Tag Archives: policy to practice,

How Small a Part Research Plays in Making and Implementing Educational Policy

Beliefs, opinions, and politics matter more in making policy decisions than applying research findings to schools and classrooms. A recent Canadian study (1905-8719-1-PB ) confirmed what amounts to a fact in U.S. policymaking. Candadian researchers looked at provincial policy elites (in U.S., they would be state-level decision-makers) and district officials (school board members and superintendents) and found across Canada what is very evident in U.S. districts as well: politics and beliefs trump use of research in adopting policies aimed at improving practice (see here and here).

As one would expect in academic circles, the language of applying research findings to educational policies has expanded. Canadian researchers Gerald Galway and Bruce Sheppard note that new phrases have entered the vocabulary: “knowledge transfer, evidence-informed policy, data-driven decision-making and knowledge brokering, to name a few. Knowledge mobilization (KM) has been touted as a useful all-encompassing term because it conveys the notion of direction instead of random interaction and it ’embodies the idea that the use of knowledge is a social process, not just an intellectual task’ ” (p. 9). Whatever phrase is used in Canada or the U.S., the pattern of applying research findings to forming, adopting, and implementing policies remains similar on both sides of the border.

Galway and Sheppard studied “senior bureaucrats” in provincial ministries and local board trustees and administrators at two points in time, 2006 and 2012. They used surveys, interviews,and focus groups to generate the data they analyzed.

A typical response from  “senior bureaucrats” in provincial ministries about research and policymaking was (M refers to “ministry” official):

M1: I guess that what I find with university research is that those who are doing it
appear to be somewhat removed from the immediacy of it all; it’s not engaged, as it
were, and [university researchers are] somewhat reluctant to engage those who are
involved in a particular issue on a daily basis. That’s being pretty general; that’s not
the case with all university research.

M7: Well, I haven’t had a chance to look at anything [university researchers] are
doing so I really don’t know, but I do find that sometimes, just from past
experiences, that the research coming out of (names university) is not always; well
not the research, but some of the conclusions they draw from their research is not
always applicable….

M2: Well, I don’t really know about it, to be truthful. As I was saying earlier that’s
one of the things that is most surprising to me; that with the amount of research that
is done at the university, how little discussion or impact it’s had on my work as the Minister in this portfolio.

When the researchers turned to trustees–district school board members–survey results and focus group interviews in the 2012 study produced a list of factors that influenced their making of policy.

[W]e presented trustees with 20 potential factors/influences and asked them to
indicate on a seven- point scale, the extent to which each has had an effect on specific decisions or
recommendations that they have made as trustees…. The principal six factors are as follows:
(1) personal or professional beliefs and values,

(2) potential to directly influence student
outcomes/student learning,

(3) advice of district staff and/or colleagues,

(4) the school board’s strategic plan 

(5) past experience.

Trustees and superintendents rated the following six factors as having the least influence on decision-making (my emphasis):

(1) representations of business/private sector,

(2) pressure from special interest or lobby groups,

(3) a situation or event someone told you about,

(4) pressure from government (ministry/department of education),

(5) public opinion/avoidance of negative media attention

(6) university-based research.

Analysis of the data by province showed very little variance in the factors and evidence that influence school board decision-making across jurisdictions.

The Canadian researchers conclude:

We conceptualize use of low research impact partly in terms of trust vs. risk avoidance. In
both policy contexts – provincial departments of education and school boards – we conclude that
decision-making is ambiguous and risky…. [I]n uncertain times, decision-makers value knowledge that is familiar and emerges from their
own community…. This information – now repackaged in the form of staff advice – becomes privileged
and trusted by ministers and senior bureaucrats as authentic knowledge….

Very little found north of the border, then, differs greatly from what U.S. researchers have found in the 50 states (see here, here, and here).

So what?

Keep in mind that none of the above critiques of limited influence of research on policy is restricted to public schooling. Making policy in systems of criminal justice, environmental improvement–think climate change–and health improvement and clinical medicine–think of TV ads for drugs–are subject to similar political factors and personal beliefs rather than what research has found. Calls for more collaboration between university researchers and policymakers have also been heard and ignored for decades. Critics have pointed out many times that the academic culture and its rewards overlap little with the world that decision-makers face every week.

I wish I had a neat answer to the “so what” question and offer a package of do’s and don’ts for those who want evidence-based policymaking.  I am on the lookout for such advice but thus far I have come up empty. The fact is that beliefs, opinions, and politics matter more in making policy decisions than applying research findings to schools and classrooms.



