Broken Education Policies


The making of education policy is mysterious. Rarely is education policy the result of extant research or excellent practice. Tradition is often the basis for education policy. Well-funded special interests are often the architects of education policy. And, a bunch of education policy explains the low performance of schools and districts serving poor communities. Examples of policies that retard student and school performance include retention, underfunding, teacher compensation, the tyranny of testing, and unfunded mandates.

State or local policies that permit the retention of any student for failing to meet a standard in a prescribed period of time is an abomination given the research that discredits the practice. There are no penalties for teachers or parents when a student fails to meet an arbitrary standard. There are few opportunities for a retained student to be reassigned to their age appropriate grade once they meet the standard they failed to meet. More importantly, there is almost no evidence that retained students catch up with the cohort of students from which they were separated. Lastly, retained students are 25% less likely to graduate high school for each year they are held back. Why such a broken policy persists is a puzzle.

Any policy that underfunds public education is draconian. Money matters when it comes to the development of children. There is nothing that truncates the capacity of persons to participate in the demands of modernity then not having the opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to support one’s self and family and contribute to civil society. It is a dastardly act when legislative bodies pass budgetary policies that render the most vulnerable without the teachers and resources essential to social mobility. The cruel irony is that the underfunding of education results in a future compensatory expense. We pay for bad policies.

Policies governing teacher compensation are archaic and cruel. Step and lane compensation policy are an artifact from the 19th century and resembles pay schedules for factory workers. Such policies are cruel because the requirements to be a teacher have escalated but a sanitation worker that is a high school drop out can earn more then a teacher. The future of every municipality and the country is dependent upon knowledge workers to drive the economic development imperatives fundamental to the commonweal. Compensation polices that exploit teachers are akin to cutting off one’s nose to spite the face.

The tyranny of testing policies must stop. There was no Texas miracle that justifies the pernicious policy and practice of testing that minimizes teaching and learning. Testing experts agree that testing serves a useful function in education. The tyranny of testing that dominates schools and classrooms has little utility in preparing young people for leadership and participation in a global economy. The negative consequences of failing an accountability examination have not stimulated growth in what students know and can do. Anxiety, fear, and a pattern of under performance are related to the tyranny of testing. This is an unintended consequence of the accountability era that must be adjusted. Stimulating and nourishing student imagination is more important to the common good then passing an accountability examination with dubious utility. Properly used, testing can be helpful to teaching and learning. The tyranny of testing is counterproductive.

Unfunded policy mandates are punitive and demoralizing. The archives of education history are full of well intentioned mandates that are only implemented where privilege is prevalent. Examples include laboratory based science education, second language instruction, art and music instruction, and universal access to career and technical education. The merit of such study is not assailable. Failure to offer a required program of study can lead to a school’s loss of accreditation. Yet, only communities with a strong tax base can offer the wide range of instructional programs mandated in policy. Charter Schools are another example of an unfunded mandate that siphons resources from existing allocations and weakens the capacity of existing schools and districts. The intent may be meritorious but the outcome destabilizes education in a local community. Unfunded policy mandates do more harm than good.

State legislative bodies and education agencies promulgate the largest body of education policy. Since 1964, the federal Department of Education has generated education policy tied to modest federal funding of education. Sometimes, as in the case of kindergarten, education policy emerges from community advocacy but may not be universally supported for implementation. Good education policy is transformative. Compulsory education policy is one such example. Head Start is another excellent example. Over the last decade or two, broken education policy has dominated the landscape.

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