ed policy amateur hour

The biggest thing going on for me academically these days is that I’m taking my first education policy course. It’s this:

HUDF 5645 Policy seminar I
Conceptualization and identification of social and educational problems that can be subjected to policy interventions. Design and evaluation of alternative policy choices. Effective strategies for presenting policy analysis to multiple audiences.

With Dr. Aaron Pallas, who I really like.

I have no idea of what I expected from a policy course. If you had asked me before the semester started, I probably would have said that I expect it all to be fluffy, commonsense type stuff that a wicked smart philosophy type would either know already or pick up easily.


There are definitely some skills associated with policy work that one does not develop in philosophy courses and that don’t necessarily come naturally. The first of these, of which I am becoming ever more acutely aware, is the ability to sell some particular education condition as an actual policy problem. In philosophy, it’s really not too difficult to motivate a paper; another philosopher’s having said something false or misleading is sufficient for your offering your piece on the matter. This is perhaps part of why academic philosophy has gained a reputation for being irrelevant and mere intellectual masturbation – there isn’t a terribly heavy burden on a philosopher to explain why their work really matters.

This is not the case in ed policy. You need a research question that focuses in on a specific condition in education that is appropriate for government action, indicated by clear and preferably quantitative measures, that experts and authorities care about, that everyone cares about (and is explainable in lay terms), and that is newish and getting worse but is solvable. Of course, not all policy papers live up to these standards, but if you don’t at least try then no one is going to finish reading it and/or invest any time or effort in attending to the condition.

So I find myself with many education-related interests – character education, school choice, homeschooling/unschooling, etc – but with no topic for the first assignment, a memo. In philosophy, it would have been ok to just kind of talk about character education – like I have a pretty good paper which lays out the features I take to be central to an Aristotelian-style virtue-based program of character education. But that paper couldn’t really morph into a decent policy paper, because there’s no real condition in there that is appropriate for government action and indicated by clear (preferably quantitative) data. Even if I could massage some aspect of character education in public schools to fit those criteria, the policy paper would probably still remain uncompelling to education policy actors, who would surely find many more conditions in education deserving of government attention and resources than a theoretical bone I have to pick with an inexpensive and generally uncontroversial character education program.

I have decided not to let the sun set on tomorrow without having committed to a topic. I need something kind of philosophical and interestingly off the beaten path, but also with great practical import and accessibility to non-philosophy people. Oh, and it has to be at the local level, and I have a budget of $1 million. Hmmm.

To conclude: I thought I knew stuff about ed policy just from reading the blogs, but actually I don’t, and it’s not going to cut it just to do philosophy and say it’s policy because it has policy implications. le sigh.


  • Welcome.

    Tip for a topic that could work:
    Talk about some program which would support homeschooling in a rural district/county. You can tap the “philosophy” by making the case based on the theories that lead you to supporting school choice and how that’s impractical/impossible in a rural environment.

  • Thanks, Jason – that just might work! I could probably identify a particular district that has had trouble with its policies using info from the Home School Legal Defense people, and go from there.

  • Since you declared it amateur hour, I’ll throw my two cents in…

    Since you seem to be interested in character education, you might consider that only one state has something comparable to “character ed” standards– Illinois’ Social/Emotional Learning (SEL) standards. Standards aren’t terribly interesting or off the beaten path, but they’re a favorite policy intervention. Just food for thought. More background on SEL standards and policies here.

  • Another good suggestion, thanks so much! I was *just* about to wade into a book on the status of character ed policy stuff in the US today, and this lead may very well save me some time.

  • […] I wrote recently, I’m cur­rently in an ed pol­icy class and doing my first real series of pol­icy docs. After […]

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