Filed under school reform policies

Technology Evangelists, Skeptics, and Those in the Middle

In a recent post from EdSurge (November 5, 2015), the following graphic was shown:



The text in EdSurge accompanying the graphic said:

Everyone loves a good metaphor–and this week, New Jersey principal Jon Cohen made us think with this “pencil metaphor” graphic posted via Twitter, describing the educator spectrum of edtech lovers and resistors [sic]. Where does your school fall? Do you have a lot of leaders, or or are you struggling to convert the “erasers”? We bet this newsletter can help you “sharpen” your skills, even though we all … suffer a few breaks now and then!

EdSurge evangelizes for more and better high-tech use in schools. They ask entrepreneurs and hard-core advocates of more devices in schools to listen to both students and teachers before marketing their particular mousetrap to the world. But this post is not about EdSurge. It is about two graphics, the one above and one below.


I begin with the pencil graphic. While titled “Integrating Technology in Schools” it slams all those teachers and principals who do not leap on the latest high-tech bandwagon careening through school boards and superintendent offices. The graphic assumes that all high-tech innovations are positive for both teachers and students. Those who wait and ask questions are labeled “resisters.”

The “leaders” and “sharp ones” at the pointy end of the pencil are the early adopters, implying that they are both smart and astute about teaching and learning while those further down the pencil’s shaft–the “wood” and “hangers on”–are way behind the curve as adopters. Then those at the “ferrule” and “eraser” end of the pencil are active resisters, even enemies, of using tech in the classroom. This is, of course, nonsense but it does mirror many an evangelist’s view of teachers and students using (and not using) devices and software in schools and classrooms. The title is a misnomer since nothing here is about “integrating” high-tech into school routines or classroom lessons.

The pencil graphic, at best, is a warped version of Everett Rogers‘ “diffusion of innovation” graph that he had published in his 1962 book (it is in its 5th edition now). Diffusion of Innovations has been a staple of those interested in institutional and sector innovation across agriculture, medicine, health care, business, and, naturally, education for over a half-century. But, at worst, the pencil graphic is an unfunny indictment of those teachers, students, and parents who raise questions, express skepticism, and lay out reservations about the wisdom of mindlessly adopting the next new thing produced for schools and classrooms.

Now, look at Roger’s graph of adopters. Rogers avoided the loaded words used to describe adopters except for “laggards.” in the U.S., few teachers would puff out their chest after being called a “laggard.” Rogers was aware that the graph he constructed prized innovation–that it is “good” to adopt a new idea, practice, or technology– and possibly from that core assumption, the word “laggard” snuck into the categories. The five categories Rogers created roughly map onto the “pencil” but note the far more negative and positive language in the pencil graphic.

For each category, there are many examples among teachers. The sixth grade teacher who bought and brought into her school the first Mac machine was an innovator. The first teacher in a building who designed a piece of software just for her class is another innovator. Early Adopters are those teachers who first tried out email, spread sheets, iPods, iMacs, laptops, and tablets in their classrooms shortly after they heard about them or the district technology director invited teachers to demonstrations of the hardware and software. As the number of teachers seeing colleagues using devices and software spread, more teachers asked those early users how it worked, for what kinds of lessons they were used, and even watched the tools being used in lessons. In many schools, two-thirds of the teachers (Early and Late Majority) became occasional (weekly or monthly) to daily users. In short, these teacher-users became the middle of Rogers’ graph. In every school, however, there were non-users and reluctant participants–“laggards,” in Rogers’ phrase.

Seldom did the categories and percentages of “innovators” to “laggards” map perfectly onto specific schools or districts. What Rogers built was a map for researchers and practitioners to use in understanding how innovations–again, a positively charged concept in U.S. culture–spread across sectors and in institutions. It is a heuristic, not GPS directions for innovators.

Evangelists would find the “pencil” to their liking because of the shared assumptions under-girding the clever graphic. Those assumptions are dominant in the U.S. where if you do not have the latest device or software, eyes roll or snide comments get said. Evangelists for technology seldom engage in reflection because they are true believers. True believers seldom entertain questions or skepticism because they are often taken as an attack upon bedrock principles.

And for teachers, principals, parents who ask questions or raise issues about the new technologies, they risk being called resisters, an epithet that in U.S. culture, enamored with innovation and technology, is akin to the Scarlet Letter.


