650 Public Administration Review • July | Augu st 20 18
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 78, Iss. 4, pp. 650–651. © 2018 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
James V. Shuls is assistant professor
and the graduate program director of
educational leadership and policy studies
at the University of Missouri – St. Louis.
His research focuses on a broad range
of education policy issues, with special
emphasis on teacher labor markets, school
finance, and school choice issues. He
holds a PhD in education policy from the
University of Arkansas.
In the introduction to When School Policies
Backfire: How Well-Intentioned Measures Can Harm
Our Most Vulnerable Students, editors Michael
A. Gottfried and Gilberto Q. Conchas and two
co-authors offer a clear articulation of the need for
this book. Scholars regularly devote pages, articles,
and columns to policies that work. Yet often policies
that are designed to improve the lot of disadvantaged
students end up doing more harm than good. These
policies backfire. Rarely do scholars, practitioners, or
policy makers take the time to evaluate and analyze
why this is so. This failure to understand our policy
follies leaves us open to repeating our own mistakes. It
is only in understanding what went wrong, Gottfried
and Conchas suggest, that we can learn from our
mistakes and improve in the future. As such, the
editors assembled a stellar team of scholars to discuss a
host of educational policies and how they fell far short
of achieving their goal.
Clearly, studying policy backfire is a useful pursuit.
To do so, we must first understand what it means for
a policy to backfire. To this end, the editors carefully
define what they mean by the term. They note that
backfire is not synonymous with failure, not even
“phenomenal failure” (3). Rather, backfire is “when
a polity or intervention has the exact opposite effect
of what it was intended to do.” This definition is
instructive. A backfire is not simply a program having
a null effect or costing too much money—it is when
the policy was intended to improve an outcome
but instead has a deleterious effect on the outcome.
They provide the D.A.R.E program as an example.
The program, designed to help reduce drug use, by
many accounts inadvertently increased drug use. It
backfired. It had the exact opposite effect that it was
supposed to have.
The first chapter of the book helps the reader to
better understand the concept of backfire. The
chapter’s author, Shaun M. Dougherty, explains how
a middle school literacy program ended up leaving
black students worse off at the end of the program.
He noted, “the reading intervention program that
set out to improve performance had the reverse
effect—negatively impacting the performance of
some students—and created a gap between Black
and White eligible students where previously there
was not one” (37). Undoubtedly, the program
backfired. The usefulness of this chapter; however, is
not simply in noting that the policy backfired, but
in identifying how it backfired. The district used an
“objective criterion” for selection into the program
without considering how that measure, test scores,
might have heterogeneous impacts on students from
different schools or races. Readers of the chapter can
learn lessons from this analysis and walk away with a
better understanding of what it means for a policy to
backfire. Unfortunately, this was not the case for the
rest of the book.
In the end, the definition of backfire offered by the
editors is problematic for the editors themselves.
They sought to offer clarity, so that readers might
better understand policy backfire. Throughout the
book, however, the chapter authors do not follow
this definition. Often, they discuss policy failures and
label them backfires. As Gottfried and Conchas clearly
stated in the beginning of the book, however, failing
is not synonymous with backfire. To backfire, a policy
has to have the opposite effect of what it intended.
Given this definition, the editors’ attempt to clarify
the term backfire in the reader’s mind has completely
backfired. Rather than offer a clear and consistent use
of the term throughout the book, the various authors
offer a mishmash of definitions that leave the average
reader confused about what it actually means for a
policy to backfire.
The wheels begin to fall off in the second chapter.
Here Andrew McEachin and Allison Atteberry discuss
how school accountability policies backfire, only they
do not—at least, not according to the definition in the
introduction to the book. McEachin and Atteberry
note the purpose of school accountability policies is to
“raise the performance of underperforming schools.”
Reviewed by: James V. Shuls
University of Missouri
Michael A. Gottfried and Gilberto Q. Conchas, eds., When School
Policies Backfire: How Well-Intentioned Measures Can Harm Our
Most Vulnerable Students (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press,
2016). 222 pp. $33.00 (paper), ISBN: 9781612509075
Galia Cohen, Editor