Sunday, April 22, 2012

Innovation, Ideology and Compliance

As we say in the union: a supposal....
Let’s set aside for a moment the heated arguments about the course of federal education policy. Let’s give the United States Department of Education (ED) the benefit of the doubt, impute good intentions, and take at face value their claim that they are trying to use federal policy to change the conversation about teacher quality from sorting and firing, to elevating the profession and improving teaching practice.  We can always revert to the noisy argument, but stepping back to a quieter place for a moment may illuminate  avenues for better policy.
Race to the Top and NCLB waivers are among an alphabet soup of ED initiatives intended to spur change and innovation at a state level.  Certainly there is guidance from ED as to what that change might look like, and that is legitimately a subject for political debate.  Let’s consider the possibility that to some significant extent these programs are intended less to be prescriptive, and more to be platforms for innovation.
There is a dangerous assumption embedded in policy of this sort: that states have the same capacity for creativity and innovation as the people who created the policy in the first place.  There may be states where capacity exists, but in many places this policy ship is dashed on the twin rocks of ideology and compliance.
Ideology is expressed in astroturf teacher bashing, and in policy and legislation that assume that bad teachers and the unions that protect them are the problem.  This is the “fire your way to the top” approach, which has the added advantage allowing politicians to evade the tough task of raising the revenue necessary to create a great education system.  From the left it consists of a cynical view that everything ED does is astroturf in disguise.  Ideology offers its proponents relief from the necessity of thinking.
When it comes to trying to elevate the teaching profession to advance the cause of great student learning in our schools, ideology is a noisy, destructive distraction from that task.  Federal programs designed to encourage creativity and innovation cannot succeed in states where this type of toxic thinking predominates. 
There is a second, more insidious impediment to the success of current federal policy: a compliance mentality.  State and district level bureaucrats often live in a culture of compliance.  Rather than using a program as an opportunity to create something progressive, they ask “What is the minimum we have to do to get the money/waiver/whatever?”  This mentality collides with the intent of the people who created the Federal policy.  That policy is designed to disrupt and change the status quo.  Compliance is about maintaining a comfortable status quo for adults, regardless of the impact that has on the end goal of the educational enterprise: great student learning.
There are places that have managed to keep the ideologues tamped down while responding with some creativity to federal initiatives.  Massachusetts is one such place.  The Massachusetts Teachers Association took a proactive approach to the RTT requirement to incorporate student achievement data in the new teacher evaluation system.  The MTA plan, which the Association characterizes as a “Triangulated Standards-based Evaluation Framework,” uses student achievement as one data point among several. 
The universities and think tanks in Massachusetts have the ability to help by providing a theoretical framework to support the work in strategic partnerships with other stakeholders.  Few states boast such capacity - certainly not my state, Vermont.
There is a pathway for more effective Federal policy.  Presuming good intentions here, if it is the intent to promote innovation rather than ideology or compliance, ED has to consider ways of building capacity in places where it does not currently exist, ways of getting colleges and universities to step up to the plate, of helping unions get past a circle the wagons mentality, of reaching people of good will and helping them to understand the issues at hand, not just in states that are the recipients of federal largess, but everywhere.
People who are numbed by the noise of worthless ideology, or deadened by the dull drone of bureaucratic compliance, cannot be the engines of innovation, cannot be equals and partners in a program of educational improvement. 
How can we move past the ideological noise of both the right and the left, and emerge from the suffocation of compliance in order to create great public policy?  How can we learn to govern ourselves again?

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