Exploring Techniques to Enhance K-12 Educational Policy Implementation

Nicholas M. Lind

ED406 – Master’s Research Methods, Summer 2013

What I have learned in my many years is what happens from legislation to the school level is a very torturous path…One might as well have traveled to another planet where they speak another language and have another worldview.

– State Department of Education staff person (Datnow, 2006)

An ever-growing divide between policymakers and educators continues to complicate efforts to research, design, implement, and evaluate educational policies at the K-12 level.  Despite a growing body of research aiming to enhance the implementation process of new policies, serious attempts to create meaningful legislation are increasingly met with hesitancy, uncertainty, and reluctance from educators.  Researchers have addressed multiple aspects that positively impact these reform programs, but only the most recent findings have placed those reflections within an accurate understanding of policy formation and execution processes.

In contributing to the ongoing project of advancing educational policy implementation strategies across the United States, the following proposal will provide a historical summary of developments in K-12 educational policy implementation studies and will ultimately advocate for a qualitative case study analysis of educational policy implementation procedures in a selection of schools.  As will be further demonstrated, factors such as a given school environment, the research paradigm used, the agency of stakeholders at multiple levels, or the use of communication and effective training can play a significant role in the successful implementation of educational policies.

An abundance of recent studies have concentrated on designing broad-ranging policies at the K-12 level.  Spillane, Gomez, and Mesler (2009) noted the current, “unprecedented appetite for influencing the core work of schools – teaching and learning (p. 409).”  Datnow and Park (2009) remarked that, “within this decade, we have witnessed several types of large-scale reform efforts…including district-driven change initiatives, state and federal systems of standards and accountability, and comprehensive school reform” (p. 352).  Richly layered with academic underpinnings and data-driven evaluation processes, these policies have greatly impacted educators, administrators, students, and stakeholders.  Honig, a prominent educational policy researcher at the University of Washington, has similarly commented that policies have also become far more broadly inclusive, that is, aiming at guiding all students toward high standards rather than simply at bringing struggling students toward an established academic denominator (2006).

Whereas agents in the policy process had previously employed more distant mechanisms of influence, more recent efforts have suggested and at times even insisted specific instructional methods and content.  This expansion of scale has shed light on the importance of policy implementation studies.  Furthermore, there has been far less focus placed on generalization of results across school environments.  Crucially, as will be expanded upon at length later in this paper, there has been an acceptance that policy outcomes are highly dependent on implementation processes within state and local environments.  Therefore, results of implementation strategies may not be successful across diverse environments even when proving effective within isolated scenarios.  In addition to a growing recognition of the importance of specific actors, environments, and policies in the implementation process, Honig calls for greater inquiry into how and why specific factors influence the execution of policies.  Given early paradigms of implementation research, “critics might consider that confronting complexity has been a positive development,” Honig optimistically remarks (p. 22, 2006).

The earliest paradigm of educational policy implementation research was coined the technical-rational perspective of implementation (Datnow and Park, 2009).  Under this model, policies crafted by legislators were handled in a strict top-down manner to educators for implementation.  Policymakers designed laws and practitioners in the classrooms implemented them.  Concerns that spurred political action were largely determined by legislators rather than educators.

This viewpoint, although accurately describing the perception of contemporary teachers who are frustrated with current policies and implementation strategies, fails to encompass several aspects of the policy process.  Notably, it disregards prior negotiations made by stakeholders during the formation of policy (McLaughlin, 2006).  In many cases, educators or administrators played a significant role in forming policies through directly or indirectly advising relevant policymakers.  Although policies were in some cases presented to schools in a top-down manner, prior communication with stakeholders at regional, state, and local levels played a significant role in the policy process as well, calling into question the authenticity of a supposedly rigid top-down model.  Indeed, a three-year study by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) at the University of Pennsylvania found that communication throughout the implementation process produced markedly more successful programs (Weinbaum and Supovitz, 2010).  Communication between policymakers and educators is an integral part of the implementation process.

