Williams: Education Politics vs. Practice (Or Why So Many VERY BIG IDEAS Rarely Make It to the Classroom)

As President Obama’s administration winds down, there will be plenty of arguments under the heading, “The Next Phase of Education Reform.” And as fun as it will be for everyone to debate the substantive merits and political fortunes of the federal role in education, regular collection of academic assessment data, and so forth…I wonder if reformers should take the opportunity to instead think harder about improving their relationship with implementation.
First: it’s only fair to admit that implementation can seem like a second-order concern. You can’t start putting a new idea in practice until you’ve picked an idea to try. And there’s a lot — A LOT — of chaff out there in education policy arguments. Which ideas matter? How can we identify and push ideas that might make a difference for kids — and ignore those things that generate more heat than light? So for those of us who till those fields for a living, it pays to have a sorting mechanism for finding the wheat.
I do my sorting along the lines of a brilliant line from American philosopher William James:
“Grant an idea or belief to be true,” he wrote. “What concrete difference will its being true make in any one’s actual life? [What], in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”
In education, then, the meaning of a proposed policy is tied to what it can do out in the world — what impact it can actually have on students out in the classrooms.
So much of what we argue over in education consists of scrabbling over elements that fail James’ basic test. America’s top education thinkers love to debate the Big, Very Serious Principles. They We love to get charged up about Equity, Choice, Accountability, Excellence and a bevy of other core ideals. They We also love to cross swords over priorities: Fund afterschool programs! No, pay for art teachers! Professionalize teaching! No, raise teachers’ pay! Update facilities! Invest in technology!
These are things we need to talk about, obviously. But we usually do so without paying attention to what it would take to actually make these things happen.
Many education advocates are unaccustomed to thinking this way. Ask them what they want, and they’ll unspool a lengthy list of ideas (e.g. better family engagement programs at schools, expanded professional development opportunities, etc). Ask them how they can make those matter for classrooms, and you’ll usually get some glossy version of “there oughta be a law” to make their priorities a key part of a big funding stream that’s rarely overseen by anyone, at any level of government.
Consider this example: They’ll argue that family engagement should be supported by federal funds and listed as a priority for struggling schools. Is family engagement a good thing for student achievement? Yes. Should schools make it a priority? Yes. Is saying that loudly and asking for a federal budget line likely to improve how schools engage with students’ families? Who knows?
Look, U.S. education debates are generally long on rhetoric and short on implementation. That’s why we get big, exciting investments in new ideas — like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million commitment to Newark schools — only to squander the resources because we never thought through how to use them intentionally. We get fired up about the considerable promise of public pre-K, fight hard to get support for expanding access to these programs — and then screw up the implementation. Advocates fight hard to craft and legislate these sorts of big changes, but rarely work even half as hard at making those things real.
What if we considered implementation seriously when thinking about education policy? What if we started with our big priorities, and then mapped theories of action for putting them into place? What if we insisted on only pushing policies that would powerfully improve kids’ experiences at school?
Fun as those “should we #TrustStates or not” arguments are, I think this is the only reform future worth pursuing. So I’ve been reading a fascinating new book from the U.S. Education Delivery Institute: Deliverology in Practice: How Education Leaders are Improving Student Outcomes. Authors Sir Michael Barber, Nick Rodriguez, and Ellyn Artis share my concerns about the education community’s general inattention to implementation — and they offer a structured process for converting aspirations into meaningful actions for kids. They describe their work as “nothing more and nothing less than a set of tools, techniques, and systems” for clarifying what — and how — educational organizations need to do to effectively make big changes to support students’ success.
Some of their guidance is simple: can leaders define the goals they want to accomplish? Can they explain how we’ll know if they’re on track to meeting those goals? Can they organize their team and its workload to align to tasks that support progress towards these goals?
Other parts are more nuanced: One of the challenges of the U.S. education system is that “very few student outcome goals line up cleanly with the work of the functional divisions of an education system.” That is, it’s easier to assign responsibility for goals in organizations that have been designed with results in mind. From individual schools to the US Department of Education, American education systems have organized themselves by programs and processes — not in service of outcomes. Folks working in that system are assigned to complete particular tasks, oversee particular budgets, and so forth. Their contributions to improving student achievement can be hard to track.
Reformers know this, of course (the fuzziness around assigning responsibility is why debates over using student achievement data to evaluate teachers got so fraught so fast). But do they know what to do about it? The book offers strategies for building both will and capacity for change, designing a “delivery chain” to link ideas to actions to outcomes, and assigning responsibilities — and it breaks each of these elements into discrete steps.
If that sounds like jargon…well, sorry. Getting serious about effecting change isn’t as much fun as talking trash on Twitter. It’s also harder than picking conceptual fights with opponents over who’s really to blame for educational inequities.
But these are the kinds of details we need to sweat if we’re interested in making a “concrete difference” in kids’ lives.

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