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

More Magical Thinking about Technology in Schools

I watched the World Series and saw both New York Mets and Kansas City Royal fans wearing hats, shirts, and displaying signs designed to get their teams to win. I saw similar clothes and painted faces on soccer fans during the World Cup. The belief, the intuition that these caps and jerseys would get their teams to win borders on superstition. And most fans would agree. Yet, yet, yet just maybe wearing the stuff, painting the face, and holding signs aloft would be just the thing that would snatch defeat from the other team. As a recent op-ed put it: fans “have an powerful intuition and, despite its utter implausibility, they can’t just shake it.”  The contradiction is aptly caught in the title of the opinion piece: “Believing What You Don’t Believe.”

This is no rant, however, about how emotion trumps reason or how thinking thoughts (or fans waving signs) will produce the desired outcome. Nor will this post elaborate how our cognitive “slow” and “fast” thinking ways do not always work in sync or that our “slow thinking” will correct the impulsive move where we have “trusted our gut. ” In this post, I again look at how local, state, and federal policymakers, high-tech entrepreneurs, and CEOs of major corporations engage in “magical thinking.” Inhabiting a technocratic mind-set, these leaders who rely on experts  believe that more and more use of high-tech tools will provide the adrenaline shot for U.S. schools to match international rivals’ test scores and lead ultimately to a larger share of the global market for U.S. goods and services.

I offer two examples of high-tech industry and civic leader aspirations to link all public schooling to the job market and larger economy that highlight this phenomenon: MOOCs and every child learning to code and taking computer science courses.


Massive Open Online Courses burst on the scene three years ago with claims that such courses offered free to anyone on this planet with an Internet connection will–here come the key words–“revolutionize” and “transform” higher education.  John Hennessey, President of Stanford University, said a “tsumani is coming.” Equity and excellence, values that both liberals and conservatives cherish, will be fulfilled. Nothing of the sort happened (see here, here, and here). In the Gartner “hype” cycle, MOOCs are buried in the “slough of disillusionment.” All within three years. High-tech hyperactivity has compressed time into bytes.



Coding and Computer Science

Young children learning to code in elementary schools while their older brothers and sisters take computer science in high school is currently in the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” in the above hype cycle. Consider that the British government has gone even further than the mania gripping the U.S. by mandating in its national curriculum that all UK children learn to code and take computer science in their secondary schools (see here and here).  The UK “computing” curriculum is, of course, a national experiment in further vocationalizing public schooling to tie education to the economy. With no national curriculum in the U.S. (Common Core state standards is a pale, decentralized version of such an effort), the surge of interest in coding (e.g., Year of the Code, next month’s celebratory week of Computer Science, coding boot camps), much of it financed by tech industry giants, has seized the spotlight of attention. That attention has shifted from every student having access to computers in school–very close to being a fact in the U.S.–to using these devices in classroom lessons. From kindergartners getting lessons on coding to online courses to blended learning to flipped classrooms, the mania for computers in schools has corralled both public and private funding as the high-tech solution to students becoming equipped with 21st century skills.

To be clear, I do not refer to those tens of thousands of teachers and principals who, with care and thoughtfulness, have slowly integrated their devices and software into lessons to teach content, skills, and creativity. They keep their heads down and often escape the mania I refer to above.

So is there anything intrinsically wrong with pushing coding and computer science in U.S. schools? After all, both are being sold to school boards and parents as ways of teaching logic, thinking skills, as well as preparation for future jobs.  So on the surface, nothing appears to be unseemly. Underneath the surface, however, are two matters that often go unnoted by advocates of coding and computer science.

First, the original trio of goals for computers entering schools and classrooms since the early 1980s were improving academic achievement of students, altering the traditional patterns of teaching and learning, and preparing the next generation for the labor market. Nowadays, few champions of computers in schools even mention academic achievement or talk of “transforming” teaching and learning through laptops and tablets. But the vocational goal does remain in the current joy for teaching children and youth to write code and create algorithms.

Second, is the historic pattern of focusing on public schools as a national problem to be solved (think segregated schools, national defense, drug and alcohol addictions as problems that schools could “solve”) and seeking another “technical” solution to its ills. In this instance, injecting coding and computer science, online instruction into K-16 schooling. Such a technocratic strategy aims to alter traditional curriculum and lessons for one over-riding purpose to get ready for an ever-changing, fast-moving job market and economy.

So here again within a few years, “magical thinking” about the power of technical products to tie schools to the economy via coding and computer science has arisen even in the face of the dramatic shift in goals for these high-tech products over the past three decades and the failure of MOOCs to gain traction in higher education since 2012.

The feel-good attitude of World Series and World Cup fans who wear jerseys and hats believing that to do so will help their teams win is alive and well in the high-tech community.







