Deja Vu in Policy

I had the opportunity to attend the WestEd and Knowledge Alliance policy forum, Avoiding Déjà Vu: Lessons from Comprehensive School Reform.

Panelists included:

Martin Orland: Director of Evaluation and Policy Research, WestEd
Chris Steinhauser
: Superintendent of Schools, Long Beach Unified School District
Cheryl Smith:
Former Majority Staff Director of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations in the House of Representatives
Gerry House: President, Institute for Student Achievement; former Superintendent, Memphis Public Schools
Max McConkey
: Chief Policy and Communications Officer, WestEd
Rick Hess: Resident Scholar and Director of Ed. Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute

The panelists discussed how previous federal education reform initiatives have influenced current political trends, and what that means for new federal reform efforts.

The topic was introduced by first stating that implementing new and improved school reform strategies is not a new concept. Research since the 60s demonstrates that comprehensive school reform (CSR) strategies do not achieve results practitioners and policymakers expect or hope for. The idea behind the panel discussion was to analyze the current state of education reform. In an earlier post, I discuss how ‘reform’ has become somewhat of a bad word. The results of the research conducted on CSR are geared toward the idea that there are many factors involved in successful school reform. The results of the research provides an impetus for driving federal recommendations that address reinventing the policy wheel – or rather – how federal government can prevent policy déjà vu.


The results of the studies can be found on WestEd. The studies include:

Evaluation of the Comprehensive School Reform Program Implementation and Outcomes

Achieving Dramatic Improvement Study.


Some takeaways I thought were pertinent, include:

  • There is no single method that will enhance school reform systems. What works in one school district may not work in another. Identifying this differentiation is important.
  • Supportive external developments increase likelihood of CSR success. The culture of teamwork and trust is what allows CSR to move forward. Mandates alone will never achieve turn around. Support from LEA’s, SEA’s, as well as community support is what benefits implementation efforts.
  • Right now there is a disconnect between policy and practice. While this is not a new concept, the theory is that we view policy as something that can solve all problems, but it cannot and it should not.
  • Those responsible for developing and implementing CSR have not been able to successfully identify goals and purposes of the programs. Measuring results becomes an easy task when goals and purpose are clear.

Federal Recommendations

Flexibility: Create policy that allows and motivates flexibility and autonomy. This adaptation gives states the power to decide how and what programs should be implemented, and gives them the ability to generate programs that better fit state/community needs. This idea is supported by the fact that excellence can be achieved without generating specific mandates that stymie the bottom line.

Transparency: Identify models of CSR systems that work and make that information public so other school districts can borrow and create their ideas of what works and what doesn’t work for their districts.

Incentives: Provide incentives for those with good ideas, so they can make it better.

Inclusion: Education most often overlaps with other spheres. The influence of organizations outside of the education sphere are just as important. While no one has taken the challenge of tackling solutions, it is important to recognize the relationship and dynamic of education and other federally funded programs in social services, health organizations, etc., and how they can contribute to education. The idea here is that there are other organizations who have expertise that can aid in school turn around.


In the end, the passage of No Child Left Behind created a dynamic infrastructure based around data-gathering systems and compliance measures. Looking forward into the 21st century, the idea that using these systems to measure student achievement is outdated. Panelists agreed that there needs to be a switch from information gathering systems of measurement to outcomes-based systems of measurement.

Overall, most agreed that instead of trying to mainstream reformation programs by federal mandate, it is important for the federal government to develop systems that allow flexibility. They also need to provide outcome-based programs and give school districts the power and support to adapt.

Education will get better when we don’t reinvent the wheel. The federal government needs to start thinking about reallocating funding streams to those who have figured something out. As easy as it would be to mandate holistic programs, it is important to think smaller.

There were other points of discussion during the forum that I have not touched on. However, a full summary of these proceedings will be available on Knowledge Alliance website in the near future.