A revised outlook acknowledged the interaction between actors during implementation.  This modified research embraced a mutual adaptation perspective, which recognized the inevitable and indeed desirable practice of contact when crafting and executing policies (Datnow, 2006).  In many cases, these ongoing relations are inseparable from the implementation process and aim to clarify specific aspects of policies.  In some situations, deficient policy communication has produced unwanted policy outcomes.  Ali (2011) described a case in which, “improper communication of policy severely compromised the achievement of intended policy objectives” (p.1).  Lacking ongoing support from policymakers, educators were unable to implement all aspects of a policy, thereby hindering change and yielding unreliable evaluations of the policy.  Mutual adaptation perspective recognizes deficiencies in communication as well as their potential to influence policy implementation.

Indeed, mutual adaptation perspective was significantly more reflective of current policy implementation practices.  Nevertheless, it failed to place enough emphasis on the role of educators in policy implementation.  Cohen, Moffitt, and Goldin (2007) point out that policymakers typically don’t face the problems in education so much as they merely make solutions based on knowledge of the situation.  While, as noted above, that knowledge is informed by practitioners in the field (i.e. educators), it lacks the primary experience of daily classroom activities that truly dictate how policies are implemented.  Honig (2006) similarly writes, “If such information and recommendations gloss over public school systems’ complex day-to-day realities they run the risk of missing their mark and actually undermining progress” (p. 3).  Genuinely-effective policies must embrace a deep understanding of the conditions within which policies will be implemented, a perspective that most policymakers simply are not accustomed to providing.

In this way, the process of making policies is both a top-down as well as a bottom-up process.  Mutual adaptation recognized this movement in the design phase, but failed to acknowledge bottom-up agency during the execution process as well.  Honig (2009) reiterates that the primary factor determining the successfulness of a policy is the, “interaction between that policy, [the] people who matter in its implementation, and the conditions in the places in which people operate” (p. 333).  Spillane, Gomez, and Mesler (2009) as well as Datnow and Park (2009) both emphasize the role of local educational actors in this interactive implementation process.  Feedback from teachers and administrators, when evaluated by actors working to implement policy from a top-down perspective, plays a significant role in shaping how specific initiatives take root in schools.

Most recently, researchers have captured this significant phenomenon in the co-construction model of educational policy implementation (Datnow and Park, 2009).  Co-construction, as defined by Datnow (2006), embodies a “premise of multidirectionality: that multiple levels of educational systems may constrain or enable implementation and that implementation may affect those broader levels” (p. 107).  In a fluid and ongoing process of implementation, policymakers and educators at various levels of bureaucracy and schools work together to develop and apply policies to classrooms as they fit best in those environments, and simultaneously work together to provide feedback and support to other levels of the field.  Policymakers can reflect on this feedback and apply successful strategies to similar environments so long as they carefully implement measures to address diverse school districts and don’t over-value generalization of strategies (Cohen-Vogel and Ingle, 2013).  Weinbaum and Supovitz (2010) posit that policy designers must consistently emphasize and engage with school officials in terms of how programs will impact their practices and in turn establish early nonnegotiable principles of the reform innovation up front as well as maintain an ongoing communication relationship with school clients in order to best-ensure that the programs are implemented effectively.  By gathering a better understanding of the essential practices of teachers, policymakers are better-equipped to create policies and likewise by maintaining ongoing dialogues with teaching professionals, they’re better-able to address incoming and otherwise unforeseen concerns as they develop.

Research in the co-construction model has recently highlighted several growing concerns in policy research.  Honig (2007) reviews the role of central office staff in the K-12 setting as facilitators of feedback from teachers as well as learning organizations tasked with supporting educators when new policies are implemented.  In an ongoing process of searching for relevant methods to support educators, encoding those materials into circulation among teachers for review and professional development, and subsequently applying it to their professional repertoire, central office staff work to establish practices and cultures in schools for teachers to retrieve relevant information in order to maintain support as new policies are implemented and adapted.

