Want Better Education Policy? There’s a Checklist for That.

In efforts to "fix" the schools, a baseline of key information helps policymakers see the big picture.

What does education policy have in common with Van Halen? No, it's not the band's 1984 hit "Hot for Teacher." It is something far less sexy: complexity. As we learned from Atul Gawande's book "The Checklist Manifesto," on tours the band would require that a bowl of M&Ms be provided in its dressing rooms -- with all of the brown ones removed. As much as that sounds like predictable rock-diva behavior, it actually was a clever test: The band needed a way to know that every venue manager was reading the requirements for its very complex and potentially dangerous concert setups.

Gawande has a knack for taking lessons from health care and business (not to mention '80s hair bands) and distilling them into usable guidance. We now have a way to apply his advice to the challenging policy area of education as well: a State Education Policy Checklist.

If you've been active in education policy lately, you've likely heard something like this: "It was a good policy, but the implementation just didn't go well." While that may be true in some cases, frequently it was the policy that wasn't well thought out. Education policy can advance student learning, but as education becomes much more politicized and specialized, policymakers may benefit from taking a step back and thinking about the root causes of the problems and the theory of change behind every policy solution. Hence, the Education Commission of the States' and the Aspen Institute led the development of this new checklist.

A checklist may be simple, but it doesn't minimize the importance of the work. Expertise, experience and coalition-building are still the key to making good policy. But the checklist does provide a baseline of key information and impact assessments that help policymakers and education advocates consider the big picture.

While serving as the Arizona Senate's Education Committee chair, one of the authors of this column, Rich Crandall, would often get visits from newly elected lawmakers wanting to do something to "fix" education. He or she would want to talk about a specific education policy that a constituent or lobbyist wanted enacted. The ideas were mostly well intentioned but often had not been vetted for cost, feasibility, necessity or impact, or even to see whether similar (or competing) policies were already on the books.

Education policy is complex and can have unintended consequences. Something like the State Education Policy Checklist can be invaluable for walking eager lawmakers through key considerations when proposing new education legislation. All policymakers, experienced or new, will benefit from using this new tool, particularly given the accelerating pace of change in the world of education.

Right now, all eyes are focused on the resignation of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, but the real change is happening in the states, where half of the chief state school officers have turned over in the past year alone. And according to research commissioned by the Education Commission of the States and the National Conference of State Legislatures, 30 percent of the chairs of education committees in state legislatures are serving in that role for the first time.

State and local policymakers want to provide good education for their constituents. But education policy making is complex even for experienced lawmakers. Enthusiasm for fixing education needs to be paired with careful consideration of the impact and feasibility of policy proposals. The State Education Policy Checklist is a simple way to ensure that every education policy proposal is properly thought out before being pursued, and that both the policy and the implementation can make a difference for students.

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