Chapter Three: Policy and Politics

3.6 What is the Issue?

Because politics centres on conflict, a policy or political issue will be seen differently by different people. Political debate has as much to do with determining what the exact question is – ‘framing the question’ – as it does with providing an answer. Consider the decision by a provincial government to support provincial testing. This decision might be seen by various groups of people as: (1) an issue of maintaining or improving standards of achievement; (2) a way of controlling teachers; (3) an unwelcome distraction from attempts to meet the varying needs of students; or (4) a waste of money and a public-relations ploy.

A school board’s decision to recruit more female administrators could be seen by some as a long-overdue attempt to redress biases in our hiring practices, and by others as an inappropriate challenge to a merit principle in hiring. A board policy that encourages local fundraising efforts might be promoted as a creative way of generating resources for improved programming, but others might see it as privileging wealthier school communities and leading to inequities. A decision in a high school to “get tough on absenteeism” could be regarded as a way of improving standards, or as a way of pushing already marginalized students into leaving the school.

Understandings of policy issues also are not fixed. Our sense of any given issue is likely to change over time as events unfold and as we learn more about a particular matter. Sometimes these shifts take place over a relatively short time. A school board wishing to close a school may begin by seeing the issue as one of saving money. By listening to others and thinking about it themselves, they may come to see that the issue for parents is one of preserving a community and of maintaining a certain quality of education. Keeping a school open may be seen as a matter of equity by some. The board might then shift its own definition of the issue away from financial matters to a broader concern with educational questions. Sometimes the shifts are much slower; it took many years to shift ideas and policies to support the inclusion of students with exceptionalities into schools. Indeed, when we examine the historical record and see how sure people were about the rightness of policies we now see as completely misguided, we should be less sanguine about our current practices and keep in mind that years from now these too may well be seen as erroneous and unproductive. At the same time, we do not have the benefit of hindsight, and at any given moment people must act on the best information and judgment available, no matter how imperfect it might be.

The Struggle to Define Issues

Politics necessarily involves disagreement and debate. Many people are uncomfortable about conflict, especially when it involves education and our strongly held belief that we should “do what is best for the children.” But there is disagreement about what is best for the children.  Indeed, if there were no differences of opinion, there would be no issue in the first place. The danger is that when opinions vary, those who have the power will simply impose their will. Democratic practice requires something more than this, since it is based on the idea of consent of the governed. The ideal is to have political decisions made through a process of open and fair public debate. However, this is much easier said than done.

In many cases, people have neither the time nor the interest to develop an in-depth understanding of a given policy issue. There are simply too many issues to consider for one to become an expert, even if one really wanted to. To understand most issues, the majority of people rely on information that comes to them through their own experience, through their contacts with other people, and, in the case of larger-scale issues, through the media, particularly sources on the internet. A critical question about any policy issue, then, is who is framing the agenda and shaping the way in which people think about the issue. During any political debate, the various parties are making efforts to change how people think about the issues in order to build support for their particular point of view. Political debate is largely an attempt to persuade people to see issues in a particular way.

Evidence and Argument

Two important vehicles for persuading people are evidence and argument. Although the two are distinct, they are also very much intertwined. Political decisions cannot simply be determined through an appeal to facts, but neither should they be reduced to questions of who has how much power; rather, a combination of evidence, argument, reason, and persuasion are all essential to a strong democratic political process.

In part, policy decisions about education are matters of evidence. Instrumentally, we seek to know which course of action is most likely to allow us to attain our objectives. Research may play an important role in shaping policy because it provides evidence about the results of various policies. Our experiences also provide evidence and shape our thinking about what policies are most desirable. For example, there is generally less use of punishment, and particularly physical punishment, in schools than there used to be. This is partly because both research and the experience of teachers indicated that punishment was not very effective in fostering appropriate behaviour by students. Instead, studies showed that positive reinforcement was often a much more successful technique of behaviour management. As teachers began to see that their experience corroborated the research, their behaviour gradually changed and so did policy.

Research has had a checkered influence on education, in Canada and elsewhere. In general education, policies and practices appear to rest more on history and intuition than on a foundation of empirical research (Levin, 2011). Many educators have seen research as largely irrelevant to their everyday work, and researchers have not always put enough emphasis on communicating their work to those who might use it, preferring to write mainly for academic colleagues. The entire education research enterprise in Canada has been very small. Neither federal or provincial governments have put very much money into education research, especially compared with the research effort in related fields such as health or training.

However, this situation is starting to change. Greater attention is now being given to notions of “evidence-based” or “evidence-informed” education policy-making and practice, in Canada as well as elsewhere (Broucker & Sweetman, 2002; Nelson & Campbell, 2017). The knowledge base about effective educational policy and practice is growing. Provincial policy documents are increasingly (though certainly not always) linked with research findings. Teachers and school administrators are increasingly well informed about research and increasingly interested both in learning more about research and in conducting their own research in their own schools and classrooms. Governments have also become more interested in both supporting and using education research as the whole idea of evidence-based decision making grows in importance (Cooper et al., 2009; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2021). The growing attention to early childhood education is a good example of a field in which research has driven substantial changes in policy.

