Policies working in interaction, not isolation, are the ones that count in class

The third post in my Connecting policy to the classroom series explains that the policy design process in education must change to better emphasise the interaction of policies as this is how they impact schools

April 01, 2019 | Ben Jensen

My previous two posts in this blog talked about a process for system reform — tangible steps system leaders can take to improve teaching and learning at scale (for a recap, read here). I will get into more detail in my next blog posts, but here I want to illustrate a key aspect of how the process differs from the standard approach to policy formulation and how this difference allows us to better address key policy challenges.

Elevating policy interactions

An important difference of the process we are working through is that it elevates the importance of policy interactions by bringing them into the earliest stages of policy design. Why is this important? Because no policy enters schools and classrooms in isolation, but always in interaction with other policies. For example, how a new student assessment enters a school depends on what is already happening – and what will be happening — in curriculum, professional learning and data and accountability policies.

Broadly speaking, most policies are trying to improve:

  1. What we teach
  2. How we teach
  3. How we assess.

Invariably, how a policy change affects one of the above in schools and classrooms depends on what is happening in the other two areas. Moreover, the research is clear that improvement in schools and classrooms also comes from better understanding these interactions; better understanding of assessments of student learning so they inform continual improvements in what and how we teach.

None of this will shock anyone. It is why we talk about system alignment, systemic approaches and the need for effective implementation. But we normally struggle in these areas. Every system I have worked in talks about important policy initiatives being weakened – sometimes destroyed – by poor alignment and poor implementation.

One critical reason for these troubles is that we leave the focus on how policies interact in schools and classrooms until far too late — often until the last stages of policy design, or to implementation planning or sometimes it is just ignored completely.

The process I am talking about in this blog flips this approach on its head: it brings the interaction of policies to the forefront of policy design. It enables system leaders to design policies that interact with other policies in order to achieve maximum impact on teaching and learning. So, for example, professional development is not designed to have maximum impact as a standalone policy and then subsequently aligned with other policies being implemented. Professional development policy is designed – from the beginning – to maximise the impact of how it interacts with other policies in schools and classrooms (e.g. school reporting and accountability, and curriculum development and implementation). This and the following blog posts will illustrate what this means in practice.

The need for a different approach to ongoing policy challenges

Two reports that I believe have added significantly to the education debate in recent years are The Opportunity Myth: What Students Can Show Us About How School Is Letting Them Down – and How to Fix It and The Mirage: Confronting the Hard Truth About Our Quest for Teacher Development, both by TNTP. Both bring new analysis and insight to ongoing policy challenges that need to be addressed in our education systems — not just in the USA but much more broadly.

The Opportunity Myth raises many issues relevant to addressing educational inequality, including appropriate resourcing, student voice (which I will talk about in a later blog), and curriculum development and implementation. The biggest finding for me was on the last issue. TNTP’s research showed that in US school districts: 71 per cent of students succeeded on their assignments yet just 17 per cent met grade level.

In other words, a large majority of students are being incorrectly assessed and passed from grade to grade without reaching the required standard. Many factors are impacting this problem but fundamentally it reflects inadequate assessment practices within and across schools. This is a critical component of bridging the gap between the documented curriculum and the enacted curriculum (what is actually taught and what is assessed and learned in classrooms). Successfully bridging the gap only comes through the interaction of curriculum policy with other policies. This implies many systems need to review how their approach to curriculum development and implementation supports effective assessment, and the role of related instructional support, resources, reporting and accountability and professional development that teachers receive.

The Mirage shows that one of our key policy levers for achieving a change like this is often not effective. It shows that despite massive investments – far more than most people realise — professional development in the United States mostly fails to improve teaching and learning. Overall, it is low quality and disconnected from classrooms, failing to truly support teachers in their work. OECD research and my experience of schools in Australia and elsewhere indicate that schools in many countries face very similar problems with professional development. The most powerful takeaway for me from The Mirage was this:

We found no evidence that any particular kind or amount of professional development consistently helps teachers improve.

In other words, no matter whether it was a mentoring program, a professional learning community or collaborative teacher team, a workshop, a training program, coaching – the list could go on – professional development made no difference. This is an incredibly important finding, as two of the main questions normally asked in the design of professional development policy are what programs should we fund, and which are most effective? Funding for professional development is based on the premise that we will get improvement if we choose the right programs. The Mirage shows that these are the wrong questions and the wrong premise.

This is not surprising when we stop and think about it. Mentoring programs, or professional learning communities, or collaborative teacher teams, or subject or lesson groups, or internal or external workshops are all really just different ways of organising people under different program labels. As a result, we talk about professional development having to be relevant, engaging, conducted by experts and so on without ever being really clear and specific on how professional development actually connects to student learning (other than saying that it should connect to student learning).

My favourite is when we say that professional development must be job-embedded. What is a school leader actually supposed to do – what steps are most important – to make professional development job-embedded? A school principal is surely making it job-embedded if she gives every teacher an extra two school hours a week for collaborative professional development, assigns mentors to new teachers, asks teachers to use this time to discuss critical issues in their classroom and then present to other staff once a term about it. But in the unlikely event that this improves teaching and learning it will be by chance. These changes are all about structures and labels rather than how we connect professional development to student learning of the curriculum.

The dominant approach to policy design too regularly encourages these situations. When we say all these things about professional development (and I admit I have said them in the past) we are actually encouraging school leaders to focus on creating specific structures that don’t get to the detail of improving teaching and learning of the curriculum. In doing this, we make everyone’s job a whole lot harder.

A process for elevating policy interactions

The process we are discussing in this blog requires policy makers to work out how curriculum development and implementation interact with professional development (and other policies) at the beginning of the policy design process. It addresses fundamental questions of whether or not we are being clear about what we expect students to know and be able to do at different stages of schooling, and if we are clear on the specifics of how professional development is linked to these expectations

What does all this mean in practice?  A recent Learning First report, Combining Curriculum and Teacher Professional Learning, shows how the steps that schools need to work through for continuous improvement (and effective professional development) require explicit links to quality curriculum. As discussed in previous blog posts, these steps follow an improvement cycle that requires schools to:

  1. Assess students’ learning needs with summative and formative assessment data
  2. Examine teacher practice to understand how teaching is contributing to student learning
  3. Plan a response to a prioritised area of teaching and learning, including any professional development
  4. Take action by implementing the plan and regularly monitoring changes in teacher practice and student outcomes
  5. Review the impact on student learning and determine implications for future improvement.

When system leaders work through the detail of these steps, policy interactions are brought to the forefront of policy design. It becomes clear why professional development fails without effective curriculum development and implementation. For example, to tie professional development to student learning, schools must assess student learning against curriculum standards and then monitor progress in student learning along a progression tied to these standards

System leaders therefore have to ask themselves if schools are able to do this. Are the curriculum standards used in the system, along with the assessments teachers use to track student progress against those standards, and the instructional supports available to guide improvement, of sufficient quality? And are schools using them well?

These questions are normally the domain of curriculum development and implementation policies but in the process I am talking about, they are put at the forefront of the design of professional development policy. And, unlike much unhelpful discussion in this field, they are now specific rather than generic about the connection to student learning, creating powerful implications for policy responses.

This blog is about making this process tangible for system leaders, a process that focuses on the precise steps people need to take in schools to improve teaching and learning and how system policies can help and hinder these steps. In the next blog post we will work through more of the detail of this approach, with concrete examples of how system leaders can enact it.

Ben Jensen is CEO of Learning First.