Setting Educational Policies through a Murky Policy Window
“The other half where? The fourth dimension? The fifth? Perhaps. They never found the answer. Despite a battery of research physicists equipped with every device known to man, electronic and otherwise, no result was ever achieved, except perhaps a little more respect for and uncertainty about the mechanisms of…”–Rod Serling
By now I have revealed that I’m a huge Twilight Zone fan. The masterfully written scripts that Rod Serling created for the series magnified inadequacies within human behavior and public policy. The series also challenged preconceived notions about the American fabric and offered alternative realities through the study of interpersonal relationships.
The episode “Little Girl Lost” details the anxiety-ridden conflict of a couple trying to save their child who is stuck in what seems to be a portal to another dimension. The uncertain and murky details surrounding a possible alternate dimension is meaningless and inconsequential as the couple finds a way to save their daughter just as the portal is closing. By the end of the episode, nothing was learned except the value of a human life.
As the adults in the episode experienced a finite amount of time to save a little girl before she became lost in an uncertain portal, policymakers have limited time to impose policies pertaining to the preconceived notions that the United States is lagging behind global competitors like China. Much like an alternate dimension appearing under the right circumstances, a policy window has appeared allowing educational reformers, philanthropists and politicians to immediately adopt new educational policies without much public opposition. Policy windows occur when ideologies and values fit within a national culture and context. Subsequently, policy issues and agenda items emerge when the following processes occur:
Identifying a National Problem: Educational reformers and policymakers have created a national awe of China where nearly the majority of Americans falsely view China as the leading world economy. Reformers have used Program for International Student Assessment results to unjustly prove their case that American students are falling behind and the world is catching up. Furthermore, national economic decline has created opportunities for typically forgotten players like government officials to become central actors in educational policymaking. During current decline, schools have been labeled as failing when trying to maintain academic standards in comparison to global competitors.
Mobilization of Policy Communities: Decline has allowed schools to be viewed as greenfield projects where existing school governance structures and networks can be dismantled and rebuilt with little opposition. Educational reformers, philanthropists and politicians have determined that outside experts are best for leading urban schools and crafting educational policies that feature market based reforms like competition, choice, deregulation and accountability. National decline has labeled current educational insiders as ineffective and unable to create innovative solutions to fix schools.
Policy Adoption: Actors jockey for position to influence policy adoption. Values within educational policy arenas shift as ideologies flood the marketplace. Winners and losers prevail as certain policies are enacted. Policies are portrayed as necessary to salvaging public education.
Uncertainty, upheaval and acrimony usually occur when a policy window remains open. This is a time when interactions surrounding who gets what, when and how are heightened and unpredictable. Although educational reformers have taken advantage of a political climate ripe for change through the recognition of a national problem, the policy window will not be open for long. I am certain that this is the case especially when my counterparts like Mike Mandel at Innovation and Growth posts charts like this on his site:
As the public begins to realize that China’s dominance in the world economy is not guaranteed, the policy window for national public education reform will close. Much like the environment educators faced when A Nation at Risk was published, the recommendations for educational policymaking during today’s decline are not likely to take hold. Policies that are adopted are also likely to be implemented unevenly and have marginal effects on the total educational landscape.
Nevertheless, the current political climate has created the right conditions for a policy window to appear and remain open for some time. Educators currently find themselves stuck and possibly lost within a murky and confusing political landscape as a battery of educational outsiders have used standardized assessments and comparisons to rising countries and their educational systems with little result in promoting successful and holistic educational change. As the policy window closes the implications within education are most likely to be significant and severe. I anticipate that there will be many lessons learned after this period passes. However, the chances of educators finding real meaning during this period of decline in relationship to current and future realities in public education remains doubtful.