Graduates at the John F. Kennedy School of Government toss globes in the air during 2006 commencement ceremonies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Chitose Suzuki/Associated Press)

James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University. Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of “The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.”

This fall, Georgetown University announced the creation of a new school of public policy , thanks to a gift of $100 million from an alumnus. And in October, the University of New Hampshire announced that it would use a $20 million gift to launch a public policy school of its own.

It is easy to understand the impulse behind such actions. “It’s an awfully frustrating time in the world,” David Ellwood, dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told us. “There are large and challenging problems, including climate change, demography, budget problems, terrorism, extremism and partisanship.” At public policy schools, he explains, “we think it’s our job to fix these things.” The faculty and students, Ellwood says, “are united by the principle of making the world a better place.”

But are policy schools making a dent in Ellwood’s long and varied list of problems? The Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration already lists some 285 such institutions in the United States, and new ones are opening up — but the field as a whole seems to be having an identity crisis. The schools’ curricula and missions have become at once too broad and too academic, too focused on national and global issues at the expense of local and state-level ones. It’s not clear that the schools are preparing their graduates to fix all that needs fixing.

“Policy schools used to be much more about how to translate ideas into solutions to public problems,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter, former dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and now president of the New America Foundation. Scholars at policy schools “do extremely important work,” she asserts, but often, “that’s not work that policymakers read.”

The basic premise behind a school of policy derives from the modern idea of constitution-making — that wisely crafted laws can shape the character and conduct of citizens. Philosopher David Hume articulated this view in his 1742 essay, “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science,” arguing that while sound administration is crucial in a monarchy, the structure of the constitution and laws is more important in republican systems, where individual freedoms and public good come together. James Madison and other American founders became early practitioners of Hume’s science of politics.

In the 20th century, political science moved from the design of constitutions to the crafting of policies by neutral experts. Progressive leaders such as John Dewey, Woodrow Wilson and Louis Brandeis argued that modern industrial society had grown too complex for the common citizen or the average elected official. It required a new class of public servants to adjudicate conflicts between business and labor and to serve on boards and commissions regulating corporate activity in the public interest.

Some of the first public policy schools were founded in the 1930s in response to the creation of New Deal government agencies. The virtue of these schools is that “they trained many people who went into government and did good things,” says John DiIulio, who runs the Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania and was the first director of President George W. Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. “They wired the house of American bureaucracy.”

Sizable government initiatives in the postwar era created more demand for such institutions, which became “an expression of the Progressive idea that bigger government was better government,” DiIulio explains. For example, he says, “no one had ever built an interstate highway system before,” and no one knew how to make the federal government work with state and local governments and for-profit contractors to make it happen. Enter public policy schools.

The mission of these institutions began to change in the 1970s, when the Ford Foundation issued multimillion-dollar grants to eight universities, including Yale, Duke and the University of Michigan. According to Graham Allison, writing in 2006 in the Oxford Handbook of Public Policy, the new cadre of students needed to be versed in not only “budgetary cost and efficacy” but also “social equity, civil rights, and quality of life.” People who were concerned with intragovernmental relations and American federalism began to seem “old and crusty,” DiIulio says. Now the goals of these schools were to dream up ways to “make the world a better place.”

Lofty goals have often produced research and teaching that is further and further removed from the day-to-day operations of government. While the field is so disparate that “it’s hard to talk about public policy schools as a whole,” Slaughter cautions, she and other school leaders identify certain trends, including a renewed zeal for quantitative analysis. When Georgetown President John J. DeGioia announced his university’s new policy school, he explained that “the availability of massive data to provide new analytic tools have resulted in an invaluable opportunity for our university.” The new emphasis on big data is reminiscent of the Progressive idea that if we just gather enough information, the policy conclusions will be obvious to all.

James Wilburn, dean of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, worries that too often, “what gets studied depends on whether there is an available database.” He accuses economists at policy schools of being “more interested in their models than in the people” whom public policy will affect.

