Policy can’t make people do things well

The best sentence I read in 2017 was this:

“Policy turns out to be a pretty lousy tool for improving education because policy can make people do things, but it can’t make them do them well.”

That’s from Rick Hess, via Larry Cuban’s blog (where I first saw it), and the journal of the American Federation of Teachers. As he explains further:

“Policy is a blunt tool, one that works best when simply making people do things is enough. In schooling, it’s most likely to work as intended when it comes to straightforward directives—like mandating testing or the length of a school year. Policy tends to stumble when it comes to more complex questions—when how things are done matters more than whether they’re done.

Here’s what I mean: Say a governor wants to mandate that all schools offer teacher induction based on a terrific program she’s seen. Her concern is that if the directive is too flexible, some schools will do it enthusiastically and well, but those she’s most concerned about will not. So, she wants to require schools to assign a mentor to each new teacher. But then she worries that the “problem schools” will treat the mentoring as busywork. So, she also wants to require that mentors meet weekly with their charges and document that they’ve addressed 11 key topics in each session. But this still can’t ensure that mentors will treat their duties as more than box-checking, so she wants to require…” (The dot-dot-dot is in the original.)

Although digital learning and other innovations may or may not have a policy component, those paragraphs capture why scaling innovation in mainstream public schools is so challenging. How innovations are implemented is critically important, much more so than whether they are implemented. Further, this concept from Hess explains why working with teachers, students, parents, principals, and so forth to get their buy-in is critical. Even though the process of getting a wide range of support is time-consuming and complex, in most cases it is necessary for success.

Slightly amended versions of Hess’s teacher induction program example apply to technology initiatives:

School board and superintendents can buy iPads or Chromebooks for all teachers, and perhaps even make teachers use them, but they can’t make teachers use them well, in a way that will improve student outcomes.

Legislators can create course access programs, but they can’t make state education agencies implement them well such that significant numbers of students access new courses.

School districts can make teachers attend PD sessions, but they can’t make the teachers learn anything useful—let alone use what they learn in impactful ways.

Important implications flow from this understanding, including:

1. Schools/programs/initiatives that can hire people who are bought into their vision have a far easier path than those that have to convince existing employees of the value of the new approach.

2. Innovative initiatives are likely to take longer than expected, because of the time required to either a) hire new people, or b) convince existing people in the school of the value of the innovation, which is what will lead them to implement it well.

3. In public education, the list of people/positions that have to be bought in is long, and includes parents, students, teachers, school administrators, district leaders, the school board, and possibly the state board of education and legislature. To varying degrees, any of these groups of people can derail, or at least slow, a digital learning program