Michael B. Horn
Executive Director of Education, Innosight Institute
Making good policy in public education is harder than it looks.
There are a lot of ways to interpret that statement. All of them are true.
From my perspective as someone trying to educate policymakers, I see daily that things aren’t always black and white. I see that sometimes there are conflicting interests that cause people to make decisions that are well intentioned, but may miss the bigger picture. And from the perspective of the policymaker, it isn’t so easy either to divine what the purpose of public education should be, how best to balance legitimate competing interests, or how to create policies so that they have their desired effect. It’s a lot of pressure, as the policies will affect the lives of thousands and sometimes millions of people. Getting it right isn’t always easy. Sometimes the best policy is none at all.
By definition, data can only tell you about the past—and only convincingly about the distant past. To be able to predict how the future will unfold, you need good theory.
Many of us are guilty of wanting more and more data off of which we can base decisions. Data isn’t unimportant. But ultimately we need good theories to help us to know that if we take a certain action, we’ll get a certain result. Too often we don’t allow leaders in the education system on the ground to use good theories to make decisions.
Some people say we need to apply more “business” thinking to create sound education policy. Others say that there is too much “business” thinking influencing policy. Both camps tend to come at the question the wrong way.
No sane organization would operate in a way that either of these camps advocates. What we do today in education is the equivalent of telling a manager that we are going to hold her accountable for a profit-and-loss statement, but that she has no power to change the current operations. We need to give the leaders on the ground the ability to make smart decisions. We need to let them match their local circumstances with the resources available to them to achieve great outcomes for each child. Micro-managing the inputs available to them at any of the policy levels limits creativity at best and creates lots of unintended consequences at worst.
The world is a messy place.
Just as there is no one-size-fits-all way to educate children, there aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions to most problems. Bearing that in mind and having the humility to admit that are critical.
Whatever I think I know now, in five more years I’m sure I’ll think some of that was foolish.
The views expressed on this site are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pearson Foundation.
Michael Horn is the Cofounder and Executive Director of the education practice of Innosight Institute, a non-profit think tank devoted to applying the theories of disruptive innovation to problems in the social sector. He is also the author of several publications and articles, including the book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.