Education Opinion

Policy Alone Is Not Enough

By Learning Forward — September 24, 2012 2 min read
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At over 1,000 locations across New York City, it is illegal to honk your horn unless it’s an emergency, and fines for violating this rule can be as much as $350. While I don’t know the history of how the city came to adopt this policy, what I do know is that it’s not working. Anyone who has been to New York recently understands that the car horn is almost an appendage for taxi drivers and others who lack even a few grains of patience. It’s the only place I’ve ever driven where at a traffic signal people behind you blow their horns before the light even turns green. Again, there is a very specific policy in place that outlaws such behavior.

As I said, I don’t know how this policy came to be, but here’s what I imagine:

1. The increase in residents and tourists caused the city to become more congested.
2. Drivers became increasingly more impatient and began blowing their horns to release some of their frustrations.
3. Concerned residents began to petition for some type of ordinance to stop the noise.
4. Well-intentioned city leaders pass the ordinance.
5. The horn blowing continues.

Unfortunately, a lot of education policies suffer the same fate. They were well intentioned, but simply don’t bring about the kinds of changes their designers envisioned.

My favorite of these policies are the unfunded mandates. For example, I’ve come across several states and districts that require mentoring for principals. In some cases, the mentoring is required beyond the first year. What an excellent policy! Imagine how ideal these mentoring policies could have been if dollars were actually attached to them.

In other cases, it’s not the money that prevents mentoring for new leaders; it’s the conditions under which these new leaders are working. Their days may be so full of management responsibilities that they simply don’t have the time to receive the support the policy guarantees. (See The School Administration Manager Project: Making Time for Principals to be Instructional Leaders.)

Then there are the policies that once served a purpose, but their current designs have outlived their usefulness. Take for example the school system policies that require a certain number of hours each year for professional learning. On the one hand, how wonderful that schools and systems recognize the need for professional learning as a vehicle for increased educator effectiveness.

Where these policies sometimes break down is when the only forms of professional learning that count are workshops, conferences, online courses, etc. Often, these “hour-based” systems have little space for job-embedded forms of professional learning, where teams learn collectively and apply research-based strategies to support students’ learning needs. Even in schools and systems that do value this type of professional learning, building schedules may not be structured for implementation. (See the JSD article “The 3 R’s of Learning Time - Rethink, Reshape, Reclaim.”)

There are lots of resources out there that can expand your thinking about implementation theory. One of my favorites is Implementation Research: A Synthesis of the Literature. The authors outline several useful frameworks, including their Stages of Implementation Process: Exploration and Adoption → Program Installation → Initial Implementation → Full Operation → Innovation → Sustainability.

So before you plan a celebration for your next policy victory, please make sure you invite “implementation” to the party. Believe me, you’ll be glad you did.

Frederick Brown
Director of Strategy and Development, Learning Forward

The opinions expressed in Learning Forward’s PD Watch 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.