CRAFTING EFFECTIVE PUBLIC POLICY IS BOTH AN ART AND A SCIENCE

“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”
Victor Frankl

“You know,” said Arthur, “it’s at times like this, when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.”
“Why, what did she tell you?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t listen.”
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

 

People like simple solutions. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I’m going to say, that’s a major part of the allure of religion. Most major regions breakdown a specific set of actions that will lead to a desirable outcome. All the believer has to do is follow the basic instructions and they’ll be guaranteed a place in paradise.

Christianity goes even further if you struggle with following a set of instructions, they break it down into one simple rule – Do unto others as you would have others do onto you. Simple. Direct. Easy to follow. It takes all the confusion out of life and creates a sense of a preordained outcome. Follow the priests, follow the text, and goodness and success will follow.

Religion has played a dominant role in society across time and space. It’s been a driving force in the creation of laws, government policy, and societal structure. Follow it’s guidance and the country and its people would flourish and enjoy a rich bounty. Failure to adhere meant a collapse of society and a life of misery for its members.

At some point, some folks decided that this religion thing was a little too much blind faith for them and it didn’t line up with everything they witnessed, so they began to push back and it doing so chose to follow what has since fallen under the title of science.

Obviously, the religious folks didn’t care for that so much and they began to actively work to discredit these early scientists, sometimes to the point of execution. But you can’t stop progress and over the years adherence to science for guidance has eclipsed that of religion. For some, that has presented a bit of a conundrum, but that’s a deeper subject and one best left for another time.

It may seem that the two disciplines are worlds apart, but are they? Both start with an assumption and look for proof. Both look to provide solutions to complex and terrifying issues. Both evoke feelings of passion and work ultimately for the betterment of society. Both have followers with little tolerance for opposition. Like it or not science is every bit as susceptible to the misinterpretation of data and bias as religion. Most importantly both see to establish a place of power in a society.

Per Dr. Srini Pillay an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who teaches in the Executive Education Programs at Harvard Business School and Duke Corporate Education,

Religion and science both rely on higher powers to justify their basis. In religion, it’s priests and gods, and in science, it’s journal reviewers and heads of departments or institutions.

I believe that every human being has a need to belong and a need to be independent and free — and these desires occur simultaneously. It is a master-slave dialectic of sorts; neither method could extoll its virtues without the other. The supreme beings in science and religion help us contextualize these desires.

Right about now, you’re probably thinking, this is all mildly interesting, but what’s your point?

Bear with me, I’m getting there in a roundabout way.

During this current crisis, as I scroll through my social media feeds, I’m bombarded by a constant barrage of cries that demand a strict adherence to the dictates of scientists. Per the NY Times,

Many experts, some of whom are international civil servants, declined to speak on the record for fear of offending the president. But they were united in the opinion that politicians must step aside and let scientists both lead the effort to contain the virus and explain to Americans what must be done.

Hmmm…now that doesn’t sound too different from the words of the high priests of yore.

Now I’m not downplaying the playing the importance of science in addressing our current situation. I’m just arguing that what we are facing is a lot more complex than just an issue for science. Robert Samuelson, an columnist who writes on economic issues for the Washington Post, puts forth the argument that we are actually facing 4 crises.

He starts a recent column such,

Few words are more overused in our debates than “crisis.” We have many — the education crisis, the inequality crisis and the environmental crisis, to name just a few. The word suggests an impending calamity unless we take instant action. The reality is that most crises are not calamities. They’re stubborn problems that, for one reason or another, defy a sweeping solution. Life goes on. The “crisis” label is mostly a public-relations device designed to attract attention.

Then there is the occasional exception — a crisis that is really a crisis, meaning that if we don’t react with the right responses, we will suffer irreparable harms. This is the case with the coronavirus. We need to understand why. There are at least four intertwined crises, involving health care, economics, politics and democracy.

Some will reject his assertion and say everything needs to be centered on survival. All else is a moot point. I’ve never subscribed to that theory. It’s always been my belief that whenever waging a war – and yes this is akin to war – winning the peace is every bit as important as winning the war. Survival is paramount, but what happens afterward is equally critical.

