Here’s a real problem in education policymaking and public policymaking/politics more generally: It’s dangerous to make policy based on the intense views and experiences of some individuals rather than looking at the aggregate picture.
Take for instance Ned Lamont, challenging Senator Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut. Reports the NYT:
Mr. Lamont said that his frequent meetings with voters had altered his views on some issues. Initially, he said, he considered some job losses caused by free-trade agreements to be a necessary “transition cost” for succeeding in a world economy. But after meeting manufacturing workers who had been laid off, he said he realized that “we’re going to have to be respectful of our workers when it comes to negotiating a trade agreement.”
He said he had regarded President Bush’s No Child Left Behind education policy as having some positive elements, such as “having a benchmark and seeing how schools perform.” But after talking with teachers, parents and students, he said that he has decided that “fundamentally, the bill is irrelevant.”
Great, just the kind of backbone we need in the Senate! Perhaps free trade is beneficial overall even though it’s very hard on some workers (who we should be doing more to assist in my view). And, even though some teachers don’t like No Child Left Behind, perhaps it’s for the overall good precisely because of the benchmark issue? This happens all the time. For instance, aspiring teachers who cannot pass the low-level tests required to become teachers show up at meetings and plead with state board of education members to further lower the standards and boards sometimes oblige because the natural inclination is to help distressed people if you can. Or presidential candidates visit Iowa and hear from activists about this and that and mistakenly ascribe those views to the populace overall (I remember one who in 2004 after being trailed around by NEA activists concluded that voters really didn’t like No Child even though multiple polls showed something different).
It’s all about the general good and the specific interest. Really good politicians don’t needlessly antagonize constituencies they need to stay in office, but they also keep their eye on the ball not just the hecklers in the stands. For another slice of this issue, very good article by UVA’s Eric Patashnik here (pdf).
Also, it’s going to be interesting to see if the CT NAACP thinks that No Child is so irrelevant…