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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.

School & District Management Opinion

Influence Isn’t Deference

By Rick Hess — February 22, 2010 3 min read
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I spent the weekend in Atlanta at the annual conference of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. In gatherings like that, folks frequently ask me for thoughts about the policy process (which is amusing if you consider that I’ve never worked in government or, so far as I know, ever actually, you know, impacted policy). Anyway, I wound up in a couple terrific conversations about how researchers and educators could more effectively shape policy.

I noticed that my fellow Ed Week blogging newbie Walt Gardner tackled this very subject last week. He expressed frustration that policymakers seem too often to ignore what teachers think.

I’m more sanguine on that point. I think you’d find cops, soldiers, doctors, and college professors also feel like their opinions don’t receive enough weight. For those who want to insist that doctors have played a big role in shaping health care reform, the evidence suggests that large numbers of doctors, at least, feel otherwise (see here or here). In fact, professionals in any field may feel less influential than they look from the outside. After all, many critics of K-12 have historically worried that policies were too attentive to teachers’ interests.

In the U.S., public services are governed by popular majorities. It’s that whole democracy thing. Even if troops would rather not deploy to Afghanistan or if TSA employees think it would be useful to racially profile, it’s not their call. They are expected to abide by the decisions of elected leaders. Everyone gets to speak, electioneer, and vote, but then decisions are made by generalists accountable to the whole electorate. And that’s a good thing, because college professors or TSA staff may have interests distinct from those of us who are paying for their services.

That said, I’ll suggest there are three keys for professionals to influence policy in constructive ways. The first is to fight to shape goals, aims, and beliefs. The second is to concede gracefully when one has lost the policy battle (whether the issue is testing or whether to impose sanctions on Iran). This involves wielding expertise to help figure out how to enact legislation thoughtfully and execute it as sensibly as possible. It also requires the humility to accept policies that may seem misguided and the imagination to understand that how the measure is shaped and implemented may matter at least as much as the broad contours of the policy.

Policymakers have broad goals, but they aren’t experts in schooling and don’t claim to be. They get irate with claimants who keep insisting “it can’t be done,” but they’re always eager for experts who will help them make their program work. For instance, if colleges of teacher education tell the U.S. Congress, “We want teacher training funds to keep flowing through us,” they’re going to be dismissed by many for engaging in the same old feather-bedding. On the other hand, saying, “We’re fine with you all opening up the funds to school districts and new providers because we’re comfortable competing for the dollars,” just might permit the colleges to get out front and help shape the bill in a way that they deem fair and that addresses their concerns.

If teachers respond to popular merit pay policies by saying, “Okay, but here are important things that research teaches us, here are some problems with simple-minded models, and here are some models that have won teacher buy-in,” they might be surprised by the influence they wield. If they’re skeptical, they might want to check out Denver’s ProComp plan to see just how that can work in practice.

And that brings us to the third thing. Teacher demands frequently amount to calls for “more.” More money. More respect. More whatever. The problem is that policymakers hear those same demands from higher education, police departments, and everyone else. Their job is to juggle efforts to solve multiple problems. What so many are desperate for are problem-solvers--those who figure out how to make things work, and not just being one more claimant.

The bottom line: Expertise carries the most clout when it is used to shape policies, rather than when it demands deference.

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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.