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Effective policy implementation is problematic for many reasons. Primary is the fact that American government is not an “it,” but a “they.” Policy execution must be overseen by a large number of organizations and individuals within and across levels of government. These multiple personalities bring to bear divergent financial and administrative resources; they have uneven incentives and motivations to comply; and they are constantly tempted to wait for a new political coalition and a better deal. In short, as Alexander Hamilton put it in 1798: “How widely different the business of government is from the speculation of it!” The result, he worried, was “delay and feebleness.” Too often, of course, that has served as a fair description of federal education policy.

Indeed, education policy is particularly poorly suited to hierarchical command and control. It is an arena where the federal government faces competition both for the right to act at all and to have anything like the last word. National policy must be turned over to state and local actors with their own constituencies to please and their own independent authority. There are a lot of moving parts here—for a start, 50 statewide education bureaucracies overseeing approximately 14,000 districts, close to 100,000 school principals, and 3.6 million teachers (not to mention 55 million schoolchildren).

Worse, good policy depends crucially on how it is crafted, not simply the merit of the original idea. But political consensus often requires ambiguity, not exactitude. For example, during the debate over the No Child Left Behind Act, the idea of accountability was widely supported. But there was little agreement on what that concept ought to mean in practice. Thus, the language of the law met the needs of an odd coalition wedded to diverging priorities, but not of those who would have to implement it.

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