Three Dancing Figures - Photo by Phil Roeder
Three Dancing Figures. Sculpture by Keith Haring. Photo by Phil Roeder.

Of all the policy debates going on with the American education system, certainly one of the most intriguing is defining the “appropriate” role of the federal, state, and local actors and agencies. For me, it’s difficult to argue any of these levels are unimportant when it comes to education policy in the United States – the rub comes in trying to define what the best role for each of them should be.

Perhaps rather than engaging in what will be an endless debate over the “appropriate” role of the federal government in education, or at the state level reigniting the cyclical debate over Dylan’s Rule versus Home Rule as the best policy approach, we should consider how we can engage each of these important levels in their strength areas and find the right balance across them.

The national perspective is critical in establishing high level goals and connecting ideas. One wonders if students with disabilities or minorities would have the same kind of access to education they do today if not for the leadership of the federal government. Or, if the knowledge base for something like Response to Intervention would have grown at the pace it has without national support. States play an absolutely critical role as well. It is important for states to set high expectations, fairly monitor progress toward those expectations, provide adequate funding and accounting oversight, and continually build educational system capacity within each state. Finally, districts (and I would include everyone working at the local level here, right down to that crucial classroom teacher) have a role to make the critical day to day and tactical decisions about how teaching and learning happens.

Rather than spending energy trying to push one group out of the picture (and this is a fantasy, in my opinion), or try and imagine a world where one group stands completely alone in making all the educational policy decisions (this is also a fantasy), we should consider what are the strengths each has and how to play to those – and find the right balance among the three to move the whole system forward.

It’s got to be about balance and playing to strengths.