So we survive this pandemic, but we are left with a world in economic ruins robbed of many of our personal liberties, did we really survive? Look at the aftermath of 911. Yes, we’ve been kept safe from terrorists by the changes brought about in its wake, but at what cost to our personal liberties?

It’s worth noting that in that instance, there was also general agreement among experts on a hypothesis that has since proven incorrect – Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. That in itself raises the caveat that science is only as good as the data it’s rooted in. It may seem like there is currently an overabundance of data when it comes to the coronavirus, but unfortunately, that’s not the reality. As a result, we need to be hesitant in making ironclad pronouncements until more data is secured. The more data the more complex solutions we can create to combat a complex issue.

It seems as a society we’ve become less and less capable of finding complex solutions to complex problems. Going forth, I certainly believe that scientists and medical experts should have a front-row seat in crafting policy. Joining them should be economists, sociologists, communications experts, project managers, lawyers, political scientists, and others. Because to adequately face the current challenge we need more than just medical advice.

You see medical scientists have only one area of expertise. Economists have one area of expertise. Any policy they craft is going to focus on their discipline at the exclusion of all other considerations. They have not been trained in the crafting of public policy and therefore don’t deal in the realm of potential unintended consequences when offering strategies. Nor are they experts at communicating their solutions in a manner that translates into adoption.

Public policy must be crafted and communicated in a manner that gives it the best opportunity to achieve its desired results. Both are areas outside of the realm of science and medical specialists. Think how often we’ve seen poorly crafted and communicated policy fail despite it being the correct solution.

Thankfully, the man that most of us are taking our cues from, Dr. Anthony Fauci, gets it on more than a medical level. When asked in a recent interview if he thought it was a mistake to issue shelter in place orders state by state instead of nationally he answered,

No, I don’t think we could say it’s a mistake or not a mistake. There is a discussion and a delicate balance about what’s the overall impact of shutting everything down completely for an indefinite period of time. So there’s a compromise. If you knock down the economy completely and disrupt infrastructure, you may be causing health issues, unintended consequences, for people who need to be able to get to places and can’t. You do the best you can. I’ve emphasized very emphatically at every press conference, that everybody in the country, at a minimum, should be following the fundamental guidelines. Elderly, stay out of society in self isolation. Don’t go to work if you don’t have to. Yada yada yada. No bars, no restaurants, no nothing. Only essential services. When you get a place like New York or Washington or California, you have got to ratchet it up. But it is felt–and it isn’t me only speaking, it’s a bunch of people who make the decisions—that if you lock down everything now, you’re going to crash the whole society. So you do what you can do, as best as you can. Do as much physical separation as you can and ratchet it up at the places you know are at highest risk.

When asked to examine what has gone wrong,

I think we’ll have to wait until it is over and we look back before we can answer that. It’s almost like the fog of war. After the war is over, you then look back and say, ‘Wow, this plan, as great as it was, didn’t quite work once they started throwing hand grenades at us.’ It really is similar to that. Obviously, testing [for the new coronavirus] is one clear issue that needs to be relooked at. Why were we not able to mobilize on a broader scale? But I don’t think we can do that right now. I think it’s premature. We really need to look forward.

The current crisis is multi-faceted and as such requires cooperation from all. Navigating these treacherous waters is going to take a willingness to compromise from all of us. It’s not an option to act as if the threat doesn’t exist and not make any alterations to your daily life. Screaming at people, “Stay in your homes or you are going to die!” does not create a path to mass adherence. You can’t publicly shame people into compliance, all that does is create resentments and increased resistance.

Need evidence? Look no further than the recent tenure of former MNPS Director of Schools Dr. Joseph. A year of documented evidence of misdeeds and failed leadership failed to produce a concerted effort to make a change. Instead, it produced among some a more resilient stance against change. It was only after a more appealing choice was offered that the wheels of change began turning.

The same holds true under the current conditions. The more you belittle the President, the more you try to publicly shame him and his supporters, the more you paint people as ignorant, the stronger their opposition to compliance will become and the less chance any strategy has of being successful.

