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The Cure for Sick Education Policies

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In the ever-expanding conversations about how to fix the U.S. public education system, many reformers look to business models. Many of the business designs they admire are based on a specific product line with a manageable amount of differentiation and a profit model. Schools don’t fit that blueprint.

But perhaps we can draw some wisdom from industries in which the product is a service and the service is provided to a diverse clientele with a host of different needs and degrees of demand. From that type of service, business educators might find some pathways through the policy problems in which we’re currently entangled.

In my school there are code books full of policy. Many policies are amended, but most never die. They are often the political equivalent of the cockroach in the entomological world—not often noticed but capable of causing significant damage.

It is in the matter of policy that we can look to hospitals for some wisdom. They are a service industry with patient diversity and needs similar to those we face in the classroom. Although we do not face life and death issues in most of our decisions, the consequences of bad policy can have a lasting impact on students' lives.

A Hospital Story

There was a hospital in Florida. It had a typical hospital structure. The doctors spent a few minutes with each patient each day, completed their charts, and left. The nurses, on the other hand, were there every day and spent all of their time with the patients. They barely had time to breathe—much less question the hospital policies that impacted the care they were able to give their patients. This hospital was having many problems with many issues. The nurses grumbled about the policies that doubled their paperwork and cut their time with patients; the patient infection and death rates were up, making everyone miserable; staff turnover was high; and replacing those skilled nurses cost a lot of time and money.

Then, a new chief, who had been a registered nurse for 25 years, was hired. Her first meeting was with the nurses, making the doctors and other administrators nervous. The new chief asked the doctors and administrators to relinquish some of their traditional privileges and let the nurses have a voice in hospital operations, but the doctors didn't think the nurses would understand the larger picture.

Next, the new chief began asking the nurses for policy advice—and giving some of the nurses an entire day to observe, read research, and think about evidence from other hospital turnarounds. The new hospital leadership initiated long conversations about possible solutions, making certain that the nurses were represented equally with the doctors. What these nurses were able to tell and show the doctors and other hospital administrators was eye-opening and led to new policies and procedures as well as significant improvements in the hospital’s metrics and quality of care.

The result of the nurses' increased involvement was not a sudden transformation in the hospital service industry; American medical care is still in need of systemic changes. But for those patients in that Florida hospital who would have otherwise not survived, and for those who saw their care become more personal and humane, the change was very dramatic indeed.

So What Have We Learned?

A glance through any policy group list at the federal, state, or even local level will show higher education, school administration, and Department of Education folks well-represented. You will frequently see business and nonprofit folks in the mix as well. Teachers' unions will have a seat at some tables. But teachers (the nurses in our story—the people closest to the problems) are rarely included in policy discussions and remain an endangered species in the decision-making process. Classroom teachers, who see the impact of policies closer up than anyone else, are seldom even consulted. Imagine trying to enact policies for family and marriage counselors without consulting any counselors. In fact, pick just about any other profession and plug it into the preceding sentence. The proposition will sound ludicrous.

Policy decisions are a lot like a giant crane. A tiny amount of movement at the control yields a huge swing at the other end. It is not easy to see the full effects of that mighty swing from the control cab.

In the classroom, teachers experience the impacts of policies every day, and we often have to find a way around poor or outdated ones to protect the education of our students. It makes sense to create a permanent place in policy discussions for the folks who are busy doing the work—and sometimes dodging the wrecking ball—out there on the front lines. They have knowledge and insight that could save American education from disastrous policies that may otherwise simply suck the life out of the system.

The future of education will depend on the right blend of voices at the policy table. In a sense, it really is about survival rates—about how we can better assure that the local, state, or national changes we make to improve opportunities for all our students draw on the intimate knowledge of those who teach and care for them today, while preparing them for tomorrow.

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