Find your next job fast at the Jan. 28 Virtual Career Fair. Register now.
Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

Can an Obscure Law of Technology Help Explain Federal Education Policy?

By Guest Blogger — October 29, 2018 3 min read

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.

Thanks Rick for turning over the keys to the family cruiser for the week! In September, Harvard Education Press released Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned, our latest editing collaboration. I’m so happy that the contributors to the volume will be sharing their wisdom in these pages over the next couple of weeks.

As their humble editor, I’d like to offer some framing remarks.

Perhaps it’s best to start outside of education. Amara’s Law, named after technologist and futurist Roy Amara, states that we overestimate the effects of new technologies in the short term and underestimate their effects in the long term.

Bitcoin is potentially an example. Folks who said that Bitcoin would only get more and more valuable over the next several years clearly overstated their case. That said, blockchain computing, the programming that makes Bitcoin work, has the potential to revolutionize all sorts of fields, but over a much longer time horizon.

There were clear parallels to Amara’s Law during the Bush-Obama era. Throughout those 16 years of federal education policy, wonks and advocates dramatically overstated the short term effects of their ideas. Most of those policies failed to live up to the hype. Over a longer term, however, many have the potential to fundamentally affect schooling, for good and for ill.

School accountability is a prime example. Remember, the “cascade” of remedies tied to schools’ failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) wasn’t that big of a deal. Fill out some more reports. Offer supplemental services. A pain, sure, but no one was going to lose their job. In fact, it wasn’t until six years of failure that real teeth started to show up. Backers argued that this policy would bring all children to proficiency in just over a decade. A clear overstatement.

But the testing infrastructure and data systems that made calculating AYP possible will live on, even after most of the teeth of No Child Left Behind were jettisoned by the Every Student Succeeds Act. Remember, prior to 2001, some states had zero state-mandated testing and reporting. No Child Left Behind forever changed that, and that doesn’t appear to be going away.

Teacher evaluation reform is another example. If you think back to the ambitious timelines of Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind waivers, states promised to totally revamp the way that they evaluated their teachers in a few short years. They believed that they could create systems that would meaningfully differentiate the performance of teachers, that various rewards and sanctions could be tied to those measures, and that those rewards and sanctions would improve student achievement. Yeah, it didn’t go down like that.

But, like with accountability, the effort to do so created an infrastructure that will shape our discussions of teacher quality for the foreseeable future. Demonstrating that there is a wide range of teacher quality, and that teacher quality has a huge impact on students, is a bell that you can’t unring. The ability to link student performance to teachers, and understand the relationship between the two, is still in its infancy but has the potential to change how we recruit teachers, prepare them, manage them, and compensate them.

The Common Core falls into this category as well. In the short term, backers of the Common Core swung for the fences, promising major instructional shifts, better assessments, and quickly. That did not pan out. What did happen was a serious, potentially long term blow to the standards movement, and national standards in particular. Pre-Common Core polling put the idea of national standards as something that the public broadly supported. Now, when people hear “national standards,” they think Common Core, and while the Common Core’s image has rebounded a bit recently, it is still a severely damaged brand. Those scars will live long past any mentions of Benchmarking for Success.

Policymakers and advocates would be well served to remember Amara’s Law and think about the short term and long term consequences of the policies that they promote. The second- and third-order effects of policies are sometimes the ones that leave the lasting mark.

Mike McShane

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Branding Matters. Learn From the Pros Why and How
Learn directly from the pros why K-12 branding and marketing matters, and how to do it effectively.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Join experts from Samsung and Boxlight to learn how to make learning more interactive from anywhere.
Content provided by Samsung
Teaching Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: How Educators Can Respond to a Post-Truth Era
How do educators break through the noise of disinformation to teach lessons grounded in objective truth? Join to find out.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Director of Information Technology
Montpelier, Vermont
Washington Central UUSD
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools
Director of Athletics
Farmington, Connecticut
Farmington Public Schools
Head of Lower School
San Diego, California
San Diego Jewish Academy

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: January 13, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read