But evidence is rarely, if ever, a neutral matter that concerns the discovery of some objective truth. Values and personal predispositions may also shape what we see and accept as being relevant evidence. Normally, the parties to a political debate will try to produce various kinds of evidence supporting their views. A minister who favours provincial examinations might provide data showing that achievement levels in universities are not increasing, or data from opinion polls showing that many people favour such exams. Teachers opposing the policy would then bring forward evidence showing that greater emphasis on testing changes instruction by obliging it to focus more on the narrow set of issues to be tested.

Within Canada there are also a number of different public policy research and advocacy institutes that seek to inform and influence education policy. Some, such as The Fraser Institute and The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives have an interest in a broad range of national social, economic, and environmental issues while others such as People for Education are more narrowly focused on public schooling in a single province, Ontario (See Table 3.6.1). These organizations make a valuable contribution to Canadian education policy debates, but each also brings to the debate its own values and priorities through the issues they select to focus on and the research that they conduct.

Table 3.6.1

Canadian Public Policy “Think Tanks”

Institution Mandate Selected Educational Publications

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives





The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is an independent, non-partisan research institute concerned with issues of social, economic and environmental justice. Founded in 1980, the CCPA is one of Canada’s leading progressive voices in public policy debates.


Our Schools/Our Selves. An education journal that explores the critical intersections of education and democracy, identity, labour, and a range of social justice issues.






The Fraser Institute





The mission of The Fraser Institute is to improve the quality of life for Canadians, their families, and future generations by studying, measuring, and broadly communicating the effects of government policies, entrepreneurship, and choice on their well-being.

Fraser Institute School Rankings.


Education Spending in Public Schools in Canada, 2021 edition.


The C.D. Howe Institute



The C.D. Howe Institute is a registered charity, and an independent not-for-profit research institute whose mission is to raise living standards by fostering economically sound public policies.

Student Performance on PISA 2018: Nettlesome Questions for Canada.



People for Education





People for Education is independent, non-partisan, and fuelled by a belief in the power and promise of public education. We create evidence, instigate dialogue, and build links so that people can see – and act on – the connection between public education and a fair and prosperous society.

Ontario Principals’ Challenges and Well-being: The 2020-2021 Annual Ontario School Survey Report.


Canadian Rights to Education Framework: Creating a tool to measure progress on children’s access to quality education.



Argument, on the other hand, has to do with giving people reasons for believing something. Reasons may or may not rest on evidence. Arguments often rest on moral claims about what is worthwhile or important or right. For example, an argument about the importance of strengthening competition in our schools is really an appeal to see the world in a particular way, and therefore to take certain kinds of actions. Given this overall view, it may be argued that rigorous monitoring of student attendance shapes the kinds of attitudes necessary to succeed in the work force. Argument, then, is more ideological in its origins, since it is based on a view of what constitutes a desirable world; but argument and evidence are closely linked in that beliefs affect our view of evidence, and evidence, in turn, may alter our beliefs.

People also use argument to clarify their own beliefs about an issue. We may learn more about what we really think as we try to advance arguments for our view that will convince others as well as ourselves. The requirement to convince others means that arguments cannot appeal only to selfish motivations but must also be couched in terms of the public good (e.g., fairness or justice). Actions are not seen as legitimate unless they can be defended in these terms.

Emotion often plays an important role in policy debates, especially when an issue speaks to deeply held beliefs or interests, such as the welfare of our children. There may be angry meetings, protests, and even violence. Conflict can be frightening because it tests the bonds of our society and our willingness to live with one another. When carried too far, conflict can produce terrible results. But conflict can also play a creative role in society. If people feel they have a real say in the society in which they live, they may be more willing to accept that others must also have a say and that compromises must be made. Out of disputes about ideas can come better ideas. Out of disagreement can come constructive compromise. There can be no democracy without the willingness to engage in political conflict.

In short, there is no one set of rules or rational procedures that can be applied to determine all political choices. These must simply be worked out through various political means. There are, however, criteria that can be applied to determine whether the process of political debate is fair. Judgments can be made both about the evidence being presented and the arguments being advanced. Is information about the issue widely available, or is it hidden from view? Does evidence come from reliable sources? Are all the available data being presented, rather than just those that support a particular point of view? Are divergent opinions all given a reasonable hearing, or do some parties control the debate? Do the various parties have a reasonable ability to make their views known? Is the debate cast in terms that invite reflection on the various positions, and dialogue among them, or is it cast in emotional terms that detract from thoughtful discussion? In applying these questions, we can make a decision as to whether a political debate meets the test of democratic values.


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