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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Final Memo from Fall Semester

I know I am lagging hardcore on sharing my stuff from the end of the past semester... I had the winter break laziness fever! This memo is evaluating the feasibility of the policy recommendation I wrote a memo about previously (which was posted around October if you need a quick reminder):


December 15, 2011

To: Congresswomen Rigby
From: Allison Primack, Policy Analyst
Re: Education, Teacher Training and Support Programs

The purpose of this memo is to address the political feasibility of giving all teachers better training and support so they feel prepared for their jobs and support from fellow teachers. A previous memo addresses the issue of low teaching quality in the United States education system, and after extensive analysis, this was chosen as the best policy alternative. If implemented smartly, this policy has the potential to be extremely successful and effective.

Policy Design
The objective of this policy is simple – to improve teacher quality across the board, not just for “low quality” teachers. By better preparing all teachers for their classrooms, the policy attempts to maximize the students’ opportunity to succeed and obtain a more meaningful experience in the classroom, and therefore a higher quality education. One of the many reasons why this policy alternative is best is that the only criteria working against this policy is the costs that may be associated with creating and running this new program. This problem is not severe because the few costs that are associated with this policy are diffused and result in diffused benefits; this policy is not likely to accumulate much resistance. However, an inherently challenging problem to this design is that the authority is extremely fragmented. Due to the nature of education policy being split between state and local governments, it may be difficult to enact a consistent national policy.

In order to avoid this issue, alternative policy tools and venues should be considered in order to enhance the policy’s effectiveness, equality, visibility, legitimacy, and feasibility. Both parent groups and the teachers unions should be briefed on the policy, and utilized in order to ensure its success and implementation. Parents tend to get heavily involved when their child’s education is in question, and the opportunity to improve their child’s education should be an incentive in order for them to fight for this policy. Additionally, because this policy is nondiscriminatory towards any group of teachers and is a form of professional development and relationship building, there is no question that the unions would support its efforts as well.

Temperature of the Macro Agenda
Luckily, because all Americans experience the effects of education policy, it is a relatively easy issue for the public to understand. With the help of standardized testing, there is well-documented evidence that there are problems in our system that need to be addressed. On the other hand, since education policy is an ongoing issue, the public is not very attentive unless there is major news regarding education. In order for this policy to gain the amount of support and recognition needed in order to pass it, it is crucial to wait for a window of opportunity to open.

There are a two such windows of opportunity in the foreseeable future. The first window will be in January 2012, as soon as the newly elected state and local officials take their positions. Because they are new to office they will be good candidates to try to sway for ongoing support, and they are less likely to be dedicated to the status quo. Additionally, they have more motivation to get high approval ratings than the current officials who will soon be leaving their offices. The next window will not be until July or August 2012, when states issue the standardized testing results. During this time parents, students, and school administrators all get to see quantitative results on how their students are doing in comparison to other students in the state, which inevitably garner an emotional response. This would be the best time to activate parent groups and teachers unions. The summer window of opportunity is also ideal because it coincides with the time in which most states are determining their budget for the upcoming year. If enough support and status is raised during this window, the policy could have a better chance of receiving an allocation of the budget towards education for the upcoming year. Because we are aware of when these policy windows are going to occur, we should have ample time to prepare and accumulate data in order to push our agenda quickly and smoothly.

Long-Term Effects
Overall, if this policy were to be implemented it would ensure several positive long-term effects. Providing training and support to teachers reinforces the image that Americans want to improve the quality of our teachers, which is beneficial not only for the students but also professionally for the teachers. Teachers are socially constructed in a positive light, but this will provide them the opportunity to gain more respect both from students and the community at large. Because the projected costs are very low and the potential outcome is very high, there is a high chance the all involved groups (parents, students, and unions) would defend this program if it is successful from future attacks. In order to ensure this support, it would be wise to engage the public, teachers, and other stakeholders in shaping the trajectory of the policy. This would probably be most effective in the form of a focus group, where different options can be discussed.

In the long term, the biggest threat to this policy is cost. Seeing that we are in an economic recession, it is hard to justify moving from the status quo and spending money on new programs. Depending on the future state of the economy, arguments to eliminate the program post-implementation may arise. To combat this, it is absolutely essential that the policy is designed to be sustainable, effective, and legitimate from year to year. The best way to do this is to collect data at each school where the most improvement is needed, and target those specific areas. Evaluations on the program can also be collected from the teachers in order to fix the program if and when necessary.

Ways to Enhance Political Feasibility
Given the nature of the design, temperature of the macro agenda, and the long-term effects associated with this policy there are three strategies that should be adopted to ensure success and effectiveness:

Specify Governance Upfront: One of the biggest issues with education policy is determining who runs the program. Because there are so many stakeholders, it is easy for ambiguous policies to accidentally be ignored, or forgotten. However, without persistence and oversight, this policy has no chance in succeeding.

In order to keep the program consistent, it is essential that it is created by the national Department of Education, or other contracted national agency. On the other hand, implementation would best be monitored and controlled by the local government. Because local governments are most in touch with their schools, they would have the best influence in ensuring that these programs are completed and carried out effectively.

Flexible Content: In order to ensure that each staff member gets the most out of the training program, it is essential that there is flexibility in the content. The strengths and weaknesses of schools vary, and it would be a waste of time and resources to require every school to participate in identical training. 

However, it is not politically feasible to give money to schools to do whatever type of training they like, especially in light of the current economy. In order to combat this, the policy must create a structure that leaves room for specialization and choice. For example, the national policy could require programs to complete “at least 3 of the 5 sessions”. That way all of the sessions being offered will be consistent, but schools can choose which areas to focus on.

Annual Evaluations: In order for this policy to survive longer than one or two years, it is essential that it is dynamic. As some education issues are conquered, others will inevitably arise. Having a static training program will cause it to go out of date quickly, and make it completely ineffective. Additionally, if an identical program were presented every year, there would be little to no incentive for veteran teachers to attend and participate.

Evaluating the program specifically will be no simple task, since many of the areas covered in this training would most likely cover abstract topics and ideas on how to run a classroom. However, a clear indicator to see if teacher quality is improving is to see if the students test scores rise. There would be no sure way to tell if the program was the sole reason for the rise of scores, but if there is a significant improvement after the implementation of the program it can be assumed that there is a positive correlation. 

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