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Education Policy

Bridging the Divide Between Theory and Practice

by (author) Jerome G. Delaney

Brush Education
Initial publish date
Nov 2017
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    Nov 2017
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What exactly is education policy, why is it important, and how is it implemented in the real world? Jerome Delaney, a professor of educational administration and former high school principal, answers the big questions about education policy in this powerful and practical primer for students. Informed by his experience in the public school system, Delaney takes a pragmatic and realistic approach that divides a complicated subject into manageable sub-topics. He grounds the debate at the classroom level: after all, that’s where the effects of high-level policy decisions ultimately play out.

Starting from the basics and progressing through to the deeper aspects of education policy, this text provides an excellent introduction to a subject that lies at the foundation of every education system. This second edition includes a new chapter on issues relating to policy implementation, as well as new discussion questions at the end of each chapter.

Topics include:

  • A beginner’s overview of education policy studies.
  • How values influence policy-making.
  • How education policy is developed, implemented, and evaluated.
  • The role of policy in education reform.
  • The future of education policy as schools adapt to changing societies.

About the author

Jerome G. Delaney, PhD, is an associate professor of educational administration in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where he received the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2017. His primary research areas are education law, Education Policy, and effective teaching. Prior to becoming an academic, he was a teacher and principal in Newfoundland and Labrador’s K–12 public school system.

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Excerpt: Education Policy: Bridging the Divide Between Theory and Practice (by (author) Jerome G. Delaney)


The word policy has become quite common in today’s society. We read about public policy, foreign policy, health care policy, board policy, monetary policy, and immigration policy, to mention only a few. Back in 1995, Silver coined the phrase policy rage, which he used to describe society’s preoccupation with policy. Today, policy has taken on an even more vigorous role in society. Some of that may result from our society’s becoming more litigious, meaning that people in general are much more conscious of their legal rights and are less reluctant than ever before to advocate for those rights. In negligence and liability court cases, an institution’s policies come under greater scrutiny and can often be instrumental in helping to decide the outcome of specific cases. Although helping to decide outcomes in specific cases is not necessarily the primary purpose of policy, it is indeed a positive by-product of having policies in place.

Education policy is taking on a greater significance in our K–12 school systems, so it is imperative that educators have a working and practical knowledge of what education policy is all about.

Education Policy Studies

What do we mean when we use the term education policy studies? Several images come to mind: research centered on the specific subject of the policy; decision-making (ideally) of the shared and collegial kind; the current state of what is happening with that particular subject—the positives and the negatives, and various other related issues and concerns; and what the current research tells us with respect to that subject.

Nagel (1980) suggested that policy studies are concerned with “the nature, causes, and effects of alternative public policies” (p. 391). A less erudite conceptualization of policy studies might point to policy analysis, policy development, policy implementation, policy evaluation, and policy revision. Policy analysis involves studying an issue and consulting with the key stakeholders to determine the “slant” a specific policy should take. The other areas similarly involve the actual development and the related processes of implementing, evaluating, and revising of policy to ensure it achieves its objectives.

There is a certain degree of ambiguity associated with education policy studies. According to Boyd and Plank (1994), “because of the richness and variety of purposes and approaches involved in policy studies, it is not surprising that there is ambiguity about what constitutes the field” (p. 1836). They attribute part of that difficulty to how dramatically the field has changed since its initial growth spurt in the early 1960s.

Wildavsky (1985) concluded that the field has moved from a “macro-macho” approach to a “micro-incremental” approach:

“The origins of the ‘macro-macho’ versions of policy analysis—the belief that large national problems, from defense to welfare, are susceptible to solution through applications of economic analysis—were rooted in the intersection between economics, statistics, computing, and the defense ‘think tanks’ of the early 1960s.” (p. 28)

It was assumed in the 1960s that large-scale economic models could capture the complexity of policy problems and identify the most efficient policy alternatives. Out of this tradition emerged an ambitious and robust paradigm for policy analysis that continues to influence the field today (Boyd and Plank, 1994). Although the macro-macho versions may be of some relevance to education policy today, I contend that a more viable approach to policy analysis in education would be micro-incremental, as people (students, educators, parents, and various other stakeholders) should be at the center of all education policy.

In an effort to decrease that ambiguity—or as some critics might suggest, perhaps to add to that ambiguity—many graduate schools of education have now developed specific courses in education policy studies. I think students pursuing graduate degrees in educational leadership and curriculum studies would be well served by having the opportunity to critically examine the whole area of education policy. The educator—whether a teacher in the classroom, a principal, or a district-level administrator—regularly confronts some aspects of policy in the multitude of decisions he or she makes every day.

Policy Defined

There are as many definitions of education policy as there are writers on the subject. As Cunningham (1963) stated almost six decades ago, “policy is like an elephant—you recognize one when you see it, but it is somewhat more difficult to define” (p. 229), a statement that is still relevant today. Duke and Canady (1991) concluded that a commonly accepted definition of policy is still missing in both the literature and school practice. Definitions range from the very brief to the rather long and convoluted. Here is a sampling for consideration.

Caldwell and Spinks (1988) defined education policy as “a statement of purpose and one or more broad guidelines as to how that purpose is to be achieved, which, taken together, provide a framework for the operation of the school or programme” (p. 41). They further stated that policy may allow discretion in its implementation, with the basis for that discretion often stated as part of the policy.

