My View

Our Perceptions of Education Policy
By TODD H. GAZDA/School Administrator, August 2017

For the past 25 years, national and state legislatures have become increasingly involved in developing policy for local schools, yet the prevailing narrative continues to be that our schools are failing.

That may be because policy development itself has stagnated, merely repackaging and tweaking ideas of the past rather than developing new approaches that make a difference. This leads to policymakers continuing to layer more and more bureaucracy upon already overburdened local school systems. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act affords some relief, but policymakers at the state level seem to have little appetite to take advantage of the flexibility the federal act allows.

Packing Punch
In my doctoral dissertation, I examined the perceptions of Massachusetts public school administrators concerning the impact of implementing education policies in local schools. I sought to identify where the disconnect occurs between developing and implementing these policies.

The results were rather powerful — especially the unanimity of the administrators’ message conveyed. Of the 311 Massachusetts public school administrators (226 principals and 85 superintendents) who participated in the study, more than 89 percent reported that the number and pace of educational policies were overwhelming them and inhibiting effective implementation in schools and classrooms. Further, the administrators reported they were not given enough resources to effectively implement these policies.

While I didn’t find these results shocking in and of themselves, the consistency in the responses of the participants added power to the message.

This problem is exacerbated when educators rarely are given the flexibility to adapt those policies to their particular school community. More than 88 percent of administrators felt that educational policy adoption did not effectively anticipate potential difficulties that administrators might encounter in implementation and 81 percent believed they weren’t given enough flexibility to react to unanticipated difficulties when applying the policies in the district or a school.

It is apparent that policymakers are overly focused on the perceived benefits of proposed policies while overlooking or dismissing the challenges that might be experienced during implementation. Merely passing a piece of legislation to mandate a new course of action will not ensure attainment of the stated goals. Policies must fit the reality of the world they seek to influence, and the very act of implementation itself by local leaders has a dramatic impact on the final result.

Unfulfilled Purpose
Effective policy implementation combines appropriate pressure on local implementers with the necessary resources to support and facilitate execution.

In our current political environment, policymakers are applying more than enough pressure on educators. What is lacking is the support. In 2014, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents examined all regulations requiring action by local school districts. The study found between 1996 and 2008, there were 4,055 such regulations (an average of 312 per year) while during the period between 2009 and 2013, there were 5,382 such regulations (averaging 1,077 per year).

This acceleration of regulatory activity has led to an education system that is strained with overlapping and competing policy initiatives contributing to greater stress from punitive compliance measures. While this may compel superficial compliance, it does not effectuate meaningful, lasting and systemic change.

Unless those who are affected speak up, policymakers will fail to understand the real impact of their legislation. It is time to point out the folly of our current policy path that fails to bring the results intended. Policy can and should drive change, but those policies must be current, responsive and in touch with the system they strive to shape.
Todd Gazda is superintendent of Ludlow Public Schools in Ludlow, Mass. E-mail: Twitter: @thgaz