I’ve always had an interest in educational policy. Recently, when my daughter brought home her new Justice Studies text, Marginson’s, “Australian Policy Handbook”, I was so excited. I had used Marginson extensively for my PhD. She wasn’t as excited! While researching literature for my thesis, I reflected too on why I felt policy was so important to me as a school leader and later a lecturer in education. If you haven’t already tuned out at the thought of reading about policy, please try to stay with me for a little while and keep reading. There are good reasons to be up to date on policy and how to enact it in schools!
Why is it important to understand educational policy?
For a start, let me explain that I have never blindly followed all policy that landed on my desk or in my inbox. Policy means many things to many people. A policy could include newsletters, or ministerial directives, legislation and much more. In my case, I reflected on the ministerial or departmental policies that I was directed to enact as a school leader. Whether or not the policy is considered worth enacting is subjective. Personally, I get very excited about policy directing equitable practice. To me, policy related to equity gave myself and then the school not only a social justice direction but a curriculum direction.
The use of the word equity is clearly apparent in Australian policy and legislation related to the education of students with disabilities. The concept of ‘equity’ is related to policy that reflects the social justice expectations of the community. Slee (2008) notes, “[such] legislative and procedural statements, provides Education together with curriculum reconfigurations and professional development interventions to reform the character of teacher attitudes and in turn, their professional practices are in evidence globally” (p. 2). I could see after the “deconstruction” of policy and responsible resource allocation in my schools the positive change in practice.
When new policy arrived, I tried to link this policy to the existing big picture stuff such as the Australian Curriculum or legislation such as Disability Discrimination – Education Standards. As a school community we used the filter of equity to “assess” how new content fitted within the realms of the school mission – then we took it on board. Or not! As a school leader, I felt it was my job to make sense of the colliding innovations (as per Fullen) for the school community and with the community plan how policy enactment would occur. The policy became something that we could “hang our hat on”. Something that directed us together to achieve our school mission. And it worked.
There was really no surprise to me to discover that education commentators say that policy can be considered, “…a key ingredient for encouraging cooperative and synergistic action” (Mingat et al., 2003, p. 73). Also, that the policies we embrace can be seen as a “productive resource” for schools for developing their inclusive practices (Dyson & Gallanaugh, 2008 p. 473). Policy can become a resource to assist me to persuade and influence others to get things done (Giddens, 1994). The policy was a resource that provided me with a tool to develop a shared understanding, consensus and strategy for realising an improvement in our school (Mingat et al., 2003).
However, Apple’s work (2004, p.xii) reminded me that policy may assist schools to “…re-create conditions that mirror” undesired economic, political or cultural ideologies that compete with the realisation of schools’ inclusive values (Ainscow & Sandill, 2010). These were the policies I realised that our school community did not enact. Policy is not an “unambiguous thing” (Colebatch, 2006, p. 3) that governments do. Policy involves people in social settings. These people or participants have different perspectives and the policy is ultimately influenced by the processes, systems and shared patterns of interactions and understanding of these participants (Considine, 1994). This is especially important when participants see policy as a resource as I did for challenging the current order and maintaining a right to participate (Colebatch, 2002). Policies related to an inclusive curriculum are sometimes seen as more of “mindset” than a policy (Allan, 2008). This was especially true in the schools I worked in.
I knew that effective teachers who enact inclusive practices are aware of relevant
legislation and policy, and the implications of their daily work (Shaddock, et al,
2007). I saw this daily when teachers planned and carried out plans that were inclusive. Later I was to realise these teachers were are led by a school principal who played a “pivotal role in supporting inclusive practice” (Shaddock et al. 2007, p. 10). I also knew that some teachers did not accept the mindset of inclusion or curriculum reform in our school. However, that meant I had to work harder to work from where the staff were at and align their existing practice to the new policy.
How do leaders make sense of policy for staff?
