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In Education, Don't Sacrifice the Longview in the Heat of the Now

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By Steve Berlin, Senior Communications Manager, National Association of State Boards of Education

Some years ago, a wise (and decidedly cynical) poli-sci professor explained to a class of idealistic and attentive undergrads that the job of a politician is to get elected. As one of those students and a cynic-in-training, that lesson stayed with me.

Flash forward 25 years and while I'm not a world-class cynic, I devised my own corollary to my professor's lesson: Politics is about what happens rightnow, but education policy is about what happens five or 10 years from now. And it's the second part of that phrase that explains a sometimes uncomfortable truth about policy and policymaking — in education, we really cannot say with certainty exactly how things will turn out in a decade, as the results based on student performance must be judged by longitudinal surveys for about a decade before judgment is passed.

Unfortunately, that does not resonate with those whose job is to get elected to political offices. When individuals who promise to "fix the education system" and raise test scores, the focus is often centered on other plans to "get rid of bad teachers," "replace ineffective principals," and "repair failing schools." But when unilateral and/or radical change is made, it is often made in the pursuit of power and the politics of the moment to give the impression that "something is being done" rather than any altruistic reason.

State boards of education have represented the citizens' voice in education policymaking since Horace Mann, the "father of public education," led the first state board in Massachusetts in 1837. Now, state boards represent the people's voice in 48 states, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Northern Marianas, having been constitutionally established or set by law.

Board members are elected or appointed, depending on the state, and represent the spectrum of races, ethnicities, religions, occupations, cultures, and political philosophies. (See "State Education Governance Models (2012)" to learn about your state.) State board members are volunteers who invest themselves in the profession of education policy for little or no financial gain, save maybe expenses incurred traveling to and from their monthly meetings in the state capital, all to help deliver the best systems for public education for the children of their respective states.

And because policy is a long-term, multifaceted proposition, board terms in most states span gubernatorial administrations. It makes little sense to change educational policies every time the political winds shift (or terms expire) if the goal is to produce, implement and examine policies that affect generations of students. More about this later.

State boards responsibilities may include: adopting and implementing statewide curriculum standards, including cross- or multi-state standards such as those in the Common Core; setting high school graduation requirements; adoption and implementation of state testing and assessment programs; applying for and administering federal assistance and grant programs; and more.

In short, board members recognize the gravity of the decisions they make every month and strive to make the best-informed and most appropriate choices possible for their states.

In our annual experiences with state boards and education systems across the country, calls for changes in governance structures that replace a representative panel with a single voice stem from attempts to fix short-term political problems rather than a deliberative process to consider the best system possible. Worse yet, quick fixes can easily end up backfiring down the road.

During these volatile times in education policymaking, the role of state boards as the citizens' voice able to take the long view is more important than ever. For even amid the mountains of changes that have occurred and the vast numbers of changes to come, state boards are still the advocates of an ever-improving public education Mann envisioned all those years ago.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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