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

Education Opinion

Embracing Nuance and Diversity in State Ed. Reform

By Guest Blogger — December 21, 2016 5 min read
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Note: This week, Sara Dahill-Brown , assistant professor of political science at Wake Forest University, will be guest-blogging. See her eariler post here.

In Monday’s post, I expressed concern about what the new administration may mean for schools with regards to ensuring that equity continues to be a central focus of state and local policy efforts. But, even though I am anxious about the possibility advocates will find themselves without a strong ally in USED, I also remain hopeful about the potential for state and local policy change under ESSA.

This is because I am convinced that many of the policy failures of the last 15 years (practical and political) can be attributed to a disproportionate emphasis on a top-down approach to reform. My experiences as a student, teacher, volunteer, and researcher have led me to that conclusion, and readers of RHSU will know that I am not alone in that belief

Folks on both the left and the right of the political spectrum have criticized top-down reforms, naming federal mandates as well as philanthropic policy advocacy as problematic for how they regularly bypass state and local constituents and political processes. Programs and policies adopted top-down may be enacted quickly but are especially vulnerable to changes in leadership, often fall apart or are warped during implementation, and regularly provoke political backlash, contributing to a kind of policy churn that is antithetical to the sustainable improvement of school systems (see Rick’s 1998 book for more on policy churn in urban systems).

Those critiques are a large part of what shaped ESSA. However, this era of top-down reform is not purely a creature of the federal government, it is also a product of eager reformers and philanthropists evangelizing on behalf of specific policy tools. For this reason, I do not think the provisions of the law that require stakeholder engagement during planning and implementation are entirely sufficient to move beyond the top-down impulse. I hope many of those who identify as reformers will shift their mindset, adopt different strategies—and, perhaps, hold some of their particular policy commitments a bit more lightly.

I think this might be aided by repeating ad nauseam a fact that Martin Carnoy and colleagues reminded EdWeek readers of at the beginning of this year, when they described findings from their analysis of PISA: “U.S. Students attend schools in 51 separate education systems responsible to the states and the District of Colombia. The U.S. education system is a construct that does not exist operationally.” (Emphasis mine.) This is fundamental and simple, and nonetheless easily forgotten.

Even though third-grade classrooms in New York and Colorado closely resemble one another, for the most part, and even though our aims for children in each of those places are roughly similar—that they learn to the best of their ability to read, write, do math, create, and be good citizens—differences among state systems are more than trivial and, I would argue, must shape both specific policy agendas and the pursuit of those policy agendas. So, what might a different kind of policy entrepreneurship look like?

First, the most significant problems and challenges confronting school systems in each state vary, and policy agendas should reflect that variation. For example, in spite of press about the national teacher shortage, it has been acute in some states, and nearly nonexistent in others. Similarly, for any social or economic problem that finds its way into the school system, there is tremendous variation across the states (and within them). Consider child poverty or segregation.

Leaders in the state of Oregon, upon identifying the states’ high rate of absenteeism, partnered with researchers at Portland State University to conduct 44 focus groups and publish a report on the causes of absenteeism and possible solutions for it. Many state agencies took up this challenge this past summer, organizing statewide listening tours as they developed their implementation plans for ESSA.

Second, though there is undeniably convergence in many aspects of education policy across the states, the formal institutions and informal cultural traditions of educational governance that produce these policies also vary from state to state. It is vital to take stock of them. The governance of schools in the U.S. has generally been described as fragmented (authority dispersed not only among states but also among thousands of districts) and, by extension, locally-controlled, as well as sequestered from regular party politics by out-of-sync or non-partisan school board elections. However, those truisms hold for some states more than others—and they are constantly evolving.

For example, at one extreme, the state of Hawaii’s public school system is consolidated into a single district, whereas, at the other end, more than 1,000 regular local school districts were operating in the state of Texas during the 2012-2013 school year. The process of building coalitions and designing policy needs to be shaped by these factors. How fragmented is the state system? How integrated is it with partisan politics? How deeply committed are citizens to the idea of local control, or accepting of state authority?

Before dismissing all of this as the wonkish wishful thinking of a professor, know that I would never suggest efforts like these—to consciously pursue more bottom-up reform—could eliminate political conflict. Rather, education debates look different when these are more consistent practices, and the policies that emerge from them are more likely to last.

Finally, I have referenced specific, important dimensions along which state school systems diverge, but I want to wrap up by noting that there are also idiosyncrasies of education in each state that are worth seeking out and understanding—things that may have an outsize influence on schools in that state, but which an outsider might not even think to investigate.

In Utah, where I grew up, the development of the public school system was heavily influenced by the LDS Church. Even now, more than 80,000 high school students take release time to attend seminaries that are located adjacent to, and coordinate with the public high school. Anyone trying to engage with educational reform in Utah who failed to engage that history and ongoing relationship would be missing a lot. I would love to hear what was especially unique to the school system in the state where you grew up or where you live now. Feel free to share in the comments or to tweet them at me (@_SaraDB).

—Sara Dahill-Brown

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.