Education Policy: Props, Paper Plans, and Pyrrhic Victories

Years ago, blogger Ace of Spades noted the “MacGuffinization of American politics,” explaining:

In a movie or book, The MacGuffin” is the thing the hero wants.

Usually the villain wants it too, and their conflict over who will end up with The MacGuffin forms the basic spine of the story.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the MacGuffin is, of course, the Lost Ark. Indy wants it; the Nazis have it. This basic conflict over simple possession animates a two hour long movie.

Alfred Hitchcock noted – counterintuitively, when you first hear this – that the specifics of the MacGuffin don’t really matter at all to a movie. He pointed out that the audience doesn’t care at all about the MacGuffin. The hero in the movie itself cares, but the audience doesn’t. . . .

A MacGuffin only has one requirement: That it be important-sounding, so that the audience understands the hero isn’t engaged in some trivial matter, but that the Stakes Are High.

The implication of a MacGuffinized politics was straightforward: “Policy questions . . . are simply incidental. They are MacGuffins only, of no importance whatsoever, except to the extent they provide opportunities for Drama as the Hero fights in favor of them.”

That feels like a disturbingly apt description of so much education policy today, proceeding from the same 21st century impulse to treat policy as a moral crusade rather than a trade-off laden grind, ancillary to the central work of the builders and the doers. The result is an exaggerated and distracting focus on symbols and dramatic-sounding narrative, one which ultimately seems to undercut the likelihood that well-meaning efforts will actually deliver better schools.

Thus, on multiple occasions in recent weeks, I found myself responding to journalists curious about the importance of the schools that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has visited. The healthy and obvious answer is that it doesn’t matter at all. Officials have always visited schools for local photo ops, and it’s always been treated as a minor pleasantry that belongs mostly in a school’s Facebook feed. A federal bureaucrat using a school as a prop should occasion mostly yawns—when it’s otherwise, we’re investing symbolic Beltway posturing with an import out-of-whack with its actual significance.

This reminds me of another big, ongoing education story: the exciting news that 17 states have turned in their completed paperwork for their ESSA plans. Hold the phones! State officials (and some consultants) have filled lots of pages in accord with federal reporting requirements. Once, such submissions were greeted with the nonchalant skepticism made for committee-crafted paper promises intended to satisfy federal requirements. Now, don’t get me wrong. State ESSA plans do matter, especially when it comes to something like framing school accountability or explaining what will happen to “struggling” schools. But a disproportionate amount of time, money, and energy has been devoted to scrutinizing and opining on these plans—as if boilerplate bluster will ultimately make a big difference for what happens in schools.

Of course, what will ultimately matter is how all of these efforts are actually carried out in states and districts. If the enthusiasm for props and paper promises yielded an equal fascination with what happens in the depths of state education agencies and school districts, that would be one thing. However, the MacGuffinization of education has seemingly led too many to treat symbolic accomplishments as meaningful victories. Thus, the passage of a law or enactment of a plan gets treated as the exciting climax to the struggle . . . and all the follow-through is just the boring stuff that will work itself out after the credits roll (while our heroes head off to chase a new MacGuffin).

That works well in Hollywood. It even works passably well if you’re trying to win a political campaign—so long as you don’t care what happens after you win. But, as I talk about at length in Letters, I fear it’s a pretty lousy way to improve schools and schooling. A myopic focus on chasing the MacGuffin is a recipe for Pyrrhic victory. It’s how you end up with exciting victories like the federal School Improvement Grant program, the Common Core, or teacher evaluation reform, that look a lot less victorious in hindsight.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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