Admittedly, I have come to be a bit—perhaps more than just a bit—skeptical about the prospect of federal or state policy significantly and positively influencing student learning and outcomes.  Of course, policy matters—it shapes the authorizing conditions within which schools and districts operate, offering supports and sometimes creating rather significant barriers.  Yet my years in schools and districts suggest that the grand aspirations of educational policy makers, on average, fail to fundamentally alter patterns of teaching and learning.  The reasons for this are too many and complex to cover in this blog.  Perhaps they will be the focus of a future Leadership at the Center post.

Yet in the aftershocks of Tuesday’s midterm elections, I am inspired to offer a few humble suggestions to those soon to shape state and federal policy.

  1. Invest in improvement, not sexy or politically convenient solutions. The field is brilliant at adopting new ideas, but not so adept at seeing them through in ways that benefit students.   Bryk, Gomez, Grunow and LeMahieu provide a compelling analysis of American education’s consistent run to sexy solutions, as well as the subsequent negative consequences.  As they suggest in Learning to Improve, we would benefit from an R&D enterprise that enhances our capacity to better serve students.  This means helping the field get smarter about and better at deliberate and sustained improvement.
  2. Help us create a powerful and inspiring vision for high quality instruction. At the end of the day, student learning and outcomes will improve significantly when (and only when) we provide intellectually engaging and cognitively challenging experiences on a more regular basis for all students.  And across all classrooms, schools, and districts, we have work to do.    Yet too few of our elected officials focus their energies on student learning in the classroom.
  3. Seek policy that recruits, retains, and develops top talent in administration and the classroom. At the risk of being redundant, student experiences and outcomes will not significantly improve without systematically increasing the collective and respective capacity of adults.   There is no short cut.  Preparing all students for the dynamic demands of the 21st Century requires exceptional talent.
  4. Listen and hear the voices of educators. In too many state houses and DC-based policy shops, there are young staffers feverishly debating solutions to all that ails our educational system.  The first problem is that too few have any educational experience of note.  The second problem is that many policy solutions are born of ideology and not informed by research or practice.  Policy gaffs from past decades rest atop the ignored cautions and questions raised by educators in the field.
  5. Listen and hear the voices of students and educators. Students and families know what is needed, yet we act as if their perspectives do not matter.  Our experience at the Center is that students can tell you in frank terms the quality of their classroom learning experience.  In addition, parents can tell us how to build schools more responsive to the needs of young people.  Co-construct solutions with those we hope to support.
  6. Recognize and keep shining light on the vast inequities that plague our educational system. Too often, in too many communities, we can predict discrepancies in student outcomes armed only with information about family income and race.   This is, by its nature, an immoral system.  Use policy levers to apply pressure and induce innovation so that schools might become the great equalizer Horace Mann once imagined.

I recognize that this list is neither exciting nor simple.  I work from the assumption there are no easy answers (even though there might be simple and politically-viable policy ideas).  Moreover, I also have hope that smart people deeply committed to the lives of children can make a dramatic difference.

What have I missed?  What would you add to the list?  Shoot me an email to continue the discussion.

Richard W. Lemons, EdD
Executive Director, CT Center for School Change