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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

Evidence Isn’t Enough: Good Policy Needs Good Politics

By Guest Blogger — August 23, 2017 3 min read
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This month, Rick is out catching up on various and sundry projects that piled up during the rollout of Letters to a Young Education Reformer. In his stead, we’ve got a terrific slate of guest bloggers. Up this week is Ashley Jochim, a senior research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

I’m a researcher at university-based center that prides itself on following the evidence. That means I spend most of my time thinking about “what works.” I’m not alone. Federal and state policymakers, advocacy groups, and philanthropists have spilt a lot of ink on the value of evidence.

Because I live and breathe evidence every day, I was recently struck by this excerpt from A. A. Milne’s House at Pooh Corner:

Rabbit's clever," said Pooh thoughtfully. "Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit's clever." "And he has Brain." "Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit has Brain." There was a long silence. "I suppose," said Pooh, "that that's why he never understands anything."

To suggest, as Pooh does, that brains aren’t enough to understand something may appear somewhat blasphemous in a world in which “alternative facts” have become common parlance. But it got me thinking about what we’ve given up in our quest to identify “what works,” and our implicit assumption that “facts” are—or should be—what drives public policy.

In a lot of ways, this makes sense. By definition, education policy aims to improve opportunities for students, and we aren’t likely to find success in that regard if we make policies without considering evidence about cause and effect. The problem is evidence is rarely the sole reason why someone commits to action.

The debate over school choice is illustrative here. Over the last decade, researchers and policymakers have debated ad nauseum about whether choice “works.” But public support for school choice is eroding just as the results from school-choice programs are improving. That’s because the debate about school choice isn’t about results: It is driven by competing values and interests—e.g., the relative roles of local school boards, parents, unions, and private organizations. School choice threatens arrangements that benefit some groups and creates arrangements that may benefit other groups.

None of this will come as a surprise to those who follow education policy. But too often, the political conflicts that surround major reform proposals are dismissed as reflecting irrelevant or unworthy “adult interests.” Failing to recognize the real underlying conflicts and the need for bargaining and coalition-building leads to false hopes. Policies don’t get adopted or sustained just because they “work.”

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “But this political stuff isn’t for me.” This is all well and good, except that good policies depend on good politics. Witness the disintegration of agreement over Common Core, which lacked any committed constituency and encountered significant implementation problems that fueled discontent. Or the failure of Massachusetts’ charter-school initiative, which triggered strong resistance among traditional progressive groups but also among many moderate voters living outside of Boston where the expansion of charters has resulted in less money for districts.

If politics is more than a process for arbitrating evidence, how can would-be reformers better manage it to their advantage? It starts with recognizing that being right isn’t the same as winning. To be effective, would-be reformers need to back up their evidence-based visions and arguments by acting strategically to build political support. This is messy work but it need not require the abandonment of core principles or sacrificing a commitment to evidence.

Recognizing this basic truth, how to build political support has been a major focus of philanthropists and advocacy groups around the country. The result has been a spectacular infusion of money into building political will—via opposition research, million-dollar school board races, lobbying, and the like. This is all well and good but it’s not clear that it’s very effective at building strong coalitions.

As Paul Hill and I have written about, savvy policymakers aren’t defined by the constraints of politics. They leverage their positions to maximize their political power by bargaining with groups who can lend their support. In sum, they create a better “value proposition"—energizing previously disengaged groups and negotiating for concessions among powerful interests whose support can make or break any reform effort. The issues that define political coalition building can evolve, with the different parties’ support motivated by different reasons. Thus goes the old adage: “Politics makes strange bedfellows.”

The winning tactics and strategy won’t be the same everywhere. State and local superintendents will face different political environments that require a tacticians’ care. But for any supporter of evidence-based school reform, the fight is worth it.

—Ashley Jochim

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.