Educational Policies Don’t Care About People

I’ll state it upfront. Policies don’t care about people. Lately, I seem to be engaging in many conversations about the role of policy in education. Of course, if you read my blog regularly, you know that I tend to advocate for less policy and regulation in education, not more. I’m all for reasonable accountability, but too often policies are either shaped by ill-informed work, flawed or unnecessarily limited conclusions, or decisions that inhibit (often unknowingly) promising practices and innovations.

Well-Meaning, But

Quite often, policies on the national or even state level grow out of specific problems and contexts. Well-meaning individuals create policies to address the problem. Only, in doing so, they create problems for other valuable efforts that do not fit the scope of possibility considered when creating the policy. We create policies about attendance in school based upon assumptions of seat time when that concept does not even fit certain learning models or modalities. We build policies about financial aid around the Carnegie when there are plenty of valid alternatives to that system. In fact, as best as I can tell, the institution of the Carnegie unit system was set forth without any research about the impact of teaching and learning. We set policies based upon retention rates, graduation rates, grade point averages, and other common education trappings; but then we force others in education to work within these traditional frameworks, limiting potentially promising alternatives.

Policies Don’t Care

This brings me to the main point of this article. Policies don’t care about people. People who create policies may well care about people, but policies are cold, calculated and free of such human sentiment. We’ve all experienced the impact of this, quite often when working through a series of hoops to gain government approval, or maybe even doing something as simple as getting a passport or driver’s license. The policies do not bend and the people in these offices can come off as simple enforcers of the policies, sort of factory workers that apply and enact the policy.

Humanizing Policy or Not

Sometimes the people applying the policy realize this and try to humanize the experience in subtle ways. They might acknowledge the challenge. They might try to enforce the policy with a smile. They might do what they can within the confines of the policy to make it as painless as possible.

Others don’t do this. They state the rules. They enforce the rules. They catch or stop people who don’t follow the rules. They don’t engage on a human level.

Yet, the policies themselves do not care. It is up to use to infuse care into the policies. Part of this is doing our homework in the first place, not jumping to too many conclusions about the context. It involves doing your absolute best to consider the potential implications and unexpected consequences of a policy. It includes developing a mechanism to monitor the policy in action, assessing whether it is accomplishing its intended goal, as well as making the necessary revisions so as to avoid unwanted consequences or unnecessary restrictions.

So What?

While recent state and national policy issues in education prompted this essay, these are valuable lessons for organizational and local policy-making as well. Policies are technologies. Each policy contains affordances and limitations. As such, anyone who makes, enforces or applies policies in education plays an important role. In fact, I contend that they possess responsibility to be deeply concerned about the people who will or might be impacted by that policy. We must be clear about our agendas and goals, conscientious in our creation, curious in our ongoing assessment of the policies, candid about our mistakes, and ultimately compassionate to all whom might be impacted. This is not the easy path.

This takes work. We will make mistakes. Yet, in the end, I suggest that anyone who creates or wields policies has an obligation to think this way.