Another aspect that forms the basis of ongoing construction of policies is the strain between policy expectations and realistic capabilities (Spillane, et.al. 2009).  Policies are often deemed unfeasible if they stretch the capacity of schools in terms of excessive financial burdens, human resource constraints, or seemingly unreachable academic outcomes.  Schools have especially struggled to provide resources with recent policy trends that aim to set exceedingly high expectations for all students (Cohen, et.al. 2007).

In spite of these problems, educational policy implementation research at the K-12 level has nevertheless made significant strides in recent decades.  Contemporary research has increasingly shifted the focus of implementation strategies from top-down approaches to collaborative efforts amongst the education community and throughout schools.  Researchers have gradually acknowledged that implementation is far from a straightforward dissemination of instructions.  Reform measures include a highly complex and ongoing process between stakeholders in roles of policymaking, researchers who inform and analyze recent trends, school administrators and mediators who synthesize feedback from teachers, and of course teachers and students who work to implement new innovations and techniques into daily life in classrooms throughout the country.  Educators play a significant role in forming, adapting, and evaluating how policies impact learning, and policymakers are increasingly more successful as that feedback is incorporated into the ongoing policymaking process.

Honig (2009) reflects on the state of implementation research and suggests three specific avenues for further inquiry.  Whereas variation is recognized across diverse settings, which greatly impacts the success of specific policies and implementation methods and strategies, researchers should attempt to identify patterns in distinctions in order to better-understand environmental aspects that impact policy implementation.  A key problem faced by school reformers is the plague of improperly or incompletely implemented policies, which are unreliable or unfeasible to measure in terms of effectiveness.  These patterns may inform Honig’s second recommendation, which is to further-develop theoretical frameworks for analyzing policy implementation.  Co-Construction presents a compelling case that policies are crafted on an ongoing basis according to the needs of actors as state and local levels of education.  Further research should aim to distinguish how and why those actors impact implementation efforts.  Finally, Honig advocates that further-developed theories work to document the process of policy implementation in order to build the understanding of how to craft policies in such a manner that implementation is more accessible at a district level where they can be easily adapted to fit the needs of the given environment.

Whereas Honig (2009) suggests that further studies review the policy implementation process at the K-12 level in order to determine practices policymakers can take to craft policies that are adaptable to fit the needs of diverse school environments, this research proposal will aim to examine contemporary policy implementation techniques, distinguish specific practices adopted by a sample of districts, and highlight pragmatic methods for policymakers to adopt to ensure feasible policies are designed and implemented in a manner that respects the needs of teachers and learners within diverse settings.

A qualitative case study approach will be adopted wherein the unit of analysis for the case is represented by one group of three school districts located within a similar environment.  Observing Yin’s (2009) suggested steps in developing a case study design, the process begins with an appropriate research question which is: What are the steps in communicating educational policies from policymakers (widely defined) to school administrators and teachers and how do (rural) school districts adapt policies to best-fit the needs of their diverse school settings?

It is expected that this analysis will determine that, often times, too little information is provided to educators when new policies are implemented.  This in turn produces confusion and places limitations on implementation procedures.  Additionally, policies are crafted which do too little to respect the needs of diverse school districts, which also limits implementation and necessitates practices to adapt policies ensuring the most-effective results within any given district.

To limit the scope of this research, a sample of districts from a similar environment will be evaluated in order to suggest methods for that particular setting.  Further research must focus on alternative environments to suggest methods most-effective within those specific settings as well as to highlight methods to differentiate between district environments in order to continue building a framework for policy implementation studies.

Given the importance on environment in implementation procedures, this research will focus on specific school districts as independent case studies.  The initial analysis will focus or rural districts whereas subsequent case studies will evaluate urban and suburban environments.  Contingent on approval from specific districts, the study will analyze three rural districts in the Greater Rochester region.  Upon approval, data collection from each district will proceed, which will include information Stake (2005) recommends such as: the nature of the case; its historical background; the physical setting; other contexts such as economic, political, legal, and aesthetic; other cases through which this case is recognized; and those informants through whom the case can be known.

