Education policy is informed by politics, personalities, myths, and money, far more than it is by evidence. There is good research on policy, but because so many individual policies are in play at any given moment, it is very difficult for policy researchers or policy makers to figure out the effects of anything. Policy makers often follow a pendulum pattern, declaring current policies a failure and recommending that school leaders do the opposite. Several years later, they may swing back in the original direction, perhaps under a new name. Policy makers are intelligent and caring people, and they do their best. But it is difficult to take into account all the conflicting interests, experiences, and advice they must juggle.
One potential consequence of evidence-based reform at the school and classroom levels might be to make the larger education policy realm a lot more rational and impactful. The idea is that if policy makers were clear (from rigorous research) what classrooms should look like, they could design policies single-mindedly directed toward facilitating the use of those classroom strategies.
In a blog some time ago, I gave one parallel to this: the tuberculosis sanitarium. Up to the mid-20th century, people with tuberculosis were sent to sanitaria where the disease was managed by a caring staff, but there was no cure. Policies were probably very diverse about qualifications to work in sanitaria, facilities, size, connections to other medical services, and so on. But it is doubtful that any of these policies mattered very much, because they did not cure the disease.
When tuberculosis was cured with drug treatment, all those complex policies fell away and were replaced by well-organized policies to diagnose and treat the disease. The sanitaria closed, and the whole elaborate policy structure behind them disappeared.
In education, widespread adoption of proven approaches could have a similar impact. If we have specific, replicable, and highly effective strategies for teaching reading, math, science, social studies, and writing, for example, we'd need to select and train principals to ensure that these effective methods are properly implemented and producing the outcomes they should be producing. We'd structure school boards and superintendents to support principals in leading schools capable of implementing proven programs. At the federal and state levels, policy would come to support constant advances in the quality of proven programs and in their evaluation and implementation. Funding for states, districts, and schools would be aligned with cost-effectively supporting what works.
Policy and leadership are crucial no matter how definitive the evidence for particular classroom practices. But leadership is a lot more effective when leaders know what teacher behaviors their leadership is intended to establish and maintain. Helping all staff to understand and implement proven programs should become the goal of every educational leader. When we have proven and replicable school and classroom strategies, policies from the White House to the school house can be aligned around the requirements of effective classroom practices.
This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation