Policy Influences Practice But Does Practice Influence Policy?

The past half-century has seen record-breaking attempts by policymakers to influence how teachers teach. Record-breaking in the sense that again and again (add one more “again”) federal and state policymakers and aggressive philanthropists have pushed higher curriculum standards in math, science, social studies, and reading decade after decade. With No Child Left Behind and its coercive accountability mandates, teaching has surely been influenced, even homogenized (following scripts, test prep, etc.)  in those schools threatened by closure or restructuring.  Now with Common Core standards, the push to standardize math and language arts instruction in K-12 (e.g., close reading for first graders) repeats earlier efforts to reshape classroom lessons. If past efforts are any indicator, then these efforts to homogenize teaching lead paradoxically, to more, not less, variability in lessons. But this increased variation in teaching seldom alerts policymakers and donors in their offices and suites to reassess the policies  they adopt.

The take-aways from this post are first, policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons, and, second, teachers are policymakers.

Policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons

Consider math standards. An unusual research project in the early 1990s examined California’s major policy effort–a new math curriculum framework– to lift the low floor in both math content and instruction in 1,000 school districts. Policymakers wanted to rid the state of teaching math mechanically and instead have students grasp a deeper understanding of math concepts.  The ambitious policy gave detailed instructional guidance to teachers and new  textbooks and materials aligned to the framework to hundreds of thousands of California teachers. The policy aim was to improve the teaching of math in the state by standardizing new content and ways of teaching students concepts and algorithms through use of manipulatives and other materials.

David K. Cohen and Deborah Ball  led a team of researchers who observed math lessons and interviewed teachers. The research uncovered enormous variation among teachers in putting the math framework into everyday classroom practice.

Extensive variation after a policy demanding standardization? Cohen and Ball explain why his teams observed such different lessons within a policy that tried to homogenize math teaching.

Any teacher, in any system of schooling, interprets and enacts new instructional policies in light of his or her own experience, beliefs,
and knowledge. Hence to argue that government policy is the only operating force is to portray teachers as utterly passive agents without agency. That is unsupported by our investigations. Even the most obedient and traditional teachers whom we observed not only saw and enacted higher level policies in their own way, but were aware and proud of their independent contributions.

Cohen described a fourth grade teacher’s lessons over an extended period of time. Entitled “A Revolution in One Teacher’s Classroom: The Case of Mrs. Oublier,” the word, the case study limns a veteran teacher incorporating selected elements of the new policy into her traditional ways of teaching from the math content to the use of small groups and manipulatives. “Revolution” in the title is tinged with irony.

Thus, what Cohen and Ball underscore is the discretion, the autonomy that teachers have to adapt whatever new policy comes from the state or district office to the constraints within which they teach students. Teachers are not passive recipients of policy but active participants in the policy-to-practice journey. Few policymakers understand that. Studies of classroom lessons implementing Common Core standards, I believe, will also show wide variation not uniformity.

Teachers are policymakers

As gatekeepers to their classrooms, teachers are de facto policymakers. They decide what content to teach and what practices to use in teaching daily lessons. Yet top federal, state, and local decision-makers prize the policy formation and adoption stages as the be-all and end-all of getting teachers to change their classroom practices. The final stage of implementation is rhetorically important but top decision-makers too often move to the wings and do little to build teachers’ knowledge and skills to put new policies into practice. That is a serious mistake because teacher wherewithal and judgment are crucial ingredients to successful student learning. Building and cultivating both among teachers charged to put policies into practice is essential yet are either overlooked,  purposely ignored, or under-funded.

As policy gatekeepers, however, teachers are seldom included in the loop when new policies are formed and then adopted. Only when policymakers see the critical importance of the implementation stage do they bring teachers in—often too late because teacher ideas and perspectives have been excluded from the first stage of policy formation. It is the same error that high-tech entrepreneurs eager to improve schooling and teaching make when they create devices and software for teachers and students to use, get administrators’ approval to pilot the hardware and software without a nod to teachers ideas and the realities they face. After all, the real customers, the users, are teachers, not administrators. Like CEOs of tech companies, policymakers engage in beta testing with reforms in governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction. And teachers then get blamed when policies flop.

The policy-to-practice path continues to be a one-way street. Yet evidence of variation in teacher lessons has been constant in the past and continues now showing again and again that teachers act as policymakers. That path should be a two-way thoroughfare.

5 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

5 responses to “Policy Influences Practice But Does Practice Influence Policy?

  1. kcohn@mail.sdsu.edu

    Have you read this today! Your friend Deborah Ball is featured.

    Mc

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. john

    The concept of street bureaucrats and their role in policy implementation is not a new one. I direct your attention to a seminal article by Richard Weatherly and Michael Lipsky in the Harvard Education Review.(1977)
    “Street-Level Bureaucrats and Institutional Innovation: Implementing Special-Education Reform”
    Richard Weatherley, Michael Lipsky

    “Recent state and federal legislation holds the promise of sweeping reform in special- education practices. In this article, Richard Weatherley and Michael Lipsky examine the implementation of Chapter 766, the dramatically innovative state special- education law in Massachusetts. They show how the necessary coping mechanisms that individual school personnel use to manage the demands of their jobs may, in the aggregate, constrain and distort the implementation of special-education reform. Their findings have serious implications for those seeking to introduce policy innovations in service bureaucracies of all kinds where the deliverers of service exercise substantial discretion in setting their work priorities”

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the reminder about Michael Lipsky’s work. Yes, teachers are, like police officers, government social workers, etc. “street level bureaucrats.”

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