Public policy can override professional judgment, but very cautiously

This afternoon I’ve been in a Twitter exchange with Benjamin Riley over the issue of when public policy can override teacher judgment and how much the current wave of reformy legislation is ignoring teacher judgment. (Or, rather, I’ve been moderately active while he’s been in a much broader Twitter exchange.) I pulled out the obvious and easy trump card: Florida’s SB 736, which is a little hard for anyone who didn’t vote for it to defend as great policy or as having been generated with significant teacher input.1 Much to my surprise and disappointment, Riley pulled out the “well, they were heard and ignored” explanation:

That’s an interesting glimpse into his views of teacher judgment, or rather I hope it is not reflective of a generally dismissive attitude.

But let me look more closely at the policy question: under what circumstances is it reasonable for public policymakers to override the professional judgment of teachers (or doctors, engineers, etc.)? “Well, the legislature thought differently” is fundamentally a formalistic response, since the fact that an elected body has an official opinion doesn’t say anything about the substantive wisdom of the policy. Same with any version of Politician’s Logic (something must be done; X is something; therefore we must do X). So some modest ideas on when overriding professional judgment is reasonable:

  • Pinpoint evidence on a specific practice: When a significant body of technical evidence suggests that continuing a common practice is unwise or unwarranted. Example: when significant evidence begins to appear that a particular surgery technique is no better than a placebo, and practitioners continue the surgery without considering the research, then overriding professional judgment is plausible with the consideration of an independent expertise-based panel (as the IPAB is designed to do in the Affordable Care Act). Limitation: This is about specific practices that you could imagine Atul Gawande writing about in The Checklist Manifesto. It is not about general structures of a profession.
  • Pilot for thorny problem: When the policy question is a limited pilot addressing a significant problem, when the proper response is not clearly guided by existing evidence, and when the professionals at hand have not offered alternative ideas. Example: In several states, governments have experimented with different Medicaid payment plans to address cost issues, often with vehement objections from providers. Running a pilot is reasonable when it is run to provide evidence to address the concerns of professionals as well as the larger public policy questions at issue. Limitation: if you’re going to run a pilot, you need to be committed to following where the evidence leads; if the evidence points to failure of the pilot, you shut it down and don’t continue to argue for it.

This is not an exclusive list, but since the question at issue is where professional judgment could be overridden, I wanted to generate a few “use cases” for discussion.

More broadly, I am arguing that the existence of such specific case for overriding professional practice indicates the importance of doing so very cautiously and deliberatively rather than in a knee-jerk fashion.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.


  1. When Rick Hess tells a Republican legislature that it’s being unreasonable,… []

One response to “Public policy can override professional judgment, but very cautiously”

  1. CCPhysicist

    I gather from the footnote that this is a law that trades no increase in pay for elimination of tenure and evaluation based on a test designed by a private company?

    I’ll repeat that I have never heard of a principal or superintendent being fired for granting tenure to an incompetent teacher, despite claims that some huge fraction of tenured faculty are incompetent. Or of one being fired for forcing a bad curriculum onto faculty who know better.

    Further, I’ll repeat that I’ll take them seriously that this is an essential way to evaluate schools and teachers if they also apply the same policies to every student at any school that accepts state vouchers or tax deductible scholarships.