Our good friend Justin Cohen over at the “Turnaround Challenge” hit it spot on the in an entry on the relationship between good policy and good execution.  Justin mentions a Matt Yglesias quote on (of all the things to compare to education reform) counter insurgency strategy.  Yglesias says,

“… you can’t initiate a large complicated undertaking that involves coordinated action by hundreds of thousands of individual human beings and then make success contingent on perfect implementation.”

Fresh from a day of pondering state Race to the Top strategy, Justin notes, “I’m increasingly frustrated by the extent to which [education] policy discussions are execution-agnostic.”  We’ve been helping three states implement their Race to the Top, and we’ve seen the same thing from the front line.

Think about it.  An RTT winner has to now coordinate at least 20 separate new and inter-woven (not to mention politically risky) projects internally AND monitor and support the progress of around 10 projects at each of the school districts participating in their program (which could be as low as 55 and as high as more than 700 depending on the state).  This is a management super-lift in organizations that have rarely been rewarded for or capable of managing large complicated projects on their own.  Yet, when we look at any state’s application or at a district’s scope of work, we see work plans written as if they weren’t doing anything else, there was no angry teacher’s union waiting for them to mess up, and they have a bench of Harvard MBAs.  They are assuming near perfect implementation.

Our advice to these states has been to design themselves around the inevitability of imperfect implementation.  In education reform generally, and in RTT specifically, there is no recipe or checklist that we can follow for it to work.  We must instead live in a constant cycle of making a hypothesis of the best path forward, executing in earnest, reflecting frequently on our progress, mid-course correcting, repeat.

We’ll get into this in more detail in the weeks ahead.