Short Reach of the Legislature

I confess to being one of the people who is closely following the education reform policy debate in Iowa; the opening of the 2013 legislative session means that it is time to see actual education reform proposals, follow the legislative process, and weigh in with our opinions.

There is an expectation that the Iowa Legislature will finally do something this year to improve Iowa public schools, to earn that NCLB waiver, to transform our K-12 system.

So I think it is a good time to revisit Daniel Willingham’s When Can You Trust the Experts?:  How to Tell Good Science From Bad in Education.  As previously discussed on this blog, Willingham offers the following figure and discussion (Kindle Locations 3315-30):

Student thought  <—  Teacher  <—  Principal  <—  District  <—  State

At the far left of [the figure] are the thought processes that will drive learning, understanding, enthusiasm, and so forth.  The teacher tries to create an environment that will move the student’s thoughts in particular directions.  The school administration tries to support the teacher’s efforts, or the administration tries to get the teacher to teach in ways the administration thinks is most effective.  The district does the same, influencing school administrators.  The state legislature writes laws in an effort to influence how districts and schools are administered.

The point here is to emphasize that (1) Changes in the educational system are irrelevant if they don’t ultimately lead to changes in student thought; and (2) the further the Change from the student’s mind, the lower the likelihood that it will ultimately change student learning the way that people hope.

The Iowa Legislature passes a law and then hopes that the Iowa Department of Education/State Board of Education will write and adopt effective administrative rules to implement the law that the Iowa Legislature hopes will cause the school districts to adopt policies that the Iowa Legislature hopes will cause principals to support or require teachers to change instructional practices that the Iowa Legislature hopes will result in a positive change in student learning.  If you have played the telephone game, you can see that there are a lot of places along the way for the message to go wrong between the Iowa Legislature and the classroom teacher, as each of the actors in the chain has an opportunity to act in a way other than the way the Iowa Legislature hoped.

This, of course, assumes that there is a specific, identified change that is likely to result in the positive changes in student learning that the Iowa Legislature wants to achieve.  Sometimes it is less clear than that, which can result in an Underpants Gnome problem (warning: link to NSFW South Park video clip), which in this context might look something like:

  1. Pass a third grade retention law
  2. ?
  3. All students can read proficiently


  1. Raise teacher pay
  2. ?
  3. Increased student achievement

The legislature can “do something” without it being at all clear how it will actually bring about the desired results.

There are high hopes for legislative action on education reform this session but if we want different outcomes for students, change has to happen at the school/classroom level.  The Iowa Legislature might be able to take some action to make that change more likely, but ultimately success or failure of these programs is largely out of their hands.