same time and have jammed into each other, preventing any one from getting through. ("We call it 'Three Stooges Syndrome.'")

Mr. Burns' response: "So what you're saying is I'm indestructible?"

"Oh no, quite the opposite," the doctor replies. "Even the slightest breeze—"

Mr. Burns cuts him off: "In. De. Structable."

I kept thinking of this when reading about various federal education initiatives because folks at the time seemed really keen on jamming as much as possible through the doors that were opened to them.

Joseph P. Overton of the Mackinac Center popularized a view of this phenomenon that now bears his name. An Overton Window is a moment in time when a particular policy that perhaps was considered extreme or impossible before becomes possible. Windows can be fleeting and are a function of public opinion, economic and political factors, and, at times, just dumb luck.

Or, as then-Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel put it, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

Much of the Bush and Obama years in education policy revolved around chasing policy windows. The Great Recession, for example, was seen as an opportunity for massive policy change, as a couple hundred million federal dollars could force a cash-strapped state to do what folks in DC wanted.

But policy windows can be problematic. First, identifying a policy window is a bit of a tautology. If a policy becomes popular or is signed into law, its window is open. If it doesn't or it isn't, it is closed. It's hard to see this ahead of time.

But worse, obsession with policy windows leads to the kind of rushed thinking that afflicted too many advocates and policymakers during the Bush and Obama years. "A policy window is opening! We have to cram through as much stuff as humanly possible! We can sort out the details later!"

There is nothing wrong with trying to understand policy windows or being entrepreneurial in looking for opportunities. But the dose makes the poison. Obsession with identifying and maximizing these windows leads people astray.

I think there are two lessons here. First, the what of policy pushed through policy windows matters. Simple, straightforward policy changes are much more likely to lead to success. Need to lift a charter cap or break down a "firewall" between student and teacher data? That is a one-time event whose edges are clearly delineated. Once it's done, it's done.

Compare that to trying to revamp (or create from whole cloth) a state's teacher evaluation system. That is not a one-time event. The work will have to continue after the window closes. Can it be sustained? What happens when the central figures move on? What if a person of the opposite party gets elected? If that would bring the effort to a crashing halt, perhaps working more to change the public's or policymakers' opinions is a more fruitful path.

Second, even though policy windows are exciting, advocates need to keep one eye open, because when the window opens, the interest in dissenting voices rapidly declines. I think back to another volume that Rick and I co-edited back in 2013 about the Common Core that raised issues about the effort. How are these new standards going to be worked into all of the other stuff that states are doing to reform education? Who "owns" the standards? What is the governance structure when there are questions or the standards need to be revised? What interest groups will emerge once the standards are put into place? Is technology up to snuff to deliver computer-based adaptive assessments? What about instructional materials? What about professional development?

Do these questions sound familiar? Are they not much of what we talk about when we talk about the Common Core today?

These were not the fever dream rantings of anti-Common Core zealots. No UN conspiracies here. Just simple, straightforward questions about the effort. And advocates, with few exceptions, were not interested. They were too busy winning. Tens of millions of children were in states that had adopted the standards. The testing consortia were flush with hundreds of millions of tax dollars. The window was open and folks were not interested in anyone saying that we should look before we leap through it.

Not all criticism is "hating." Not all of it is grifting. Some is, sure, but wise advocates and policymakers have to learn to separate the two. Too many people in federal education policy during the Bush and Obama years were too quick to dismiss criticism. The doctrine was policy windows above all. I believe this was to their detriment.

Three Stooges Syndrome can be frustrating. I get it—when a window opens, it is so very tempting to try to push through everything that you can. When will another open? Why not take advantage of the opportunity?

But being prudent, thoughtful, and self-critical is a better long term strategy for educational improvement. You never know when a stiff breeze is going to come along and jar loose a swarm of disease.

Mike McShane

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