State and Federal Education Policy Has Failed to Reform America’s Schools

Chartwell Education Group

Since the enactment of the Elementary and secondary Education Act is 1965, America has depended on state and federal education policy as its main tool to improve education in American schools. Yet, here we are now forty-four years later, after having spent decades of effort, tons of money, volumes of educational punditry and political debate; still hopelessly flooded with underperforming schools.

As we go forward with future school improvement efforts like the reauthorization of NCLB, it seems wise to pause and ask an important question. Why has so much previous state and federal education policy delivered so little improvement?

That question undoubtedly has multiple answers. But I think that there is an answer that we continue to overlook although it stares us right in the face. It is that too much previous state and federal education policy has had weak to non-existent integration with education practice. Put another way, with previous efforts there has been a gaping gap between education policy and education practice. This is a critical problem because in order for education policy to be effective, it must influence education practice, and education practice is under the control of education practitioners, not education policymakers.

In the main, previous state and federal educational improvement efforts have given too little attention to a cardinal truth. A concerned university professor put it this way some years ago: “when and if schools improve, they will do so as result of the efforts of the people in the schools.” What this means is that the extent of the enthusiastic support for, and involvement with, state or federal policy by those in the schools—teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members—is the major determinant of the degree of success the policy will generate.

Federal and state education policy—the set of laws/rules/regulations enacted to govern the operation of our system of education—is primarily formulated in state and federal settings, usually heavily influenced by the work of education think tanks, education lobbyists, education advocacy organizations, and the practical realities of political expediency. Those who actually teach the children, manage the schools, and do the work of school boards usually are little represented at this level. This unfortunate truth creates a dual negative.

First, education policy created in this manner cannot benefit from the perspective of persons who know the educational environment best. School reform policy, constructed by policy elites, politicians and others outside the school system devoid of significant participation of school professionals is rarely based on sufficient understanding of the school and its unique cultural infrastructure to have the intended effect. Absent sufficient practitioner participation, the effort leaves policy developers at risk of under appreciation of the enormity of the teaching and learning tasks in today’s society. For education policy to be successful, it must be anchored in a realistic understanding of the school environment, and this cannot be achieved without authentic involvement and buy-in by those in the schools.

Second, and even more perilous, lacking involvement in education policy formulation in meaningful ways, school professionals are likely to feel no ownership in the policy’s success, which leaves the policy void of meaningful practitioner advocacy. It also fuels the feeling on the part of education practitioner that the policy is being imposed upon them by those who not only don’t fully understand the educational challenges, but more egregiously, don’t have any skin in the game. This situation then feeds lackluster efforts from persons whose enthusiasm is needed to cause the change necessary to improving education outcomes. To the practitioners the issue becomes one of compliance, as opposed to improving student performance. The difference between responding to educational policy as a compliance issue and responding to it as an opportunity to improve student learning is not at all trivial. The level of policy advocacy inside the school and school system is a major determinant of the quality of the results that will emanate from the reform policy.

Those who stand apart from the children can offer leadership and assistance; provide appropriate resources; give proper encouragement and guidance; but no matter their excellence, expertise, good intentions or resources, they cannot change education practice without the direct participation and wholehearted partnership of those inside the schools. It has been said before, but it deserves repeating: if and when schools improve, they will do so as a result of the efforts and commitment of those in the schools, who teach the children, administer the schools, do the work of school boards, and stand accountable for student learning. This reality underpins the absolute necessity of significant involvement of educational practitioners in education policy formulation, of which there has previously been too little.

This is not to understate the importance of sound state and federal education policy. Sound education policy is a necessary condition for effective school reform; it’s just that it is an insufficient condition. Moreover, it’s clear to me, that in the main, those involved in the development of state and federal policy are sound thinkers, well immersed in the research, committed to the task of education improvement, and expert in many aspects of the education landscape. So clearly their efforts are appreciated. But for policymakers’ goals to be accomplished, a partnership with practitioners is a necessary condition.

One can argue, with some justification, that practitioners such as teachers, principals superintendents and school board members have advocacy groups of their own, and through these groups, have access to educational policy formulation. But, with a few exceptions, one can only describe the education policymaking influence of such groups as minimal at best. Increasing the involvement of such groups offers one way to more effectively involve practitioners in policymaking.

But we must be cautious because some such organizations have agendas which aren’t always aligned with the interest of authentic school improvement. In some cases, the interest of the organization and the interest of the children are not only different, but even at odds with each other. Therefore, care in the selection of participating groups is in order. As a result, the effectiveness of this approach would be linked to the abilities of state and federal authorities’ ability to involve organizations whose authentic interest is in improving the operation of our education system. Nevertheless, with careful awareness and scrutiny, increasing opportunities for the participation of such organizations in educational policy development is a good thing.

In summary, because the lack of significant participation of educational practitioners in education policy formulation is rooted in an under appreciation of the significant impediments to improvement that exist in the cultural infrastructures of school; and because practitioners have knowledge that policy elite do not; and because educational practitioners feel that they are the ones whose fannies are exposed and who will be held accountable for educational results; little educational improvement can be expected until the policymaker-practitioner gap is bridged.

I therefore believe that it can be claimed, with little risk of error, that in large measure significant practitioner participation in education policy formulation in the past school reform efforts has been vastly insignificant, and thus, ineffective in helping achieve the kind of improvements we seek in school operations. This means that to actually make significant improvements in school operations, we must find a way to increase the authentic involvement and participation in education policy development of those who actually do the education work—educational practitioners—as a necessary condition of the first order.