Chapter Three: Policy and Politics

3.11 Outcomes of Policies

A policy is usually intended to achieve certain results. Each policy is guided by some underlying logic of cause and effect as to how the desired results can be obtained: if we do x then y will follow, or if we want y then we must first do or have x. If we require students to attend school, they are more likely to learn. If we place a curriculum unit on environmental protection in grade 5, students will learn about this important subject. If we evaluate teachers regularly, they will be better teachers, which in turn will result in students learning more. These chains of reasoning, however, are not always explicit in the policy itself; they may have to be inferred. And sometimes, political considerations means that policies attempt to please  people with quite different ideas, so a certain lack of clarity is necessary.

If education were simply a matter of writing the right policies, it would be relatively easy. However, in reality, there are several slipping points between a policy statement and the anticipated results. For one thing, actions intended to have one effect may have quite another, or even several different ones, when put into practice. For example, if students are given grades as an incentive for them to learn more, the goal of getting good grades may become more important than the goal of learning. Every policy has such unanticipated consequences.

Moreover, making a policy statement is not the same as having the policy implemented. The fact that laws have penalties for breaking them shows that people do not always do what they are told. Every policy statement is violated sometimes, and some policies are hardly observed at all. In schools, we have learned that writing new curriculum documents will not by itself change what or how teachers teach (see Chapter 7). If a policy does not fit with what people believe, or how they are used to behaving, it is not likely to be implemented unless a major effort is made to help or cajole people into changing their behaviour. Hence, policy statements, though important, do not by themselves guarantee particular results. The success of a policy depends on the people who have to put it into practice; in schools, this is most often teachers and students.

How do we know what the outcomes of policies are? In a surprising number of cases, we don’t. Many educational policies have continued for decades without any careful attempt to assess their consequences, whether planned or unintended. Schools continue to use certain kinds of instructional approaches (typically a large amount of talking by teachers and seatwork by students), organizational practices (division by age into grades or semestering secondary schools), and motivational practices (rewarding good behaviour with stickers, tokens, or prizes) without collecting very much evidence as to how well these practices work. In an enterprise such as education, which is committed officially to the pursuit of knowledge, it seems odd that there is so little reflecting on the results of our own actions. Research on education, which is one important way of learning about the impacts of policies, is a small and relatively uninfluential enterprise in Canada; many current school practices cannot be justified on the basis of research findings.

Why should this be so? One reason is that policies are not simply, as was just suggested above, intended to achieve particular consequences. Most education policies have multiple purposes and try to serve multiple interests. In addition to having some impact on what happens in the schools, they may be intended as symbolic statements about what is seen as valuable, to make particular groups feel included in the process, or (as we will see with respect to laws in the next chapter) to be vague enough, to allow a wide variety of responses at the local level. Of course, if a policy is primarily symbolic in intention, its purpose is achieved as soon as it is promulgated; what effects it might actually have does not matter so much.

This may seem an unduly cynical position. It may suggest that politics is hopeless and venal, and that we should look for alternative ways of organizing ourselves. But it is much easier to criticize our current political setup than to find a better alternative.


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