In her first stint as a teacher, she was mystified by what she calls the policy churn. She often received directives that were in competition with each other. Her work on her doctorate helped her understand why.
“It’s kind of a gross image,” Frasier said, “but imagine all the policies that take place in a school as different types of soup. Imagine the different layers of implementation as a series of sieves with different shaped and sized holes. At the bottom of these layers is a bowl, which is the classroom.”
Bureaucratic layers filter out some ingredients dumped on them from layers above. “At the end the classroom bowl is going to be left with an unpalatable combination of various soups, often lacking whatever substance and appeal they once contained,” she said. “Sometimes all you are left with as a teacher is a watery gruel.”
One of Frasier’s favorite examples is the Common Core State Standards, the nation’s hottest school reform in the 2010s until it lost momentum. She didn’t see much wrong with it. There was nothing inherently bad about a national set of standards in various subjects. But it created confusion because under the Obama administration’s Race to the Top policy, states competed with each other for big federal grants by adopting sometimes-contradictory policies.
“Most states did not receive these funds and so were tasked with carrying out unfunded mandates,” she said. They still had to install the new policies. They had to buy new student assessment systems. They had to apply the test results to teacher evaluations under often-murky rules.
She was told when she was in her first years as a teacher that she would be evaluated on a statistical model based on how much she contributed to her students’ progress. When she asked questions, the local experts said few people could understand the psychometric complexities.
While pursuing her doctorate she got to meet some of the mysterious people who created the teacher assessment formulas. Some expressed dismay at the way their work was being used, particularly in districts where teachers would be paid based on those ratings.
It was like meeting the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, Frasier said. The policymakers were human beings, not magicians. If given a chance, teachers could learn what generated their decisions, sort out the contradictions and see how best to teach under those conditions.
Policy conflicts arise everywhere. Efforts to expand the definition of giftedness clash with state rules requiring a precise count of the gifted. Schools that want more students in Advanced Placement find it hard to get the money. Policy wars complicate finding the most effective way to teach reading.
“Policy should be something that involves teachers,” she said, “instead teachers are often viewed as input, no different than a textbook.”
The best-run public schools I know usually have more time in each day for teachers to figure out ways to turn policies into lessons. They often have experienced teachers working as coaches to help them do that, and at the same time evaluate their work.
Instead, Frasier said, what teachers are doing and how they are evaluated are usually treated as two different things. “We expect teachers to be fluid, to differentiate, to adjust to their context,” she said, “and yet evaluation for both students and teachers is standardized.”
There was much talk about education in this month’s elections. But politicians mostly exchanged slogans without examining teaching and learning, the core of Frasier’s working life. Once elected, officeholders tend to avoid getting involved in the details of education policy. The intricacies don’t get much attention on cable news.
To Frasier, promises of change and innovation can mean more swings of the policy pendulum, and more confusion for teachers.
Gradually over the last century U.S. schools have gotten better. More students in hard circumstances have been welcomed into classrooms. The lessons are at a higher level. That is in part because of the work of smart teachers like Frasier.
They will continue to try to communicate the essence of their lessons. But at the same time, they must protect students from the conflicting messages that still drop down on them from above.