The collection of data will require the use of multiple methods in order to produce the most holistic perspective of policy implementation practices.  After introducing the research project and gaining permission from district administration, researchers would conduct a documentation review of any available paperwork involving the implementation of policies specific to instruction and curriculum, especially those involving the recent Common Core State Standards.  These documents may include communiqués from state education officials, announcements from teacher’s union officials, memos between educators, minutes from meetings, and other documents related to communication of recent educational policies.  This information will vary per district, but will nonetheless provide useful information regarding implementation practices within each school.

All information gained from reviewing documents would be used to inform researchers how to proceed.  As the data are analyzed, researchers will tailor the qualitative methods in order to work toward approaching a comprehensive understanding of policy implementation procedures within each district.  One proposal researchers will consider will be to design a survey to be administered to all district educators seeking their personal and professional insights into the implementation process.  The survey results may form the basis for interviews with specific individuals who provided especially insightful reviews such as administrators or educators particularly involved in the process.  Alternatively, researchers could conduct focus group interviews depending on which style is most appropriate and productive within each district.

A complete analysis of the document review, survey results, and interviews will provide researchers with important insights on the K-12 policy implementation process from the perspective of educators in rural school districts.  As stated above, subsequent case study analyses would be conducted observing similar methods in urban and suburban districts order to evaluate perceptions from educators in those settings.  All of the knowledge and materials gained from these data collections will allow researchers to draw conclusions of the implementation process within the specific case studies, which will be further analyzed for generalizable practices for educational policy implementation research.  Once vetted against the growing body of research in K-12 educational policy implementation, this research will afford substantial insights into factors that influence the execution of policies from the perspective of those who implement them: educators.



Ali, S. (2011). Deficient policy communication deficient outcomes – capacity building policy under education reforms in Sindh, Pakistan. Bulletin of Education and Research, 33(1), 1-19.

Cohen, D., Moffitt, S., & Goldin, S. (2007) Policy and practice: The dilemma. American Journal of Education, 113 (4), 515-548.

Cohen-Vogel, L., & Ingle, W.K. (2007). When neighbours matter most: Innovation, diffusion and state policy adoption in tertiary education. Journal of Educational Policy, 22 (3), 241-262.

Datnow, A. (2006) Connections in the policy chain: the “co-construction” of implementation in comprehensive school reform. In M. Honig (Ed.), New directions in education policy implementation: confronting complexity (pp. 105-123). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Datnow, A. & Park, V. (2009) Conceptualizing policy implementation: large-scale reform in an era of complexity. In G. Sykes, B. Schneider, & D. Plank (Eds.), Handbook of education policy research (pp.348-361). New York: Routledge.

Honig, M. (2006) Complexity and policy implementation challenges and opportunities for the field. In M. Honig (Ed.), New directions in education policy implementation: confronting complexity (pp. 1- 23). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Honig, M. (2007) Policy implementation and learning: How organizations and socio-cultural learning theories elaborate district central office roles in complex educational improvement efforts. Seattle, WA: University of Washington, Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy.

Honig, M. (2009) What works in defining “what works” in educational improvement. In G. Sykes, B. Schneider, & D. Plank (Eds.), Handbook of education policy research (pp.333-347). New York: Routledge.

McLaughlin, M. (2006) Implementation research in education: lessons learned, lingering questions, and new opportunities. In M. Honig (Ed.), New directions in education policy implementation: confronting complexity (pp. 209-228). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Mead, J. (2009) The role of law in educational policy formation, implementation, and research. In G. Sykes, B. Schneider, & D. Plank (Eds.), Handbook of education policy research (pp.286-295). New York: Routledge.

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Spillane, J., Gomez, L., & Mesler, L. (2009) Notes on reframing the role of organizations in policy implementation. In G. Sykes, B. Schneider, & D. Plank (Eds.), Handbook of education policy research (pp.409-425). New York: Routledge.

Stake, R. E. (2005) Qualitative case studies. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed., pp. 443-466). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Weinbaum, E.H., & Supovitz, J.A. (2010). Planning ahead: Make program implementation more predictable. The Phi Delta Kappan, 91(7), 68-71.

Yin, R. K. (2009). Case study research: Designs and methods (4th ed.), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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