In Conversation: Why Some Education Policies Fall Short, and What Can Be Done About It

Robert “Bob” Kim, an AIR Institute Fellow, served as deputy assistant secretary in the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration. Terris Ross is a managing director for the AIR Equity Initiative. She conducted and led numerous PreK-12 research and evaluation projects at the U.S. Department of Education, where she worked with Kim for several years. The two colleagues recently had a conversation about educational equity. In Part I, they discuss policy development and implementation.

Terris: In our roles at the Department of Education, we both worked with the Civil Rights Data Collection, which provides longitudinal data about education, including indicators related to access and barriers to opportunity, PreK-12. It’s such a powerful data source and it makes me think about how I wished more state and system leaders knew about the collection and the other tools available to inform policy implementation and improve learning conditions. Why is policy implementation so challenging?

Implementation of education policies, or any type of policy for that matter, requires being intentional about not just communicating the change, but also inspiring and influencing others to buy in and feel they have a voice in the process.

- Bob Kim

Bob: I think a lot of it has to do with the gap between policy and practice, and between the people in charge of those separate realms. We know that policies get established in many different ways, whether through legislation, regulation, or orders from a government agency or legislative body.

In all these cases, the question becomes: How equipped are the people responsible for the policy implementation, which in education is mostly teachers and principals? Were they involved in or even aware of the policy development? Educators are so focused on running schools and classrooms, especially these days during the pandemic, that they have very narrow bandwidth to address and implement policy changes.

Terris: It speaks to the need to involve these critical stakeholders in decision-making at the policy development and implementation phases, and to the relationships necessary for effective transition from policy to practice.

Bob: Take the issue of restraint and seclusion. The federal government has been saying for years—through data, research, policy, and even enforcement—that restraint and seclusion practices negatively impact students with disabilities and need to be reduced or stopped altogether. Many states have outlawed the practice except in very limited circumstances, but it still continues to occur.

To me, this is a policy implementation issue. Have educators and school resource officers received the necessary training and resources to use alternative methods or to prevent incidents that might otherwise lead to restraint and seclusion? Do policymakers understand the challenges of managing student behavior in dynamic situations when making these rules and laws? (Editor’s Note: Bob Kim recently wrote about this topic in the Phi Delta Kappan journal.)

Four Policy Implementation Takeaways
  1. Engage stakeholders in both policy formation and the implementation plan
  2. Use evidence to inform decisions in policy formation and implementation
  3. Collect data to map the landscape and monitor progress
  4. Listen to personal narratives about the experiences

Terris: I led the assessment and evaluation office of a fairly large school district just south of Atlanta and was asked to develop a “balanced assessment system” that would inform teaching and learning in an ongoing way, while also providing useful data to school leaders ahead of annual state assessments.

Up to that point, the district was using “off-the-shelf” online tests every six weeks to gauge and address student learning needs. But during site visits, I observed frustration from school staff at not having enough computers to test students in a timely manner, confusion about what the tests were actually measuring and how it would inform classroom instruction, and dismay at the slow pace at which test results were made available to schools.

Armed with that input, and my own analysis and experience, I lobbied the superintendent and school board to consider a different path: standards-based assessments, using paper-and-pencil testing with low-cost scanners for every school that would deliver disaggregated item- and test-level data to teachers within three days. It passed unanimously.

Like any new policy or practice, there were implementation challenges. But, overall, principals were thrilled at the calm the new process brought to their buildings and that teachers had timely information with which to adjust instruction to meet students’ learning needs.

Bob: That’s really how it’s supposed to work, but it’s still rare to see students, teachers, and school leaders engaged on the front end of decisions about what should be considered, measured, or weighed during development and implementation of education policy.

Terris: Practitioners can often help a good policy reach its intended goals if they have voice throughout the policy and change management process, from conceptualization to adoption to implementation. And let’s not even talk about the constant pressure to implement new policies on top of existing ones, often with little consideration of what should be discontinued. It’s always more, more, more.

Bob: Implementation of education policies, or any type of policy for that matter, requires being intentional about not just communicating the change, but also inspiring and influencing others to buy in and feel they have a voice in the process.

Terris: And that requires involvement by those close to the issue, namely students, families, and teachers. You never know, they may help you see how a lower-tech approach, like paper scanners, is more practical and efficient than an expensive high-tech strategy.

In Part II of this series, Bob and Terris discuss school integration policies.

Terris Ross
Managing Director, AIR Equity Initiative