Congress and the U.S. Department of Education can take different paths as it dispenses money: It can give school districts money to meet certain defined purposes (e.g., equitable resources) or it can give money for school districts to follow instructions and change what teachers are doing. The latter, as Peter Greene reminds us here, always fails. Policy direction, imposed from above on millions of teachers, must pass through multiple layers of interpretation, reinterpretation, and misinterpretation before it reaches the classroom. By then, it bears little resemblance to what was intended, and what was intended may have been misguided and muddled to begin with.

From Outcome Based Education (remember the 90s?) to Common Core to ESSA to a hundred policy initiatives on the state level, the story is usually the same: Policymakers create a policy for K-12 education, it rolls out into the real world, and before too long those same policymakers are declaring, “That’s not what we meant at all.” Explanations generally include “You’re doing it wrong” or “Maybe we should have put a bigger PR push behind it” or “The teachers union thwarted us.” Common Core fans still claim that all Common Core problems are because of trouble with the implementation.

Somehow policymakers never land on another possibility– that the policy they created was lousy. But good or bad, education policy follows a twisty path from the Halls of Power where it’s created to Actual Classrooms where teachers have to live with it. Here are all the twists that can lead to trouble.

Good luck with this

It begins with the policy generators, who might be legislators, or they might be thinky tank lobby policy wonkists who have an idea they want to push. The important detail is that the policy starts with just a handful of people who actually understand it. But the policy’s first obstacle is a larger group of legislators, some of whom have absolutely no idea what we’re talking about, and worse yet, some who don’t even know what they don’t know, but have some thoughts about how the policy could be tweaked. Let’s say for our example that the group doesn’t fiddle too much, and we end up with a simple policy:

Students will learn about how to produce excellence in widgets.

“Excellence” is one of those words that legislators use to get past the fact that they can’t agree on what an excellent widget is. But to implement the policy, teachers will have to know what the expectation is, so the Department of Education next has to “interpret” what the regulation means.
(John King and Lamar Alexander had some spirited disagreements about ESSA on just this point).

If we’re talking about federal regulations, they’ll pass through both federal and state departments of education. Reports, notes, letters, and other guidance tools will be issued by state bureaucrats who have some ideas about what widget excellence should look like and some other ideas about what the policy goals really are here.

The farther removed from the classroom, the less likely that the intended policy will make sense to the individual teachers who are required to implement it.

It is a bit like having the federal or state government do your menu planning and plan the same meal for every family in the state, without providing the food.

Peter has a better metaphor:

You can think of policy implementation as a giant Plinko board with a million slots at the bottom. The policymakers can drop the chip, and not only will it not go exactly where they want, but if they drop a hundred chips at once, they will all end up in a different place. Education policy isn’t just a game of telephone– it’s a game of telephone in which each player whispers to ten other players, until a million people have completely different messages.

This is what some folks are talking about when they demand vociferously that policies and materials be implanted “with fidelity,” which means roughly “do what I tell you and stop thinking for yourself.” But the critical problem is that actual classroom teachers are not involved until the final step. If government insists on a top-down model of education policy, they are never going to get what they think they’re asking for.