It is generally acknowledged that school leadership makes a difference and
requires the leader to have a moral purpose (Fullan, 2003), and a strong commitment to equity and social justice (Stevenson, 2007). Effective leadership has been deemed responsible for narrowing the achievement gap between students with disabilities and students without disabilities in the US (Altman, Lazarus, Thurlow, Quenemoen, Cuthbert, & Cornier, 2007). One practice that leaders need to use to reduce this gap is to improve the ability of staff to make some sense of change by making links for them to connect the “torrent of unwanted, uncoordinated policies and innovations raining down on them from hierarchical bureaucracies” (Fullan, 2001, p. 109).
A vital role for school leaders in the educational standards environment “is to dispel
the perceived competition among reforms by showing educators how the values and
practices representing heterogeneous education closely link with and reinforce other
school reform endeavours” (Villa, Thousand, Meyers, & Nevin,1996, p. 42). School leaders are able to use the content of legislation and policy to persuade teachers that education for all is not just another thing teachers need to deal with, and that, in fact, these policies and legislation support classroom planning, teaching, assessment and reporting practices to provide an education for all.
There has been ample commentary about the need for schools and systems to align policy, philosophies and assumptions behind special and general education (Defur, 2005; Katzman et al., 2005; Lynch & Adams, 2008). As Shaddock et al. (2007) recommended time to identify and analyse this alignment needs to be a professional development priority for schools by leaders. I engaged staff in the debate about the principles of inclusive education apparent in policy, and how it relates to school and teacher practice (Keefe, 2003). In addition to this, I could engage staff in discussions about the benefits and drawbacks relating to the categorisation of students, and the linking of resources to specific cohorts of students.
Alignment between two sometimes disparate philosophies and policies,
general, inclusive and special education, is required to achieve an effective
curriculum for all students and this needs to occur before planning can even begin
(Gartner, Kerzner, & Litpsky, 2005; Lynch & Adams, 2008; Nolet & McLaughlin,
2005). Lack of alignment of philosophies held by teachers has been an ongoing
barrier to effective collaboration. I allocated much of the PD budget to collaboration between specialists and classroom teachers to plan teaching, learning and assessment. Not all teachers engaged on the same level. It took me some time to realise that I can’t persuade someone to change if their belief system did not align with mine. On one occasion a teacher decided to leave the school on another I left.
Collaboration through curriculum
I endeavoured to create and maintain a learning community that provided a safe environment for an investigation of policy in our school context. Without this leadership practice, I believe there would have continued to be issues with misalignment of teacher beliefs, curriculum planning and delivery, and ultimately continued underachievement of all students with diverse learning requirements.The need for a curriculum focus, that ultimately achieved successful collaboration, provided the “philosophical shift necessary for moving away from the student as the problem to the curriculum as something teachers need to work with in relationship to the student” (Pugach & Wargner 2007,p. 195). This type of strengths-based conversation within collaborative planning opportunities assisted me to address the crucial issues within the curriculum and teacher attitudes. To achieve genuine collaborative planning, teachers needed to share a ‘common language’ of the general curriculum standards (Ainscow, 2005; Nolet & McLaughlin, 2005; Perna & Davis, 2007; Youtsey, 2003).
Youtsey (2003) predicted that standards as a common language for planning for special and general educators would improve consistency across classrooms, districts, and schools. For many years, special and general educators have had a separate vocabulary that they brought to planning. Jargon and words whose meaning vary from “discipline to discipline…hamper the ability to connect and interact as partners in the learning process” (Perna & Davis, 2007 p. 33). Without the use of a common language between special and general educators, teachers will find it “very difficult to experiment with new possibilities” (Ainscow, 2005 p. 149) when planning together. I noticed that when all teachers used the language of ACARA in planning, there was an increased focus on instruction and curriculum, thus improving the perception of shared responsibility for the team for achievement of students with disabilities.
Compared to today’s standards, I don’t think what I did to make sense of policy is innovative. Ten years ago, however, perhaps it was. I remember a District leader telling me that the “navel gazing” about policy was a waste of our time. However, my research about leadership for curriculum enactment, “Powering a Curriculum for All”, confirmed the efficacy of the practices of alignment and collaboration, and so much more. The practices and methods of exemplary leadership for inclusive education are extensive and complex and continue to interest me as I work with undergraduate teachers to persuade them about the joys of policy!
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