For better or for worse, Trump is what we got right now. Bill Lee is what we got right now. No amount of critical social media posts is going to change that. No funny meme’s, no snarky descriptions. It’s like if you were given a Yugo and you spent all your time wishing you had a Porsche and pointing out the faults of the Yugo. At some point, you have to recognize that for the time being, you’re driving a Yugo. At some point, there will come a chance to upgrade, but today ain’t that day.

There has been talk that if enough Republican Senators fall prey to the virus that there will be a shifting of the majority to the Democrats and an opportunity to seize power. You are a fool if you entertain such a scenario, it is one that sure to prove detrimental in the future.

I’ve heard some offer that the employing of the National Guard to enforce “shelter-in-place” policies would be a welcome development. The ramifications of such an action could prove extremely detrimental to future generations. The potential precedent that it would set in evoking similar action in the future is unpredictable and places a dangerous tool in the hands of those who would abuse it.

I return to Samuelson who leaves us with a warning about the growing democracy crisis. It is one that in my humble opinion it would behoove us to pay heed to,

This democratic crisis subsumes all the crises I’ve mentioned above — health care, economics and politics — and raises the profound question of whether we can govern in the common interest. Or are we condemned to a system that defines the common interest as the collective desires of many different subgroups, with each subgroup pursuing its own interest and no one group looking out for the larger common good?

That is a scary assessment, but it fits the facts and suggests that we are stumbling into an unhappy future.

Teachers push back when critics argue that their craft can be reduced to a science. I would argue the same when it comes to crafting effective public policy – it’s both a science and an art. We must never lose sight of either.

THE DIGITAL DILEMA

Across the country, schools are wrestling with the dilemma of what to do in the wake of unprecedented school closings. Most recognize that mass mandatory deployment of digital learning plans are infeasible due to issues of scale and equity. have no fear though, the US Department of Education is here to quench those concerns.

On Saturday they released an FAQ that seems to give permission to local districts to ignore the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act(IDEA)in favor of firing up digital learning opportunities. In bold letters the FAQ states,

To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA),† Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.

It goes on to offer examples like if a teacher is preparing worksheets and there is a blind student in the class, the obligation could be met merely by having someone call and read the worksheet to the student over the phone. It’s a recommendation that gives me more than a little bit of a shudder and opens the door to future policies that could serve to even further widen the equity gap.

I understand the need to bring stability and order to the table, not to mention a desire to ensure that learning keeps happening for students. Though I would offer a heightened caution that well-intended strategies don’t end in horrible unintentional consequences.

At this point, nobody, despite what they may say, has any idea how long schools will be closed. The aforementioned NY Times article recognizes the quandary with closing schools for extended periods,

Closing schools is a normal part of social distancing; after all, schools are the workplaces for many adults, too. And when the disease is clearly spreading within an individual school, it must close.

But closing whole school districts can seriously disrupt a city’s ability to fight an outbreak. With their children stuck at home, nurses, doctors, police officers and other emergency medical workers cannot come to work.

Also, many children in low-income families depend on the meals they eat at schools.

Cities that close all schools are creating special “hub schools” for the children of essential workers. In Ohio, the governor has told school bus drivers to deliver hot meals to children who normally got them at school.

Further complicating issues, in this case, is the low infection rate for children. For whatever reason, unlike the flu, children seldom get sick enough to warrant hospitalization. In China, there have no incidences were a family infection began with a child. This is an instance were randomized testing of the population would be beneficial.

As more information is gathered, decisions will be made to open or close schools. If the current situation evolves into a more long term status than options for distance learning will need to be explored in greater length. For now, we can afford to take a wait and see approach in order to ensure that we are doing what’s best for students and not just taking action in an effort to appease a feeling of a need to act.

In any case, encouraging kids to read more is one failsafe way to address continued learning.

Hopefully, for now, most school districts will continue to offer distance learning strategies as voluntary options and not switch to mandatory measures.

QUICK HITS

Kudos to Andy Spears and the TNEd Report. This week they crossed the threshold of 8000 followers. If you are already a regular reader then you are probably not surprised if you aren’t what’s the hold-up?

