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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. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Four Things You Need to Know About Education Policymaking

By Rick Hess — January 27, 2020 1 min read
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Over the past few weeks, I taught my “Practice of Education Policy” course at Harvard’s Ed School and then co-hosted the AEI-Fordham Emerging Education Policy Scholars (EEPS) program with my pal Mike Petrilli. It gave me the opportunity to spend time with sharp grad students and junior professors as they conversed with senior congressional staff, Trump and former Obama appointees, reporters, union leaders, advocates, and funders. As always, I came away with a handful of insights and reflections. There were four that seem worth sharing.

Media has fostered a funhouse-mirror sense of policy: For two decades, I've found that many in the academy have a poor grasp of how policy actually works. In recent years, it's been increasingly clear that this misunderstanding has been supersized by the way social media, contemporary education reporting, and cable news turns everything into a showdown between good guys and bad guys. If you pay attention to the education outlets or Twitter, you'd think that every dispute over charter schooling or student loans is a tussle between those on the side of justice and the agents of malice. This has fostered a distorted sense of how policy plays out, while obscuring the fact that the disputes are frequently just honest, reasonable differences of opinion. Policy is driven by the brokers and bridge-builders: Obviously, bomb-throwers matter. They can push issues onto the agenda and influence the way issues are discussed and debated. But the keys to the policy process, for better and worse, rest with those who know the complex ins and outs of policy; are seen as trustworthy and discreet; and are skilled at assembling coalitions, forging majorities, and working bureaucratic processes. In the past couple weeks, after engaging with a variety of veteran officials and advocates, one Harvard/EEPS participant after another shared some version of: "These policy people are nothing like I expected! Whether they're choice advocates or teachers' union people, Trump or Obama, they all seem friendly, serious, informed, and relationship-driven." Yep. Where they expected to find bomb-throwers, they got bridge-builders. Effective change-makers listen more than they talk: Academics and single-issue advocates love to show up with recommendation X or the results of study Y and tell policymakers and school system leaders what they really need to do. Frequently, these fervent declarations are unaccompanied by a familiarity with why things currently look like they do or what it would take to follow their advice. It turns out that leaping into complicated, long-running policy discussions is a lousy way to convince people who've spent months or years wrestling with these questions; it seems less helpful than presumptuous. The pros consistently note the value of learning the history of the debate, the context of the policy environs, and the views of the key players before jumping in. This is why effective change agents are often surprisingly good listeners. Evidence rarely changes minds, but it still matters: While there's a lot of sweeping talk about "evidence-based policymaking," the truth is that evidence rarely wins out over core convictions. So, while a study may show that school vouchers or merit pay "works" (or doesn't "work"), it turns out that most people have a stance on these issues that is anchored more in values and life experience than in what researchers report when they look at test scores or parent surveys. That makes a whole lot of sense. Heck, it's reasonable and kind of reassuring to think that values and experience count for more than dueling research-paper findings, and that it takes a pile of consistent, hard-to-ignore evidence to change core beliefs. But, when this is ignored, people often become unnecessarily cynical about policymaking and the role of research.

In recent years, we’ve been bombarded by the notion that “the system” is broken. I often wonder how much of this is a lazy media trope and how much of it is that many would-be change agents don’t much understand the practice of policymaking and don’t take the time to learn it. Before expecting to effectively shape policymaking or practice in a world full of complexity and honest disagreement, roll up your sleeves and spend some time listening and learning about the world you want to change. Those who take the time seem to be happier with the results.

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.