Another Gap in Education: The Distance Between Policy and Practice in ESEA

The accountability movement helped to shine a light on the long-standing inequities that continue to exist, but it has also illuminated the gaps that exist between policy and practice. As a member of the audience at the first hearing for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, I couldn’t help but wrestle with my internal excitement and simultaneous dissatisfaction. While many contemporary educators frame the discussion of the accountability movement through the lens of No Child Left Behind, the bill signed into law by George W. Bush is actually a reauthorization of the ESEA signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. In his remarks on signing the ESEA, President Johnson stated:
It represents a major new commitment of the federal government, to quality and equality in the schooling that we offer our young people. By passing this bill we bridge the gap between helplessness and hope for more than five million educationally deprived people.
The gap between helplessness and hope still exists for students, and almost fifty years later, Congress has reconvened to evaluate the level of federal commitment necessary to close such a gap.

We All See the Gaps in Different Ways

As a turnaround principal in a Midwestern pre-K-8 school, the gap is just as evident to me today as I’m sure it was for President Johnson, a former schoolteacher, back in 1965. His call to action was rooted in his lived experience therefore qualifying him as his own bridge between his political and practical understandings of such a law. As a leader grounded in hope and motivated by that same urgent call for action, I entered into the Senate hearing ready to see them work in the original spirit and intent of the ESEA. As we listened to testimony and opinions about the reauthorization of ESEA, my initial thoughts centered on the witnesses. Like every committed educator, I wanted to make sure every one of my students’ particular needs and interests were introduced. The witnesses weren’t telling my truth or the truth of so many others who would be impacted by the legislation. Their story was only one part of the reality—their personal truth—and certainly not a sample large enough or diverse enough to be valid. These pre-selected witnesses were just as passionate about their truth as I imagined I would be and gave great commentary to reinforce many of my own personal opinions. Yet I wondered if their voices were enough to close the gap between policy and practice. Had I been in the seat, could I alone effectively represent the voices of educators unlike mine? There was no chart paper, mind map or list of action items on which to build and capture the diversity of ideas. We educators were at the table but could not straddle both worlds in the way Johnson did. Johnson (the teacher) and Johnson (the president) could challenge each other, examine the unintended consequences, engage in discussion and problem solve as one. From the witnesses my attention shifted to our elected officials: members of the Senate. From much of the commentary you could get a general sense that the senators wanted what was best for kids. They owned the challenges of autonomy and accountability while validating the concerns associated with federal involvement in educational decision-making. Yet while there was plenty of participation, there was little opportunity for engagement. When the lived experience of our politicians and our educational practitioners differ so greatly, we require a space in which our collective and individual ideas can be challenged, critiqued and improved. We require a space in which politicians and practitioners can equally represent their unique expertise, learn collectively from their mistakes, and challenge each other’s limited understanding of the whole truth. I took my visit to the Senate hearing very seriously. The only difference between them and me was the comfort of our chairs and the position from which we saw this issue. My position and perception sat firmly in the world of practice while theirs was rooted in politics and policy. Ultimately, though, it was politicians, not educators, who would advise me on what was best for children.
William Hayes is a turnaround principal at Franklin D. Roosevelt Academy Pre-K-8 in Cleveland, Ohio, and has worked in the education field for eight years. He received his master's in education from Harvard University and is currently enrolled in a doctoral program in education leadership and policy at Vanderbilt University.

Join the Movement