The Shocking Truth About Educational Policy: Making the Sausage
What happens in a K-12 public school classroom on a day-to-day basis is in large part a direct result of educational policy. The examples are endless. From testing to test-preparation to the length of the school day to the lunch menu, virtually everything that happens in a public school can be tied to an educational policy.
These policies are most often created at the national and state levels, and while district and school-level policies exist, they are often aligned with already on the books state and national laws. You might think of a district and school administrator as a sort of middle manager who has some administrative power but is required to implement and oversee the mandates from upper management (in this case, state and national lawmakers).
So if educational policies affect nearly everything that happens in our schools, it would seem important to understand exactly what informs those decisionmakers when pushing forward, approving, and implementing educational policies. This article offers you some insight on what informs these important decisions.
Seeing How the Sausage is Made
There’s an old saying in America when warning people about learning too much concerning the legislative process in Washington or in a state capital: “You don’t want to see how the sausage is made.” It’s a cute way of saying that the legislative process is messy and that we might be happier just not knowing the ugliness that it entails. While pithy and even humorous, this phrase also encourages us to be ignorant of the innerworkings of the laws that guide our daily lives.
Even as an educational sort of “insider” who has been in this field for nearly 20 years, I too often found myself happier with my, to borrow another fun little cliché, head in the sand. It wasn’t until I got tired of asking my colleagues, family, and friends in response to another seemingly illogical and misguided new educational policy, “Do they just make this stuff up?” that I began to dig a little deeper (full disclosure, I didn’t say “stuff”). I wanted to see how the sausage was made.
Making the Sausage
I would like to preface what I’m about to share with some concessions. First, lawmakers have incredibly difficult jobs. They are asked to create policies that will affect the lives of enormous numbers of people. They are extremely busy (when doing their jobs diligently), in high demand, and in the best cases trying to appease constituencies with remarkably diverse opinions, wants, and needs. They are also exceptionally busy and tasked with reading over dense bills, meeting with constituents, meeting with special interests and lobbyists, engaging in debate, and much more. Moreover, they are tasked with making laws about things they often know little about, including but not limited to the areas of the environment, business, finance, education, and many others. Finally, I would like to add that while it is popular to bash politicians, there are many who really do care and want to make a positive impact on our world, though we could debate my use of the word many (cynical jokes about politicians almost always land).
That being said, I continued to see what I believed to be illogical and even ridiculous policy after illogical and ridiculous policy come down from on high to be implemented in my classroom, affecting my daily life in innumerable ways. Like many educators across the US, that created feelings of frustration, anger, and helplessness. I wondered openly with fellow educators, before issuing these new policies, do they ever even ask people who know anything about education (many of my friends in business often wonder the same thing about business policy). So rather than asking rhetorically, I finally decided to look into it. Here’s what I found.
You Do That to the Sausage?
Some lawmakers absolutely consult educators when developing a bill, and they sometimes do it at multiple levels, talking to teachers, principals, district administrators, education professors, and more. One recent example happened here in Ohio where State Representative Mike Duffey on multiple occasions convened a group of interested parties (mainly educators) to confer with him on a bill that could dramatically impact the state school report card system. These folks, who work in schools, research schools, and/or write about schools had opportunity to offer their insights to their representative, illustrating that he valued their professional knowledge by inviting them to be a part of the process. Unfortunately, this is not the norm.
Important Sidebar- In thinking about decision making, it seems only logical that prior to making a big decision (e.g. a policy), one might consult with experts, talk to all interested parties, look at the research to gather data, and then consider all of that information before acting. However, that is most often not the case in educational policy. In fact, educational research done by independent, unbiased professionals is almost never a part of the decision-making process.
Astonishing Statistic from a Recent Study– Of the 10 most influential institutions, publications, and people impacting educational policy, ZERO is a higher educational institution, ZERO are academic journals, and ONE is an actual educational scholar. Let that sink in for a moment.
In other words, the thing that most affect what happens in our schools and to our children every day - educational policy - is not even taking into consideration the most expert and informed places, publications, or people to help make those decisions. In fact, as Swanson and Barladge (2006) pointed out, academics are of little or no consequence in influencing or shaping educational policy. To an outsider, that may seem like not a big deal, but I’m an insider so please let me explain.
As an academic and teacher educator, I have spent most of my waking hours over the past 20 years when not with my family, eating, sleeping, or watching sports, reading about, writing about, and researching education. I have been in countless schools, taught countless students at the K-12 level, and helped prepare an inordinate number of teachers. And I am not unique among my fellow educators. Yet the research illustrates that we have virtually no influence on educational policy. So who or what does? Here’s a brief list:
Think Tanks: These are institutes of paid researchers who do commissioned (paid for) studies for a lawmaker. They most often have a political bias to the right or left, which is a no-no in research. It’s supposed to be objective.
Advocacy/Special Interest Groups: We know all about these. These groups push a particular agenda that benefits their interests, not necessarily the interests of kids.
Publishing Houses: I wanted to write Pearson here but I didn’t want to be too snarky. Not only do publishers inform school curriculum, they influence things like testing policy and that world is big bucks. Just ask Pearson.
Labor Unions & Trade Associations: Associations like the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and many others at the state and local levels have lobbying arms to try to push forth policies. In most cases, they are pro-teacher and pro-student, but not always, and they may or may not be informed by academic, objective research.
Philanthropies: Think the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Many like them are willing to give money but at a cost. They come with their own agendas and want those taking the money to acquiesce to their vision of education. The privatizing and commodification of public schools can be tied to many philanthropies.
Thanks for Ruining My Sausage – Now What?
In every blog post I write, I try to do at minimum two things: inform you of the problem and offer you some solutions. Now that I’ve ruined your appetite, I’d like to offer some solutions. First, and this will sound self-promoting, tell your friends and colleagues about this site. Our entire goal is to make an impact on schools, students, teachers, administrators, and parents by sharing our knowledge with you. I could have spent the past three hours writing another article for an academic journal that no one will likely ever read, but I want to make an impact. Not to disparage publishing in journals; it’s important for a number of reasons, but the research illustrates that those articles aren’t making an impact on schools. And I want others in the education field – researchers, academics, teachers, administrators, school counselors, etc. – to join me. They already are so join us. Write for our blog, share your story, get involved in local, state, and national education politics, talk to your friends and neighbors.
As non-educators, you can question your lawmakers, question your schoolboards, and question your schools when you see policies that don’t seem to make much sense or don’t benefit kids. You don’t have to be combative about it, just curious and concerned. The more that you do this, the more accountable the decisionmakers will become. Legislators are often responsive to feedback when they hear from large numbers of their constituents because you have the power to fire them from their jobs when you vote. Just look at what happened in the Betsy DeVos confirmation. She needed a vote from the Vice President to get affirmed, which is the first instance of that for an Education Secretary in US history.
You can also reach out to any of us at Tales from the Classroom (see our website) and we will be happy to assist you in getting information you need when you want to push back on a policy or proposed policy you do not like. Unlike a commissioned study, we’ll give you the objective facts, research, etc. and you can make an informed decision on how you will proceed.
I’m not naive to how things work in government. I don’t pretend to believe that somehow there will be some utopian scenario where lawmakers only make educational policies that are good for children. If you believe that now, I have a bridge to sell you certain to double in value. However, we can move the needle. Let’s make all of our lawmakers at least accountable for doing their homework properly and making the most informed decisions, even if they’re politically or ideologically motivated. If just one time that information, good information based on solid research, changes a lawmaker’s mind, then we win. More importantly, our kids win.