Can teaching be improved by law?

Robert Pondisco:

If there’s one lesson education policymakers might have learned in the last twenty-five years, it’s that it’s not hard to make schools and districts do something, but it’s extremely hard to make them do it well. There has always been at least a tacit assumption among policy wonks that schools and teachers are sitting on vast reserves of untapped potential that must either to be set free from bureaucratic constraints or shaken out of its complacency. Those of us who have spent lots of time in classrooms watching teachers trying their best and failing (or trying hard and failing ourselves) often find those assumptions curious. Compliance is easy. It’s competence that’s the rub.

Last week, North Carolina’s Democratic governor signed into law a bill that mandates, among other things, that schools in the state use a phonics-based approach to reading instruction. Dubbed the “Excellent Public Schools Act,” the law, which enjoyed strong bipartisan support, requires teachers to be trained in the “science of reading” and to base their reading instruction on it. Despite my inherent skepticism that policy alone can move classroom practice in the right direction, I’m having a hard time finding fault with what North Carolina has done.

I’m generally not keen to impose my preferred flavors of curriculum and instruction on schools, despite some well-defined opinions on such matters. But if there’s an exception, it’s early childhood literacy with curriculum and instruction grounded in the science of reading. The foundational role of proficient decoding and comprehension in academic success suggests that, while it might make sense to let a thousand flowers bloom in curriculum, instruction, and school models—vive la différence!—we have no more important shared task than getting kids to the starting line of basic literacy from the first days of school. So if I have any lingering technocratic impulses left, they’re limited to early childhood literacy and the “science of reading.” But the open question is whether literacy laws—from mandating phonics to third grade retention policies—can have a beneficial effect on classroom practice.

Related: My Question to Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers on Teacher Mulligans and our Disastrous Reading Results