Thinking Policy: Four Tips for Educators

As I wrote on Monday, edu-leaders need to get over their distaste for policy. Let me say it again: edu-leaders are spending the public’s money to serve the public’s kids in public institutions. Educators are in the policy business, like it or not. This means, practically speaking, the only real question is whether leaders are addressing policy in smart ways… or not.

On that score, reflecting on what leaders tend to ask when we’re wading into the subject of policy, let me offer a couple tips.

First, understand that policymakers are not seeking to make your life difficult. They’re responsible for spending billions in public funds and dealing with the public’s kids. They know that if someone somewhere misspends funds or harms a kid, they’ll hear about it. And, truth is, most policymakers are concerned with making sure that public resources aren’t misused or wasted. This means that policymakers typically don’t gear policies to reward all-stars; rather, they operate with an eye to what bad actors might do wrong. Except in rare cases, policy is simply not a tool for promoting excellence.

Second, policymakers can’t just make rules that only apply to bad actors. Going back to the Enlightenment, the whole logic of democratic law-making was to stop laws from being applied selectively, so that kings couldn’t create different rules for you and for me. Because rules are being applied across the board, for good actors and bad actors alike, they can’t be based on trust or good intentions. (So, for instance, legislators can write turnaround policies for all schools that objectively perform below a certain level, but they can’t treat those schools differently based upon whether or not they trust the principal or the faculty.) Moreover, since policymakers aren’t worried about those they trust to do the right thing, statutes and rules are inevitably written with an eye to those they don’t trust.

Third, keep in mind that policymakers can make people do things, but they can’t make them do them well. Policy is a blunt tool. School and system leaders will frequently tell legislators about their model program and then later wonder, in frustration, “Why don’t they just have people do X? It works.” The problem is that policymakers don’t have the levers to make schools or systems do X. They can require schools or systems to comply with punch lists–hire a parent liaison or set aside forty minutes a day for literacy instruction–but they can’t require them to do any of those things well.

The trick is that most of what we care about when it comes to teaching and learning is about how you do things, rather than whether you do them. In the end, policymakers only have three crude levers at their disposal. They can give away money for particular purposes, tell you what you must do, and tell you what you can’t do. That’s about it. Yet, with just these three blunt instruments, policymakers are under immense pressure to make the world a better place.

Fourth, if you keep these things in mind, you’ll recognize that policymakers find all of this just as frustrating as educators do. They want to be helpful, but their efforts to solve problems through policy are inevitably ham-handed, and rarely work as well as intended. They’re desperate for edu-leaders who can help them figure out workable solutions and who are demonstrating success on the ground. Approach policymakers accordingly.

In particular, this means doing three things. First, don’t demand more money. Everybody asks for money–educators and cops and universities and youth services and hospitals… If policymakers had more money to give, they’d give it. Second, if you’re approaching policymakers with an ask, make sure you use your time with them to explain that you understand their concerns and suggest how you can tackle problems that you’re all worried about (serving students better, spending funds wisely, demonstrating learning). And, third, offer solutions and let them know how they can help, other than by forking over more bucks.

If you show up identifying shared problems and explaining how you can solve a problem by making smart use of existing tools, talent, and resources, you’ll be surprised at how helpful policymakers can be and how interested they’ll be in hearing your thoughts and picking your brain for solutions.

– Rick Hess

This blog entry originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College