Chapter Three: Policy and Politics

3.2 Education Policy

The world of teaching and learning in schools is greatly affected by a wide range of policies. Knill and Tosun (2012) suggest that a public policy may be defined as “a course of action (or non-action) taken by a government or legislature with regard to a particular issue” (p. 4).  Rizvi and Lingard (2010) expand on this suggesting that a public policy indicates a position and course of action to be followed by the state and its different institutions (such as school boards) that share “the basic characteristics of collective authority” (p. 4). The term policy is usually defined as a general guideline that shapes decisions or actions. Some people think of policies as rules, but for purposes of this chapter, policy is defined as a general approach intended to mandate or guide behaviour. In everyday life we tend most often to think of policies as “official documents” or “texts” that can be analysed by considering their origins, development, and effects. This is the approach taken up later in the chapter. However, a number of scholars have sought to extend this perspective by suggesting the need to understand policy as “discourse” as well as “text” (Ball, 2006). From this perspective, policies have to be understood within a broad set of political and economic contexts that frame – not always visibly – the parameters within which acceptable/ “sensible” definitions of policy problems and solutions can be constructed. As Ball argues, “policy discourses … produce frameworks of sense and obviousness with which policy is thought, talked and written about. Policy texts are set within these frameworks which constrain but never determine all of the possibilities for action” (p. 44).

Policies shape the structure of schools, the resources available, 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 such as school board consolidation, language policy, and Indigenous education have been discussed in earlier chapters.

What is taught is affected by provincial, school district and school curriculum policies, all of which, taken together, determine what is on the curriculum, how much of the content is prescribed, which courses will actually be taught, what textbooks can be used, and how much flexibility teachers have to alter curricula. For instance, how much time and attention will be given to art and music as opposed to language? How much attention will be given to labour history or women’s roles throughout history? How much will be taught about the environment? In high schools, how many courses at which levels will be offered in a school or district?

Who can teach is determined by policies on teacher training and certification, and on teacher evaluation. What is required to obtain a teaching certificate? What positions if any will require specialist qualifications? How do we recognize teachers’ credentials from other provinces and countries?

How students are treated is affected by school and district policies on equity and inclusion, discipline, attendance, student activities, student evaluation practices, grading, failure, and so on. When can students be suspended? How will grades be assigned, and will they be numbers or letters?

How teaching occurs is affected by policies on timetabling, teacher workloads, class sizes, assignment of students to classes, online teaching, the availability of supplementary materials and equipment, access to field trips, and so on. How much room do teachers have to teach in ways different from colleagues? Which classes are larger or smaller? Is inquiry learning supported?

How schools operate is affected by policies that deal with the provision of classrooms, libraries, gymnasia, laboratories, music rooms, parent/cultural spaces, and other areas, as well as around transportation of students. Will all elementary schools have libraries? Where will practical and applied arts facilities be placed? Will older inner-city schools have the same facilities as new suburban schools? What transportation services will be provided?

Where teaching occurs is affected by provincial policies on construction of schools, and by district policies on the allocation of programs and resources. For example, will small or low enrolment schools remain open, or will grades be shifted from one building to another? Will high-school students be placed in different courses (“tracked”) by their achievement and ability? Will language programs be housed in specialized schools or areas? Where does land-based learning occur vis-à-vis the school building?


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