Sergiovanni, Burlingame, Coombs, and Thurston (1999) referred to policy as “any authoritative communication about how individuals in certain positions should behave under specified conditions” (p. 230). They offered the following illustration:

“The principal who issues a memorandum saying that ‘no teacher should leave the building before 3:45 p.m. on school days’ has fashioned a policy—so has the superintendent who directs principals not to suspend pupils for more than three days without board approval, and the state legislature that enacts a law requiring students to pass a competency test before high school graduation.” (p. 230)

First (1992) characterized policy as “a vision of where we want to go and guidelines for getting there” (p. 14). She went on to say,

“it is important that we agree that policy is wide, rather than narrow, long term rather than short term, and that it involves leadership. The leader is needed to paint that vision that becomes the policy statements.” (p. 14)

Downey (1988) perceived policy as an instrument of governance and offered two definitions:

“an authoritative determination, by a governing authority, of a society’s intents and priorities and an authoritative allocation of resources to those intents and priorities; an authoritative guideline to institutions governed by the authority (and persons who work in them) as to what their intents are to be and how they are to set out to achieve them.” (p. 10)

Levin and Young (1994), on the other hand, described policy more broadly as “a general approach to things, intended to guide behavior, and which has broad implications within a particular setting, whether it be a country, province or school” (p. 60). They further stated that

“policies shape the structure of schools, the resources available in schools, the curriculum, the teaching staff, and, to a considerable extent, the round of daily activities. Policies determine how much money is spent, by whom, and on what, how teachers are paid, how students are evaluated, and most other aspects of schools as we know them. The impact of policies can be illustrated by listing just a few areas of education policy. Some important policy areas [include] school consolidation, language policy, and Aboriginal education . . .” (pp. 60–61)

Guba (1984) has identified eight distinct concepts of policy, three of which are relevant here:

1. Policy is an assertion of intents and goals.

2. Policy is sanctioned behavior.

3. Policy is a norm of conduct characterized by consistency and regularity in some substantive action area. (p. 65)

One of my favorite definitions of policy is proffered by Marshall and Gerstl-Pepin (2005): “policy then is the result of politics, the result of that allocation of values; policy is what governments choose to do” (p. 5). Fowler (2009) took a broad view of what policy is and defined it as “the dynamic and value-laden process through which a political system handles a public problem. It included a government’s expressed intentions and official enactments, as well as its consistent patterns of activity and inactivity” (pp. 3–4).

Despite writers’ and researchers’ unique perspectives on what they consider policy to be, a number of common elements are inherent in their definitions:

1. Policy is a formalized act.

2. Policy has an agreed-on objective.

3. Policy is approved or sanctioned by an institutional body or authority.

4. Policy provides some kind of standard for measuring performance.

As students of policy, we must keep in mind the points articulated here as we continue to develop our understandings of what policy is about.

Benefits of Policy

The benefits of well-written, well-organized, and regularly updated policies to any educational institution and its members should be obvious. Nonetheless, Caldwell and Spinks (1988) provided the following list of such benefits:

1. Policies demonstrate that the school is being operated in an efficient and business-like manner. When policies are written, there is rarely any ambiguity with regard to the goals of the school and how the school is to be administered.

2. Policies ensure, to a considerable extent, that there will be uniformity and consistency in decisions and in operational procedures. Good policy makes ad hoc or whimsical decision-making difficult.

3. Policies must be consistent with those for the system as a whole and with the various statutes that constitute school law. Policies thus add strength to the position of the head teacher and staff when possible legal actions arise.

4. Policies help ensure meetings are orderly. Valuable time will be saved when a new problem can be handled quickly and effectively because of its relationship to an existing policy.

5. Policies foster stability and continuity. Administrators and teachers may come and go, but well-written and constantly updated policies remain. Such policies make clear the general direction of the school and therefore facilitate orientation of newly appointed members of staff of the school, and of the council or governing body, where such a group exists.

6. Policies provide the framework for planning in the school.

7. Policies assist the school in the assessment of the instructional program. Written and publicly disseminated statements of policy show that the policy group is willing to be held accountable for decisions.

8. Policies clarify functions and responsibilities of the policy group, head teacher, and staff. All can work with greater efficiency, satisfaction, and commitment when school policies are well known, understood, and accepted (p. 93).

These benefits are pragmatic in nature and palatable to stakeholders. Policy sometimes runs the risk of being nonpragmatic or esoteric and lacking in utility. Caldwell and Spinks’ list of benefits provides a clear, unambiguous statement about what policy can do for organizations and stakeholders. These benefits are further developed throughout this book.

Concluding Comment

This chapter has given an overview of what is meant by policy and what is meant by education policy studies. Also discussed were several definitions of policy along with the benefits of policy. These fundamental aspects of policy are important to understand as we explore various aspects of policy and policy-making in this text.

Chapter 2 examines the various values and principles inherent in education policy.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

1. When you hear the word policy, what are your perceptions of its meaning?

2. Generally speaking, are people positive or negative when they hear the word policy being used? Explain your response.

3. How would you define education policy?

4. What is your concept of education policy studies?

5. Should educational practitioners and theorists be concerned about education policy studies? Why or why not?

6. Policy is sometimes referred to as the foundation of an organization. Is this true when we speak about educational organizations? Elaborate.

7. From your day-to-day work as an educator, what benefits of policy have you experienced? Have you also experienced drawbacks to policy? Explain them.

8. Keeping in mind Marshall and Gerstl-Pepin’s (2005) comment that policies are the result of politics, explain how politics might have affected the development of a policy you may have personally experienced.

9. If you were designing a graduate course on education policy studies, what would you consider the key components of such a course? Justify their inclusion in your course outline.

Editorial Reviews

This book presents a clear and comprehensive overview of policy for academics, administrators, teachers, and students.

Canadian Journal of Education

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