Filed under school reform policies, technology use

Data-Driven Teaching Practices: Rhetoric and Reality

Much has already been written on the U.S. obsession with standardized test scores.  Add to the obsession the passionate belief that policymakers who gather, digest, and use a vast array of numbers can reshape teaching practices.

I refer to data-driven instruction–a way of making teaching less subjective, more objective, less experience-based, more scientific. Ultimately, a reform that will make teaching systematic and effective. Standardized test scores, dropout figures, percentages of non-native speakers proficient in English–are collected, disaggregated by ethnicity and school grade, and analyzed. Then with access to data warehouses, staff can obtain electronic packets of student performance data that can be used to make instructional decisions to increase academic performance. Data-driven instruction, advocates say, is scientific and consistent with how successful businesses have used data for decades in making decisions that increased their productivity.

Not a new idea. Teachers had always assessed learning informally before state- and district-designed tests. Teachers accumulated information from pop quizzes, class discussions, observing students in pairs and small groups, and individual conferences. Based on these data, teachers revised lessons. Teachers leaned heavily on their experience with students and the incremental learning they had accumulated from teaching 180 days, year after year.

In the 1990s and, especially after No Child Left Behind became law, the electronic gathering of data, disaggregating information by groups and individuals, and then applying lessons learned from the analysis to teaching became a top priority. Why? Because stigma and high-stakes consequences (e.g., state-inflicted penalties) occurred from public reporting of low test scores and inadequate school performance that could lead to a school’s closure.

Now, principals and teachers are awash in data.

How do teachers use the massive data available to them on student performance?  Studies of teacher and administrator usage reveal wide variation and different strategies. In one 2007 study of 36 instances of data use in two districts, researchers found 15 where teachers used annual tests, for example, in basic ways to target weaknesses in professional development or to schedule double periods of language arts for English language learners. There were fewer instances of collective, sustained, and deeper inquiry by groups of teachers and administrators using multiple data sources (e.g., test scores, district surveys, and interviews) to, for example, reallocate funds for reading specialists or start an overhaul of district high schools. Researchers pointed out how timeliness of data, its perceived worth by teachers, and district support limited or expanded the quality of analysis. These researchers admitted, however, that they could not connect student achievement to the 36 instances of basic to complex data-driven decisions in these two districts.

Wait, it gets worse.

In 2009, the federal government published a report ( IES Expert Panel) that examined 490 studies where data was used by school staffs to make instructional decisions. Of these studies, the expert panel found 64 that used experimental or quasi-experimental designs and only six–yes, six–met the Institute of Education Sciences standard for making causal claims about data-driven decisions improving student achievement. When reviewing these six studies, however, the panel found “low evidence” (rather than “moderate” or “strong” evidence) to support data-driven instruction. In short, the assumption that data-driven instructional decisions improve student test scores is, well, still an assumption not a fact.

Another study offers little relief to those advocates of data-driven school and classroom decisions.

In a 2014 study of three districts, researchers used the concept of “sensemaking” to understand why responses from district office administrators, principals, and teachers to data-driven instruction differed. They concluded that the roles these educators play (district administrators, principals, and teachers) and their ideas about what data mean and toward what ends data should be used matter greatly in making decisions for the district, school, and classrooms.

For example:

“In one district, there were clear divisions among roles … regarding perspectives on data. For example, central office members felt that data should be thought of holistically, with each form of data providing another dimension or “piece of the puzzle” about students…. Rarely did central office members discuss data in terms of specific educational practices. Rather, they emphasized understanding about the needs, motivations, and histories of students.”

 Principals in this district, however, “saw data more specifically in terms of practice. They saw data as being important to meeting individual students’ needs. One described this as choosing “the right kids to work with on the right objectives at the right time.” They also saw data as supporting programmatic decisions, such as when designing interventions for struggling students or making course scheduling decisions.”

 And when it came to teachers in this district “the general sentiment … was that ‘data’ were about testing…. Teachers at different levels named different tests, with the common thread being that teachers were required to give students assessments, but not to systematically reflect or act upon their results. In other words, these teachers viewed ‘data’ as being about compliance and reporting information to central office, not necessarily ‘use.’ ”

 In another district, “teachers presented yet another view about data…. The general sentiment from teachers was that ‘data’ were about testing. These teachers, unlike [those in the other districts] did not focus on any particular test. Teachers at different levels named different tests, with the common thread being that teachers were required to give students assessments, but not to systematically reflect or act upon their results. In other words, … teachers [in this district] viewed ‘data’ as being about compliance and reporting information to central office, not necessarily ‘use.’ [for altering practices]”  

Thus far, then, not an enviable research record on data-driven (or informed) decision-making either being linked to classroom practices and student outcomes.

