Sometimes, Policy Isn’t Enough

Jul 19, 2016 by

New America’s recent report explores how compliance-based policy implementation affects teachers’ professional development.

In my dozens of conversations with Illinois school principals, there was one question I dreaded asking.

But the question was unavoidable. As an arts organization’s coordinator of school partnerships, it was critical for me to understand what arts education efforts existed in each school so that our organization could build new arts opportunities with the teachers and staff. So, after talking with the principal to learn more about the school, I would pause anxiously and ask, “What arts classes and programs do you currently offer students?” I learned that the question typically evoked the principal’s despondent and apologetic description of the only arts opportunities they could manage with their limited time and financial resources, often quarterly music assemblies or a 30-minute weekly art class offered for a single grade.

Few, including the principals themselves, would argue that these limited experiences offered all students a comprehensive, well-rounded arts curricula. But no one could argue that these principals were faithfully complying with Illinois’ “instructional requirements” policy, which designates the arts as a “core subject” and requires elementary and middle schools to offer arts opportunities to their students. However, it was clear from my conversations with principals that this policy was not being implemented in a way that met its goal. Instead, it typically led to a compliance-based practice from which few students benefited.

Of course, the problem of compliance-based policy implementation isn’t new, and certainly isn’t limited to arts education. As New America’s recent No Panacea paper discusses, professional development (PD) for teachers has faced this obstacle to high-quality implementation for many years, in addition to others.

To start, states and districts set policies that require teachers to engage in professional development activities in order to retain their teaching certification. Behind these policies lies the theory that if teachers engage in PD they will, in turn, improve their practice in ways that benefit their students. However, the recertification requirements that states and districts mandate frequently focus more heavily on the quantity of PD—typically a certain number of hours of PD a teacher must complete—rather than the quality, such as whether the PD content and methods are evidence-based. Not surprisingly, while there are a wide variety of PD courses teachers can engage in to earn credits toward recertification, the quality is often poor.

Additionally, most states’ and districts’ recertification policies do not require any demonstration of  PD programs’ impact on teacher practice. As a result, teachers’ expectations of finding and participating in PD that truly helps them improve their teaching practice is limited, and their focus shifts to simply logging the required hours. Thus, teacher recertification policies generally fail to promote meaningful professional learning, and can actually detract from it by imbuing the culture surrounding PD with a compliance orientation.

Insufficient capacity at the school- and district-level can also be a barrier to effective implementation of professional development policies. For example, even though most districts have teacher contracts which require a certain amount of time to be set aside for in-school teacher PD, many education leaders lack the time, skills, and/or resources to select and implement PD approaches in a way that thoughtfully addresses the needs of a teacher workforce with diverse development needs. As such, even well-intentioned leaders may end up filling this required professional learning time with PD that is top-of-mind and convenient rather than researched and effective.

As these examples illustrate, translating policy into effective practice requires strong policy design in combination with dedicated resources for ongoing implementation and evaluation—be it for arts education or teacher development. As states and districts consider whether and how to adjust their school and teacher improvement efforts under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, they should reflect on how to do so in a way most likely to promote strong implementation that fulfills the policy’s intent of improving teaching and learning. New America’s No Panacea report recommends drawing on three lessons learned from high-performing international systems: 1) start with efforts to develop strong leaders of professional learning at the school, district, and state levels; 2) collect evidence on educators’ development outcomes and reward ongoing growth and learning; and 3) allocate sufficient time and resources for high-quality professional learning experiences to occur. While other obstacles to high-quality teacher professional development exist, focusing on these elements will serve education policymakers well as they work to ensure that their policies lead to more effective practice in the classroom.

Source: Sometimes, Policy Isn’t Enough

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