The Noise Knows!

Also on national standards/testing, per this post below, consistently cranky Russo and his sidekick pick up on the “think tanky noise” meme. It’s actually interesting and worth thinking about. Obviously, I don’t think everything that comes out of think tanks is noise, it’s how I earn my living, but in assessing the probabilities of action on an issue in terms of noise versus signal, you’ve got to look at it through a political lens.

I’d break the noise down into two categories. The first covers issues that might not yet be on the policy agenda, but are really plausible candidates for action. A great example of this was the various policy proposals that ultimately became No Child Left Behind. There was a lot of noise in the late 1990s about it from a variety of think tanks and advocacy groups – right and left – but there was also a reasonably clear path for the issue, and a coalition supporting it, to emerge on the agenda in a big way. In fact, the roles are now reversed and the people who had the power prior to NCLB have been divested and this motley coalition of players now has leverage over the policymaking agenda.

Contrast the No Child example with today’s national standards debate. What is the plausible coalition here? You can start with basically the centrist coalition that was willing to support Clinton’s 1996 push for national testing in just two grades. That coalition proved insufficient and contrary to today’s CW, I’m not sure NCLB has broadened support for nationalizing some of these policies so much as made it harder because of all the attendant NCLB politics. The debate is basically about whether or not to roll back NCLB, not expand it! What’s more, there are people like me who are not opposed to national standards in some subjects but would not support imposing the NAEP or any other federal test as the way to do it right now. Add in various other concerns about quality, cost, etc…and you get the picture. It’s a relatively small band whose passion outweighs its numbers. Fordham is right that there are ways through this but they’re all tortured to some extent and the big coalition, or even its potential political leaders, have not emerged.

The “if you build it they will come” approach to talking about an issue long enough and hard enough that it becomes an issue on the policy agenda only gets you so far. Some key players have to want to play baseball in the first place. For a great book about these dynamics, hard to beat this one.

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