Letting solutions—not ideology—drive education policy

By: and | July 27, 2016

Apart from the sciences, there are few areas as heavily steeped in research as education. But, as Stanford University education professor says Linda Darling-Hammond says, “too often, important education research is left on the shelf and not used to inform policy decisions.”

Apart from the sciences, there are few areas as heavily steeped in research as education. But, says Linda Darling-Hammond, “too often, important education research is left on the shelf and not used to inform policy decisions.”

A professor emeritus at Stanford University’s School of Education, Darling-Hammond leads the national Learning Policy Institute in conducting and disseminating independent, high-quality research to improve education practice. Key to its mission is making that research easily understandable so legislators and other leaders can build policy on evidence rather than ideology.

Once considered a candidate for secretary of education under President Obama, Darling-Hammond has seen how federal and state government policies impact schools on the local level, particularly when it comes to teaching, learning and assessment.

“It’s become clear to many that fighting old, divisive battles over last century’s education models won’t prepare our children for the new world they face,” she says.

Give me a bit of background about the origins of the Learning Policy Institute.

The idea of it is that the nature of society and learning expectations and knowledge expansion is rapidly changing.

The kind of education we need our young people to have is going to be increasingly built around their ability to learn, to be able to access and weigh information, put it together with other information, make sense out of it, and collaborate with others to solve problems.

It can’t be a transmission curriculum, as in, “Here are the facts you need to know for life. We’re going to tell them to you. You are going to remember them and spit them back on a test.”

So, one key idea in the Learning Policy Institute is that we need policy that is supportive of the changes that will be needed to instantiate this kind of learning.

That’s a tall order in the current political environment.

Recently we’ve had a very hostile policy environment because we need to transform the way we think about curriculum and assessment and instruction. But it means changing the policy system, which otherwise will just reinforce a factory model image that we’ve had guiding our policies since the early 1900s.

To achieve change we need to help educators learn new strategies and pedagogies. It means designing schools so they can support that new kind of learning and teaching. It means redesigning systems so that they can enable that kind of schooling which will go beyond the school walls.

As you might imagine, I was stimulated to think about doing this when the idea was proposed to me in part because we had so much to do to rethink and redesign our policy environment and our practical work on the heels of No Child Left Behind—which really left America behind for a good 15 years while other countries were stepping up around the 21st century demands.

As you create this new research, are you also surveying older research?

Yes, because policy isn’t made based on a single study. No one says, “Oh, I did my one study and I’ve discovered the cures for everything.” We have a body of evidence that the profession is built on, and you have to weigh and balance and make sure that you are representing the best evidence.

And policy typically has no institutional memory. Policy-makers come and go. So yes, our goal is to assemble and synthesize prior research, as well as invest in new research. We conduct and commission and collate and assemble the research and evidence that can inform policy.

Then we carry it directly into the policy arena and work with policy-makers to enable them to conceptualize and develop policies that are evidence-based and likely to have the effects that people hope they will have.

How will you make your research more accessible to policy-makers?

It’s partly a function of organizing it in such a way that people can understand it. I’ll give you an example: We had been working on issues of early childhood education. A number of organizations that were trying to understand how to design some legislation asked us what the research said about the features of high-quality programs that produce stronger learning outcomes for students.

We summarized the research in a brief called “The 10 Building Blocks of Early Childhood Education,” and made it available. One legislator in California put it immediately in a bill to identify the quality features of programs that would be developed moving forward.

It also was taken up by another person who is starting a blue ribbon commission about how to raise quality in early childhood in the states. We had made it very accessible, very bite-sized.

We’re doing the same things for the national teacher shortage. We’ll be releasing a big report this summer about the teacher shortage nationally with information that can help people across the country wrap their heads around it and begin to develop strategies to address it.

You have critics who disagree with your personal political views, but who still want to work with because you are effective at what you do.

Well, policy exists in politics. But we are nonpartisan and we work and have worked very effectively with Republicans and Democrats. Our goal is not about advancing any particular candidate or party or perspective, but advancing high-quality education.

We’ll work with whomever is trying to solve the problems that we face in education. You can be true to the research, the evidence, and be cross-partisan, if you will, and cross-camp, because we have camps as well as parties. And we work in that way.

Have you been approached by any of the campaigns in this election year, either on the national level or state level?

Yes. I often am asked for advice on different campaigns. Again, it’s nonpartisan. People ask, “Well, what do we know about X? Or, what’s a way to address Y?” We’re happy to help them access information. But I am not affiliated with any campaign specifically in a political sense.

I’ve worked with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Those of us who are trying to be helpful need to be able to work with both parties, and we do.

Is your research available to people at the district level?

Yes. Right now we’re doing a project with a local school board association. We work with district administrators, both nationally and in specific states.

For example, on the teacher shortage issue, we’re developing publications that address what states can do, what districts can do, and even what higher education can do. We want to be helpful to all the stakeholders in the conversation.

Is there an advantage to being based in California rather than Washington?

We do have a Washington office with 10 people, but most of our staff is in California. Frankly, most of the activity around education is in the states, not in Washington.

It would be a liability for us to be only Washington-based, because the view and the knowledge base about how education operates is different inside the Beltway than it is outside in “the real world.”

California is a very active place and is a leader in policy, but we work with other states across the country. Most of the policy is moving out to the states.

Can district administrators and principals get involved in the LPI?

We certainly talk to a lot of district administrators and folks who are interested in our work and have ideas. We seek them out for advice about what really works on the ground. We tackle implementation issues. We have a number of focus groups among district administrators who help us think about what to tackle and how to tackle it.

We think a lot of good policy actually gets invented on the ground in districts, where some practitioners figure out how to solve problems. Part of the job of research is to document that good work and figure out how it could be made more widely available, how it could be supported with policy, and spread.

Quite often, good work is done on the edges, trying to figure out how to do something that is not necessarily being encouraged by policy.

Tim Goral is senior editor.