Many schools have begun to look like a mishmash of the academic departments from which their faculty members hail — such as political science, economics and sociology. But those people may have no more or less interest than colleagues from their home departments in shaping actual policy. Of course, many of these schools draw at least some faculty members from politicians who have lost elections or wonks whose parties are out of power in Washington. But such celebrity instructors are short-timers and do little to draw the academic faculty — which dominate the schools — out of their bubbles.

There is also a certain grandiosity that characterizes the missions of these institutions. With the exception of certain schools such as the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, most schools are concerned more with national and international policy than with local and state matters. Many of the places that do focus on the latter, DiIulio says, “are not among the more prestigious.”

It is not that the better-known schools never do local projects. Ellwood told us how Kennedy School students helped the mayor of Somerville, Mass., remake his city’s finances with “performance-based budgeting” — measuring how much snow gets plowed, for example, not how many snowplows are used. Ellwood offered this as an example of how policy schools have to focus on “management as much as big, bold, creative solutions.”

But one wonders how many Kennedy School graduates aspire to solve Somerville’s fiscal problems as opposed to, say, climate change and terrorism? Only 6 percent of the school’s 2012 graduates went into local, regional or state-level government jobs.

To understand how much the trajectories of policy school alums have changed, one need only take note of a lawsuit against Princeton by the Robertson family. In 1961, the heirs to the A&P fortune gave $35 million to the university specifically for the purpose of training people to go into government service through the Woodrow Wilson School. Forty years later, they found that the school was instead training people to go into a lot of other fields — from nonprofits to Wall Street. (After a six-year legal battle, an agreement was struck whereby Princeton retained control of the endowment, which had grown to $900 million , but would pay out $50 million to create a new foundation aimed at preparing students for government service.)

Of course, public-private partnerships are ubiquitous now; public policy isn’t shaped solely by government staffers but by various sectors and players as well, and it makes sense that graduates’ ambitions would reflect that. Indeed, Slaughter says that if she were starting a policy school today, it would offer only joint degrees, so that students could develop expertise in the various arenas they might encounter in the years ahead. But training people to be competent in multiple sectors only makes the job of policy schools even more diffuse.

So, what should these schools be doing in terms of training and research? DiIulio suggests that maybe it’s time for them to return to their roots, teaching students to focus on implementing policy and making the government we have work better. “These seem like technical, boring matters, [but] someone has to get under the hood,” DiIulio says. For instance, he adds with a laugh, “How do you build an IT system for a new federally financed system of health care?”

Henry Brady, the dean at the University of California at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, told us in an e-mail that his school has been “quite successful with a real impact on bringing tough-minded economic and analytical methods into government and bringing evidence based research into the formulation of regulations and the appraisal of programs (although politicians often ignore the research).”

That last caveat may prove the most important. Slaughter notes that the research coming out of public policy schools is “less and less accessible to the lay reader. The jargon has become more and more specialized.” She says she “doesn’t know anyone in government who would read the academic journals that policy school professors get rewarded for publishing in,” and while the “need for translation [for lay readers] is ever greater, the rewards for translation in the academy are ever smaller.” Indeed, she says, “in many departments you will be less valued by your colleagues because you’re no longer doing ‘cutting edge’ research.”

If policymakers ignore policy school research or can’t understand it, what can policy professors and graduates possibly accomplish?

Arthur Brooks, formerly a professor of business and government at Syracuse’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and now president of the American Enterprise Institute, says that students coming out of policy programs are “no match for the trillions of dollars in unfunded mandates and liabilities,” not to mention the “power of the unions and the bureaucracies.” Public policy schools “could produce 10,000 graduates a year,” he adds, “and it wouldn’t hold a candle to the power of those interests.” Asking whether public policy grads have made a dent in the budget crisis “is like sending 75 Jesuits to China and complaining that the country isn’t Christian.” Brooks says, “At Maxwell, we were just trying to train graduates to be good in whatever careers they had.”

It’s probably true that experts are no match for organized interests, from public-sector unions to corporations, in which case the Progressive idea was bound to fail. Unfortunately, though, it’s not clear that the policy schools ever fought these battles — or that they are equipped to do so now.

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