Numbers may be facts. Numbers may be objective. Numbers may smell scientific. But numbers have to be interpreted by those who do the daily work of classroom teaching. Data-driven instruction may be a worthwhile reform but as now driving evidence-based educational practice linked to student achievement, rhetoric notwithstanding, it is not there yet.





Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Guiding Principles on Teaching, Learning, and Reform

From time to time readers will ask me what I believe should be done about teaching, learning, and school reform. They usually preface their request with words such as: “Hey, Larry, you have been a constant critic of existing reforms. You have written about schools not being businesses and have pointed out the flaws in policymaker assumptions and thinking about reform. And you have been skeptical about the worth of new computer devices, software, and online instruction in promoting better teaching and faster learning. So instead of always being a critic just tell us what you think ought to be done.”

Trained as a historian of education and knowledgeable about each surge of school reform to improve teaching and learning over the past century, I cannot offer specific programs for school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and voters to consider. Why? Because context is all-important. I know of no reform, no program, no technology that is context-free. The setting matters. So suggesting this program or that reform for all math classes or urban districts or elementary schools is impossible. But there are principles I embrace that guide my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform. These principles set the direction yet need to be adapted to different settings. These principles come out of my five decades of being a teacher, administrator, and scholar. These principles come out of my school experiences and as a site-based researcher. Most readers will be familiar with what I say. No surprises here. But these principles do steer my thinking about teaching, learning, and reform.

  1. No single way of teaching works best with all students. Because students differ in motivation, interests, and abilities, using a wide repertoire of approaches in lessons and units is essential. Direct instruction, small groups, whole-group guided discussions, student choice, worksheets, research papers, project-based instruction, online software, etc., etc., etc. need to be in the tool kit of every teacher. There are, of course, reformers and reform-minded researchers who try to alter how teachers teach and the content of their instruction from afar such as Common Core State Standards, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar curricular inventions. I support such initiatives as long as they rely upon a broad repertoire of teacher approaches to content and skills. When the reforms do not, when they ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., project-based teaching, direct instruction) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms.
  2. Small and slow changes in classroom practice occur often. Fundamental and rapid changes in practice seldom happen. While well-intentioned reformers seek to basically change how teachers teach reading, math, science, and history, such 180 degree changes in the world of the classroom (or hospital, or therapist’s office, or law enforcement or criminal justice) seldom occur. Over the decades, experienced teachers have become allergic to reformer claims of fast and deep changes in what they do daily in their classrooms. As gatekeepers for their students, teachers, aware of the settings in which they teach, have learned to adapt new ideas and practices that accord with their beliefs and that they think will help their students. Reforms that ignore these historical realities are ill-fated. I support those efforts to build on this history of classroom change, teacher wisdom of practice, and awareness of the context in which the reform will occur.
  3. School structures influence instruction. The age-graded school structure, a 19th century innovation that is now universally cemented to K-12 schooling across the U.S., does influence what happens in classrooms in expected and unexpected ways, depending on the context. Teachers adapt to this structure in following a schedule as they prepare 50-minute (or hour-long) lessons. Age-graded structures harnessed to accountability regulations have demanded that teachers prepare  students for high-stakes annual tests. These structures require teachers to judge each student as to whether he or she will pass at the end of the school year. School and district structures (e.g., curriculum standards, professional learning communities, evaluation policies) like the age-graded school have intended and unintended influences on the what and how of teaching.
  4. Teacher involvement in instructional reform. From the mid-19th century through the early decades of the 21st century, no instructional reform imposed upon teachers has been adopted by most teachers and used in lessons as intended. The history of top-down classroom reform is a history of failed efforts to alter what teachers do daily. I include new ways of teaching reading, math, science, and history over the past century. Where and when there have been changes in classroom instruction, teachers were involved in the planning and implementation of the reform. Examples range from Denver curriculum reform in the 1920s, the Eight Year Study in the 1930s, creation of alternative schools in the 1960s, the Coalition of Essential Schools in the 1980s, designed classroom interventions a’ la Ann Brown in the 1990s, and teacher-run schools in the 2000s. Reforms aimed at altering classroom instruction require working closely with teachers from the very beginning of a planned change and includes building on their existing expertise. 