Fall-Hamilton Principal Mathew has launched Operation “Every Family”. He is making an effort to call every family whose children attend Fall-Hamilton ES. Per his latest update, third grade has now been completed. Onward and upward.

Hunter’s Lane Principal Sue Kessler promised her students some fun this week. Encouraging their participation in a virtual spirit week! If students text, message or email Dr. Kessler their pics, she will post some to share on their page! Warrior Workers can play too!

Anybody who thinks that teachers are treating the current situation as some kind of extended vacation is severely misinformed. Teaching is a profession grounded in relationships. Relationships that many are sorely missing. MNPS teacher Missy Testerman recently confessed as much. Luckily she was able to talk to one of her students yesterday and they told her, “I hope the people at your house know that you like the books all turned the right way & that you love it when we hug you when you come in the cafeteria after lunch. “

Teachers looking for guidance on navigating the current situation need look no further than Nashville’s Education Co-op. They’ve created a web site in which to offer insight and support to teachers. In addition to the moderated online forum where teachers can share resources and discuss the shift to the new landscape, they’ve created a schedule of free, daily video workshops. They are determined to beat back the looming isolation and lack of connection – our teacher community is strong enough and committed enough to pivot like this for their students and themselves.

In an effort to be less critical of current leaders, I’d like to commend Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn and the TNDOE for facilitating the lifting of some regulations in order to make it easier to get food to students and their families in need. Much appreciated.

MNPS is continuing its efforts to ensure students don’t go hungry.

Six MNPS school buses will be used to pick up approximately 250 meals each from preparation kitchens and brought to locations where children are able to pick up the meals. Locations and times for the bus drivers to provide meals will be updated on www.mnps.org/COVID19 when they become available, as well as shared with MNPS families through social media and callouts.

Following updated guidelines from the Tennessee Department of Education, MNPS has revised the timeline for food distribution at school locations to offer both breakfast and lunch at one time, reducing the need for families to travel.

Starting Monday, March 23, and continuing every weekday that schools are closed, the meals will be available to anyone under the age of 18, regardless of their school status; however, they must be present to collect the meals, per federal law. The bagged or boxed meals will be provided in a drive-through setup. The meals will be available for pickup between 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. at the following locations:

  •  Apollo Middle School: 631 Richards Rd, Antioch, TN 37013
  • Buena Vista Elementary School: 1531 9th Ave N, Nashville, TN 37208
  • Cole Elementary School: 5060 Colemont Dr, Antioch, TN 37013
  • DuPont Elementary School: 1311 9th St, Old Hickory, TN 37138
  • Glencliff High School: 160 Antioch Pike, Nashville, TN 37211
  • H.G. Hill Middle School: 150 Davidson Rd, Nashville, TN 37205
  • I.T. Creswell Middle School: 3500 John Mallette Dr, Nashville, TN 37218
  • Lakeview Elementary School: 455 Rural Hill Rd, Nashville, TN 37217
  • Madison Middle School: 300 W Old Hickory Blvd, Madison, TN 37115
  • McKissack Middle School: 915 38th Ave N, Nashville, TN 37209
  • Napier Elementary School: 67 Fairfield Ave, Nashville, TN 37210
  • Rose Park Middle School: 1025 9th Ave S, Nashville, TN 37203
  • Shwab Elementary School: 1500 Dickerson Pike, Nashville, TN 37207
  • Stratford STEM Magnet High School: 1800 Stratford Ave, Nashville, TN 37216
  • Two Rivers Middle School: 2991 McGavock Pike, Nashville, TN 37214

Metro Schools will continue to partner with Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee for family food box distribution. Currently there is a lack of available supplies to determine additional dates and locations at this time. Our Community Achieves staff will continue to coordinate with community partners to find opportunities to support families during the public health crisis. Families in need of food assistance should contact Second Harvest directly or call the United Way’s helpline at 2-1-1.

That’s it for now, if you’ve got time and are looking for a smile, check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work to accentuate the positive.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy.

If you so desire to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.

Don’t forget, if you have student-written blog posts you’d like to see reach a wider audience…send them on. I’d love the opportunity to share them.

.



Categories: Education

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