Edu-Leaders: Get Over Your Policy Allergies

Hidy, all. I’m back. I’ve been away teaching at UPenn and Rice, working with Clark County and the folks at UVA’s turnaround program, and generally trying to catch up on writing that got stacked up while I was scrambling to finish Cage-Busting Leadership.

Anyway, thought I’d write today about something that struck me while teaching at UPenn and Rice. At UPenn, I teach policy to mid-career PhDs at the Graduate School of Education. At Rice, I teach aspiring school leaders in the Business School’s educational entrepreneurship program. Every year, I’m struck by the heated, nearly reflexive distaste that so many current (and aspiring) school and system leaders express for “policy.”

I had smart, talented leaders complain about ill-conceived accountability systems. About pols who weren’t willing to spend enough on schools. About why pols don’t listen to them or ask their advice. About how the pols ought to stick to their own business, and let educators run the schools. In general, the view was that policy is something done to them by meddling pols who don’t know their place. The consensus seems to be that policy is something idiotic policymakers do to amuse themselves and annoy practitioners.

How do I respond to this grousing? Mostly, I tell edu-leaders to get over themselves. Public schools spend public dollars and hire public employees to serve the public’s children. For better or worse, they’re going to be governed by public policies. Whether made by legislators or bureaucrats, and in Washington or locally, those policies sketch what educators can and can’t do, how money is to be spent, how performance will be judged, who can be hired, and much else.

If you’re not cool with that, recognize that you’re probably in the wrong line of work. But, wait up, you say. You say that public officials didn’t used to do this. Two answers: One, you’re wrong. Pols have always written regs about how money could be spent, how many kids could sit in a classroom, what subjects had to be taught, who could teach, and so on. Two, the reason today’s policy feels more invasive is because there’s substantial dissatisfaction with how schools are doing and with the effects of these older rules and regs. So, new policies focused on accountability, choice, teacher evaluation, and the rest, are an attempt to make sure that the public’s kids are well served and that public funds are spent effectively.

Let me put it this way. If you were an elected official and were responsible for elementary schools where only half of kids are reading at grade level and high schools where only fifty percent of students are graduating, it’d be pretty understandable (and laudable, even) to think you can’t simply trust the educators to do the right thing.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why people who aren’t experts on schooling get to make policy, it’s simple: they’re elected to do that. You can argue that educators should have an untrammeled right to spend public dollars, educate the public’s kids, and run public schools as they see fit. But you can do so coherently if, and only if, you think military officials should have a free hand to make national security policy, police should get a free hand to write criminal law, doctors and pharmaceutical companies to make health policy, and bankers to regulate banking. Otherwise, if you want a say in things like health policy or whether police racially profile, then you need to recognize that folks expect educators to live by those same rules.

-Frederick Hess

P.S. There’s a stellar new opportunity at UPenn’s Graduate School of Ed. The GSE has is looking to hire an Executive Director of Academic Innovation. The hire will report directly to all-star Dean Andy Porter and will spearhead GSE’s portfolio of activity around engaging the entrepreneurial community, partnering with new sector providers, delivering online teacher prep, collaborating with Wharton, and more (basically, the stuff that Doug Lynch pioneered so effectively for GSE). Definitely worth checking out.

This blog entry originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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