What Education Policy Makers Are Missing

Recently, I passed a car displaying the bumper sticker, “Those who can, teach. Those who can’t teach make laws about teaching.” Afterward, I kept thinking about this message. On the one hand, all schools need to become more efficient, effective and equitable, and usually need some external prodding to accomplish this. On the other hand, though their goal may be noble, state and federal policymakers really know very little about how to actually reform complex school organizations. In a perfect world, their vision of improvement would be informed by the wisdom of veteran educators but we are not currently operating in an environment of shared decision-making. This failure to listen has consequences as the deciders’ blind spots are reflected in policy to everyone’s detriment. Here are a few of these ‘blind spots”:


School Culture

Terry Deal once defined culture as “the way we do things around here.” Every school has its own enduring values, norms and practices based on its unique history, community and workforce. It stands to reason that regulations to solve problems primarily in New York City don’t fit Westchester, Adirondack or Native American reservation schools very well. It’s curious then that “one size fits all” mandates continue to proliferate. Currently, state and federal officials stipulate not only what to do but also dictate exactly who, when and how to do it. It would be much better to recognize that context matters and that ignoring the power of school culture doesn’t make it go away. Allowing local leaders to lead so that they can navigate the school culture which they know and which government officials don’t know would better serve everyone’s interest.


Teacher Professionalism

Madeline Hunter once summed up effective teaching by stating, “If it wasn’t caught, it wasn’t taught.’ In education today, the bottom line is what students learn to become college and career ready. To accomplish this state officials have increasingly proscribed the schools’ curricula, instruction, assessment, time use, staff credentials and teacher evaluation. Though many students are performing better, this standardization of practice has led to a reduction in individual teacher autonomy, decision-making and flexibility. The unintended negative consequence has been a diminished sense of pride and job satisfaction among many faculty. This demoralization hurts everyone as teacher discretion, artistry and passion shrink in our schools. As efforts to improve our schools continue, policymakers will need to find the “sweet spot” between quality control in the system and the maintenance of an environment where teachers can do their best work as professionals.


Student Motivation

In its quest to improve pupil performance, the Regents Reform Agenda has mandated APPR and related SLOs, CCLS, DDI, RtI, DASA among other programs with odd acronyms. Since the advent of government accountability systems twenty years ago, districts have changed their curricula, assessments, materials, use of time, professional development and budget priorities in pursuit of better student achievement.


Yet, teachers know that you can address all these factors and still not succeed if a student lacks the motivation to benefit from instruction. Federal, state and district policies tend to ignore this incontrovertible fact. You simply can’t mandate motivation. It must be kindled or rekindled by healthy school cultures and professional teachers. Each student is different and will respond in her own way in her own time to become an engaged learner on the path to success. Young people are nurtured and developed in local communities and not from Albany or Washington—another argument for local discretion.


Practitioners know from experience the contribution which each of these variables makes to school success. It’s critical that field leaders continue their efforts to inform policy and to create schools which are sources of community pride, where teachers want to teach and where young people want to learn.

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