Problem-Centered Policy Making

The federal government spends well over $2 billion a year on the fund that helps states and school districts recruit and train teachers and principals. Nearly every state and district in the nation receives money from that fund, known as Title II, Part A, and each may use the financial resources differently. But the vast majority is spent on professional development for teachers and paraprofessionals (44 percent of all Title II, Part A funds) and for hiring teachers to reduce class size (31 percent).

 Yet there is not much evidence that Title II actually does what it was intended to do – improve teaching quality. For years, educators and policymakers have been grappling with how to improve the law through the much-delayed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Carnegie Foundation recently hosted an expert convening to further this discussion, but not by focusing on improving Title II as it now implemented. Instead, using improvement science tools, we took a step back to deepen our understanding of the problem the act should be trying to solve.

Participants, who included representatives from federal, state, and local governing institutions, used the Foundation’s improvement science principles to do a deep dive into this problem statement: “The public education system is not adequately recruiting, retaining, and supporting a high-quality/effective teacher workforce for all students.” Participants identified the following major high-level causes of this problem: inadequate teacher preparation, professional development, and compensation; weak school leadership; the unfavorable culture around and unrealistic norms about the teaching profession; and the impractical design of the teacher’s job. The fishbone diagram below represents an initial breakdown of each problem area; a complete list of the many root causes that participants identified can be found here.

The goal of this gathering was to encourage participants to think about this problem in a new way.

Participants generated possible solutions to the root causes identified, and then thought about where Title II might fit in to make these solutions a reality. The teacher-policy experts that the Foundation brought together for this convening were already familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of Title II, and all came to the meeting with pre-existing theories as to how to improve the act. The goal of this gathering was to encourage participants to think about this problem in a new way, to fully explore the root causes of issues that often go unexamined in the fast-moving, action-oriented world of policy. This process yielded a wide variety of insights that may not have surfaced had the group jumped right into solutions without first seeing the system as a whole. A complete list of proposed solutions can be found in the meeting summary. For many participants, the experience of digging into the specific causes of entrenched educational problems was a new one, and one that turned the typical policy discussion on its head. Since policy work calls for quick solutions, there is little time to deeply consider problems from a user’s perspective, to continually ask “why?” until the root causes emerge. The more typical solutions-driven approach can lead to implementing changes—sometimes on a large scale—that do not actually address specific, high-leverage problems in the real terms that practitioners are facing. Many participants noted that identifying root causes was a useful exercise, and one that could help solve policy problems.

We had several key learnings for tackling policy issues using improvement science techniques.

This meeting differed substantially from the Foundation’s typical expert convening. Participants tackled a problem of policy, instead of a problem of practice. And whereas most of the Foundation’s expert convenings gather practitioners who have direct experience with the problems discussed, this convening brought together a wide range of perspectives, experts with varying involvement in the day-to-day life of schools and teachers. This meeting successfully introduced participants to a different, problem-centered approach, and produced a wide range of suggestions for solving the given policy problem. Based on our experience with this meeting, some key learnings for tackling policy issues using improvement science techniques are:

Provide participants with a carefully-defined, specific problem statement.

In order to focus the day’s conversation, participants were provided with a problem statement instead of creating one themselves. This ensured that all participants started from the same foundation, which was important given the diversity of viewpoints at the meeting.

Still, our problem statement was too broad. Title II is a collection of various policies that touch on a wide range of subtopics, and so the day’s conversation was somewhat unfocused. This made it difficult for participants to dig deeply into specific topics during the solutions session. We recommend beginning from as specific and narrow a problem statement as possible to prioritize depth of analysis over breadth of coverage.

Tailor activities to fit a half-day schedule.

Because policy leaders are busy and typically reluctant to spend significant time away from their work, we limited the time commitment for this convening to less than a full day, to boost attendance. As a result, almost all invitees attended the meeting. A half-day is enough for participants to begin the work of utilizing improvement science tools to deepen their understanding of the problem and rethink potential solutions. Sticking to a half-day schedule requires a focused problem statement, as discussed above. We also suggest that for future events, groupings of participants remain the same throughout the sessions, in order to save time needed to acclimate to new groups or a new topic of discussion.

Reinforce problem-centered thinking throughout the day.

Our carefully-selected group of policy experts was willing and seemed to readily see the value in digging deep into the problem rather than focusing first on solutions. This, as previously mentioned, is not the typical format for policy conversations. However, in the final session, which turned to a discussion of how Title II is currently implemented (rather than how to improve the act as a whole), the discussion moved away from being problem-centered and specific to being more solution-centered and more general.

To avoid this tendency, we recommend actively maintaining a problem-centered approach by keeping fishbone and driver diagrams highly visible throughout the day. Facilitators can also be more directive when necessary, prompting participants to tie their recommendations and comments directly to problems and root causes identified earlier in the day.

This convening represents only the first steps in utilizing improvement science tools to create a deeper understanding of problems within education with the aim to generate potential change ideas. For more information on the expert convening, including a full list of ideas for improving Title II, please see the meeting summary.