These are some of the principles that guide my views of school reform, teaching, and learning. They offer criteria by which I can sort through reform ventures seeking to improve teaching and learning.


Filed under Reforming schools

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.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

A Difficult Fact: Public Schools Are Political Institutions

By training, education, and experience school practitioners have a hard time with the simple fact that tax-supported public schools are political institutions. I have worked with teachers, principals, district administrators, superintendents, and school board members for decades and their responses to the idea that schools (and schooling) are fundamentally political has largely been negative. Although teachers and principals wince when I raise this point and give specific examples of acting politically in classrooms and schools, they remain unpersuaded. Superintendents do see that a substantial portion of their work is political–building coalitions to support policies recommended to the school board, negotiating with groups inside and outside the district to reach a satisfactory compromise to a dilemma, seeking out new resources for implementing policies, and figuring out how best to deal with obstreperous  board members. They acknowledge that these are, indeed, political actions they engage in but for many school chiefs their facial expressions and words show the dislike for what they have to do.

Why is this? My guess is that the idea of politics quickly morphs into what most educators and most Americans associate with partisan politics as engaged in by Republicans and Democrats. But no such party politics occurs in districts. What educators ignore is that the non-partisan politics occur within schools and districts all the time. School politics are concerned with the exercise of power and influence in classrooms, schools, and districts to reach desired school goals.

A second guess is that U.S. schools  knew intimately partisan politics. Between the 1870s and early 1900s, political parties saw schools as just another agency to reward loyal party members with jobs and contracts. The Progressive movement in the late-1890s through the 1920s introduced civil service reforms–you had to show that you had the credentials and experience to be government employees–and over decades removed schools from party politics. Such politics are specifically banned today. Those are my guesses as to why educators too often get sniffy over attaching the word “political” to what they do in schools.

It is foolish, however, to deny that schools are political institutions established to reach desired community goals including how to live and act in a democracy. School boards,  administrators and teachers are agents hired to achieve those community-inspired goals.  Consider that taxing property owners and levying sales taxes on everyone regardless of whether they have children or not to run public schools means that schools matter a great deal to the community. Moreover, compelling parents to send their children to school between the ages of 5-6 to 16-17 underscores how important schools are to the survival and growth of the community. When one looks carefully at those goals public schools have for children and youth, it is easy to see what community values are embedded in each and every goal from being literate to being fair.  Schools are the political tools a community (and parents) have to enact its goals.

I offer a framework for seeing this fundamental truth of schooling as a value-driven, political enterprise, one that inevitably creates and harbors conflict.

Making policy and putting policies into practice in schools and classrooms are value-driven:

Every goal in each and every district has a value buried in it. Take reducing the achievement gap for an example. Raising test scores of minority students is highly valued by parents, administrators, and the general public. No progress in reducing the test score gap is seen as failure in achieving that prized value.

Or consider the familiar district goal of increasing the number of high school graduates attending college. Getting a college degree is prized because graduates earn more over a lifetime than those earning a high school diploma.

Or note that some principals are dead-set on becoming instructional leaders in their schools—that is their personal goal often put into their professional development plan they discuss with their superintendent. These principals believe instructional leadership is good. They value it highly.

I cannot think of any formal goal for public schools, principals, and teachers that does NOT have a value in embedded in it.

Because policy-and-practice is value-driven, and values differ, conflict between groups and individuals is inevitable.

 There are many values Americans agree on and teach their children such as respect for others, fairness, and loyalty to family and group. And there are many other values taught in families derived from religious beliefs, cultural practices, and traditions that differ from one family to another.

And consider further that when it comes to tax-supported public schools where parents are compelled to send their children, yet even another set of values enter the picture. School goals include cultivating patriotism, following rules, thinking for one’s self, engaging in democratic practices, preparing for the job market, and building character. Some taxpayers and parents, for example, want schools to reinforce parental authority and keep children in line while others want schools to build independence, cooperation, and individual decision-making in their children. And then there are those who want both in the same school. Sometimes school and family values converge and sometimes they diverge. Which is when conflicts arise.

Because of value differences, parents, teachers, and students inevitably disagree on practical items such as dress codes, the Common Core standards, raising school taxes, evaluating teachers on the basis of test scores, charter schools, and dozens of other issues. Conflicts are common over the values embedded in policies and actual practices. Sometimes these value conflicts rise to the surface in public meetings and sometimes they do not. But they are there, nonetheless, because tax-supported public schools are–yep, I am going to say it again–political institutions. Educators need to accept this inexorable fact.




Filed under school reform policies