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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Does Policy Drive Practice?

By Peter DeWitt — August 17, 2014 4 min read
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Signs” was a song written by the Canadian rock band Five Man Electrical Band in the early 70’s, and it hit number 1 on the Billboard charts. It has been remade by many bands, and has probably been sung by every bar band in America.

In America, we love our signs.

Although signs can help us understand where we are going...you have to admit that they sometimes get out of hand. It’s kind of like policies in schools. Like signs, policies can be a one-size-fits-all approach to how to should/could/have to behave.

Many people, who do not necessarily work directly in schools, often say that policies are important because they drive practice. That is very true, but what kind of practice does it drive? Does it drive practice that focuses on learning and is good for students, or does it create harmful compliance-based rules...or does it do both? Can one policy be good for one school but bad for another?


In 2012, New York State the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) had to be implemented in schools. All schools across New York had to have anti-bullying policies that not only protected students who were being harassed and bullied based on sexual orientation, size, race and other reasons, it required schools to create curriculum that would help foster a more inclusive school climate.

DASA required that schools report the issues of harassment and bullying based on these characteristics, and there needed to be a DASA coordinator for each district...as well as...at least one building level DASA official in each school so adults and students could report issues to them. All in all DASA became a policy that created a structure to protect students....students who were normally not overly protected in the past.

Unfortunately, while sitting in a regional meeting a teacher from a neighboring school district asked “how many lessons she had to teach to meet the DASA mandate.” To her it was not about creating an inclusive school climate, but it was yet another policy that she had to implement and support in her classroom. As much as I saw DASA as an important step in the right direction when it came to creating inclusiveness, others saw it as another thing to do.

Policies can do that to people.

The Problem With Policies

Many policies, like something as important as DASA, are not inherently bad. I found, and still believe today, that DASA was one of the most important pieces of legislation to happen to schools. Unfortunately, even the best policies can be implemented in a negative way and it becomes more about compliance to the policy than doing something positive for students. A weak leader can make even the best policy harmful when they only care about compliance.

Compliance to a policy does not foster creativity in any way. DASA should foster creative conversations about curriculum used in the classroom, and the great classroom discussions among students that come from using that curriculum. There are so many positive directions that teachers and leaders can go when adhering to DASA, but too often leaders get caught up in whether teachers are following the rules...instead of finding out how they are following them.

Bad policies, and good ones being implemented by a bad leader, can have harmful affects on teachers and students. They can lead to teacher burnout, which we have seen quite a bit of over the past few years.

In a 2012 interview with Doris Santoro published by the National Education Association (NEA) titled How Bad Policies Demoralize Teachers, Santoro said,

My preliminary research shows that it is never one single event or policy that leads to demoralization (of teachers), but a compilation of mandates that change the character of teachers' work. It depends on how the policy is implemented at a particular school and what a particular teacher views as central features of good teaching. It is undeniable that teachers who work high-poverty schools tend to experience the most Draconian forms of high- stakes accountability. Examples of policies that may demoralize teachers are scripted lessons that divest teachers of using their talents in planning, mandated curriculum that allows no space for teachers to respond to students' academic needs and interests, and testing practices that make teachers feel complicit in doing harm to their students."

Constant changes with policies and practices can be overwhelming to teachers, students and parents. Whenever something is “done” to teachers it has great potential to have negative consequences to the ones “doing” the change. Even more so when the leaders doing it keep talking about fidelity. In the journal article that the interview was based on, Santoro wrote,

Fidelity" to the mandated scope and sequence of commercially produced curriculum is often accompanied by school-based administrative oversight that can be as picayune as ensuring uniform standards of bulletin board design. All professions periodically go through periods of crisis, or difficult times, and teaching is in the midst of one now.

What are the Alternatives?

  • How can schools foster an environment where everyone agrees with change without having to focus so much on compliance to a policy?
  • Do the best schools not worry about the policy because they already have great practices in place?
  • How can school leaders encourage autonomy and accountability at the same time?
  • How can we get prevent bad policies from reaching our schools?

Policies like DASA happened because year after year there were populations of students being harassed and bullied, and many schools were not doing anything about it. Will there ever be a time when stakeholders can agree to good policies and throw out the bad ones? Unfortunately, even the best policies have negative consequences when a poor school leader is trying to implement them. How is there quality control in that case?

Policies are not going anywhere, so how we implement them is important. Michael Fullan said, “Just because we are stuck with their policies, doesn’t mean we should be stuck with their mindset.” Good leaders need to figure out how they can adopt a policy without taking away the creativity of the teacher, which will ultimately benefit the student.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.