Educational Policy: What is it?
by Michael Lorenzen
(This is another rescued paper I put up at a now vanished website years ago. I think some web surfers may find it of interest.)
This paper examines the concept of policy and how it applies to education. This includes a look at the definition of the word policy and how different definitions of the word can be applied. It will also look at educational policy and discuss the different ways that educational policy can be created and applied to serve schools.
What is Policy?
There are a variety of ways to define policy. Fowler (2004) notes seven different definitions of the word ranging from narrow definitions to broader ones. Fowler defined it, "Public policy is the dynamic and value laden process through which a political system handles a public problem. It includes a government's expressed intentions as well as its consistent patterns of activity and inactivity" (p. 9).
The word policy itself is old. The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) noted that the first recorded use of the word was in 1386. There are a total of eight different definitions for the word. The one that is most apt for educational policy is, "A course of action adopted and pursued by a government, party, ruler, statesman, etc.; any course of action adopted or as advantageous or expedient" (p. 27).
The Encyclopedia of Education (2003) has a lengthy entry on educational policy. In this entry, policy is noted as, "The decisions and rules enacted by the three branches of government at all levels - national, state, and local. The policy pipeline is capable of reciprocal transmission. Whereas society's preferences shape and continually reshape education, the outcomes of education continually influence the values and preferences of the broader society" (p. 669, 670).
There are some similarities and differences in these three definitions. Fowler (2004) appears to reserve policy for the government but also defines the school system as part of the government. However, the use of the phrase public problem indicates that some feedback from non-government actors can influence the development of policy. The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) definition also limits policy to government bodies. Also, The Encyclopedia of Education (2003) definition puts the origination of policy in the hands of government at various levels.
Despite this obvious bias towards policy as a government driven process, all three definitions allow for a broader interpretation that can lead to policy being formulated outside governmental bodies. As previously noted, Fowler (2004) includes the administrators and educators who run a school as being part of the government. The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) noted that any course of action adopted for the greater good was policy making which would mean that local school employees could develop policy on their own in some cases.
Synthesizing these three definitions gives a picture that policy is something that is driven by government bodies such as Congress, a state legislature, or school board. However, the definitions of policy are loose enough that it allows for both the public at large and for school employees as well to engage in policy making for educational institutions. The government may be the most important policy maker but others can have a large influence on the process.
How Educational Policy Serves a School
As the definitions offered above demonstrate, educational policy is not just an abstract idea. It is a real concept that directly impacts schools. It is true that some educational policy can harm schools. Many argue that the No Child Left Behind Act is such an instance. However, as a whole, educational policy serves to benefit schools.
One area of benefit is public support. Schools need public money. It is funding from the federal, state, and local levels that provide the money that operates public schools. Ultimately, it is the public who elect the government leaders who decide the funding levels that schools have to deal with on an annual basis.
The public has concerns about education. Some of these concerns are agreed upon by most (like literacy and graduation rates) or may spark wide disagreement in areas such as sex education or intelligent design studies. However, the people who pay the taxes want their concerns addressed by schools and this is reflected in the educational policy that differing levels of government enact. If there is a belief that schools are ignoring the wishes of the public, the resulting backlash against educators may result in failed levies and unwanted legislation.
The public preoccupation with education is not surprising. Wrote Cusick (1992), "Individual freedom runs all the way through the system. Parents may or may not support the school board; superintendents may support or oppose the state department; state department staff may alter the intent of federal policy makers. People make and exercise personal decisions, enter and take part on their own terms, and regards these as their rights" (p. ix). Everyone feels entitled to have a say about public education and it is educational policy which then allows most to feel that their concerns are being addressed if educational policy reflects their views.
Many educators seem unaware of this. Some often complain about how the government or members of the local community interfere with the operation and curriculum of schools. They see many of the policies dictated to them as an affront to their status as professionals. This may, in some cases, be true. However, most educators are not in private practice but are instead public employees funded by tax dollars. As such, they are accountable to the public and this means that they must address and often follow the dictates of educational policy formulated by the different aspects of government. Educational policy directly serves schools by helping them to retain public support which provides them with the funding they need to operate.
Another way that schools benefit from educational policy is in the area of equal access to education. The Encyclopedia of Education (2003) noted, "In the latter half of the twentieth century, courts began to apply the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause to a spectrum of social condition, such as voting rights, housing, employment, and education" (p. 671). This judicial activism would lead to greater racial desegregation, more gender equity, and better educational opportunities for students with special education needs.
Educational policies that help lead to equal access to education serves a school by helping to assure all students are getting a quality education. State and local governments may oppose some social changes such as racial desegregation. This opposition may even be (and probably is) connected to local opinion and beliefs. The imposition of educational policy that forces schools to deliver equal access to education is in the best interest of the schools and students even if there is resistance. Ultimately, these educational policies make for better schools that more efficiently serve the community.
Schools also benefit from the ability to formulate educational policy at the local level. Although many school boards make decisions based on policy directives from higher up in the government, many decisions are made for local reasons. The ability to create educational policy to deal with local needs serves schools as they are then able to deal with issues that may be unique to their communities.
The formulation of local educational policy also allows schools to create and then enforce policies that keep the school consistent on how it handles issues. For example, the creation and implementation of a policy on how students rights are treated during a suspension sequence can assure that all students are treated the same way when this form of punishment is attempted. Policies negotiated during the collective bargaining process can help to see that all teaching staff are treated equitably in regards to working conditions and the right to appeal disciplinary decisions.
The creation of a guide holding all of the policies of a school also allows administrators, teachers, students, and community members to know the rules for how a school is operated. This cuts down on some potential confusion. It also allows the different parties to know when something is or is not allowed and when there are omissions in the policies of the school that should be addressed. For example, this can serve a school when a principal creates new rules (policy) for a school that are in not in conflict with any of the current policies that a school district is operating under.
Educational policy can also serve a school by allowing for an analysis of school policies. Bowers (1988) wrote an ERIC Digest on this which showed how, school boards can use policy analysis as a tool for policy formation and implementation (p. 1). If a school lacks some policies, it will not be able to analyze these missing policies to discover problems and make improvements.
Finally, educational policy can serve to empower school employees. The daily operation of schools means that administrators and teachers must create new rules (policy) on a regular basis. Many of these new policies never need to be reviewed by a higher authority as long as they are consistent with currently existing educational policies of the school. For example, a high school principal can decide that parking is problematic at the school and create a new policy for parking. Although educational policy can sometimes hinder the ability of educators to successfully complete their duties, it can also be a tool to help them solve problems on their own.
Bowers, B. C. (1988). Policy analysis for school districts. Eugene, Oregon : ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management. (ERIC Document Reproduction Services No. ED302899).
Cusick, P. (1992). The educational system: Its nature and logic. New York : McGraw Hill.
Fowler, F. C. (2004). Policy studies for educational leaders: An introduction (2nd. ed.). Upper Saddle River , New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Guthrie, J. W. (2003). The encyclopedia of education (2nd ed., Vol. 2). New York: Macmillan Reference USA .
Simpson, J. A., & Weiner, E. S. C. (1989). The Oxford English dictionary (2nd ed., Vol. XII). Oxford , England: Clarendon Press.