Policy overload on fixing schools

Education reform faces big disconnect between designers and doers

When public policy goes one way and the premises of a culture go the other, you’ve got the formula for an unsustainable system of education. – Angus Campbell

THERE IS CURRENTLY a disconnect between development and implementation of educational policy in the United States. When you speak with educators in the field it is evident that many believe the polices being developed by federal and state governments are not the ones necessary for change and thus are not having the intended impact when they are implemented in our schools. There is an inherent separation involved in the development and implementation of educational policy. Implementers are, of necessity, on location in school districts putting policy into practice in our schools. Often in this current environment however, administrators see their role as mitigating or buffering students and staff against the perceived negative impacts which these overlapping and often competing policies propagate.

It is often difficult to quantify how educators really feel about these policy decisions, but in 2015 I conducted a study of Massachusetts public school administrators for my doctoral dissertation where I examined their perceptions of the impact of these policies and tried to determine if and where the disconnect occurs between the development and implementation of educational policies. This study sought to elicit Massachusetts’ public school administrators’ perceptions of whether the overall policy environment in the United States is having the desired effect of improving the delivery of educational services to the nation’s children through the creation of high leverage educational policies.

The results were rather powerful with regard to the unanimity of the message conveyed by administrators. Particularly of note was the finding that, of the 309 Massachusetts public school administrators who participated in this study (226 principals and 83 superintendents), more than 89 percent reported that the number and pace of the creation of educational policies overwhelm administrators and inhibit effective implementation. Furthermore, 93 percent of participants reported that they are not given enough resources to effectively implement these policies. These results are not shocking in and of themselves, but rather the consistency in the responses of the participants add strength to the message.

This problem of legislative and/or regulatory overload is exacerbated by the fact that educators today feel that they are rarely given the flexibility to adapt those policies to the specific school community in which they are to be implemented.  This was readily apparent in the findings that 88 percent of administrators felt that educational policy efforts did not effectively anticipate potential difficulties that administrators might encounter in implementing policies and 81 percent believed that they weren’t given enough flexibility to react to unanticipated difficulties or challenges when implementing policies in their district or school. In the end only 17 percent of the Massachusetts administrators who participated in the study agreed that current educational policy efforts effectively promote positive systemic change.

It is apparent that policy makers are often overly focused on the perceived benefits of the proposed policies and dismiss the challenges that might be experienced during implementation. However, in order to be effective, policies must fit the reality of the world they seek to influence and the very act of implementation itself by local administrators has a dramatic impact on the end result.

An effective approach to policy implementation is one that incorporates appropriate pressure to focus local implementers’ attention with resources to support and facilitate execution. This will maximize the chance for success. Merely passing a piece of legislation and mandating a course of action will not ensure attainment of the stated goals. The current political environment in which educators work has policymakers applying more than enough pressure.  What is lacking is the support.

Right now we have a system that is burdened both with overlapping and competing policy initiatives and stress from punitive compliance measures. Although this can compel outward superficial compliance, it does not effectuate meaningful, lasting, and systemic change. In order for a policy to be truly effective, those implementing it at the local level must believe in its efficacy.

For the past 25, Congress and state legislatures have become increasingly involved in the development of educational policy, yet the prevailing narrative continues to be that schools are failing. That is because rather than truly support change and innovation they try to create policies that “fit” within the current framework and system. This leads to the situation where policy makers continue making changes that merely add additional layers of bureaucracy to an already overburdened system.

This is a different world today than it was when the structures which support our educational system were created. Our system – its teachers, administrators and, most importantly, its students – cries out for new and truly innovative policies that will support the construction of a new framework to inspire change in our educational system. It cries out for freedom from the forces which drive us towards standardization of both content delivery and assessment of skills and achievement. It cries out for flexibility to create an adaptable system that conforms to the needs of today’s students and today’s society.

Meet the Author

It is time to change our current educational policy framework which has failed to demonstrate the results intended. Change is most definitely needed. Policy can and should drive change, but those policies must be current and responsive to the needs of today’s students, schools, and communities.

Todd Gazda is superintendent of the Ludlow Public Schools.