The Rules We Play By

Last Updated: August 28, 2012

This article appeared in the August 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

There’s a list on the wall in Mr. Miller’s classroom. It says, “I promise to respect you. I value your opinion. I know that we can accomplish great things. I expect you to complete your work on time.”

Across the county the list on Mr. Cook’s classroom wall says, “No running: three checks. No loud laughter: two checks. Late homework: not accepted.”

Mr. Miller’s list communicates high expectations for himself and his students as well as his intentions to hold everyone to those expectations. Mr. Cook’s list communicates low expectations that students will misbehave and it makes clear that he will punish those who do.

These two simple examples of classroom rules illustrate the way policy works. They also demonstrate how policy governs practice and molds outcomes.

Mr. Miller’s students are likely to rise to his high academic expectations and learn something about getting along with others. Mr. Cook’s students are likely to mess up (since children naturally run and laugh), and when they do his policies will put them on a road to academic failure; his students are likely to approach their classroom learning experiences feeling defeated and angry.

“Policy is the concrete manifestation of the vision, mission, and intentions of an organization,” says Jerry Johnson, co-author of Why Rural Matters and consultant to the Rural Trust. “Intentions mean nothing until you create a structure to implement them. You can tell what an organization believes in by reading their policies. Policies formalize and codify intentions.”

Policy is the body of formalized rules and laws that govern an organization. Policy encompasses everything from federal statutes to the bylaws of an organization to the rules of an individual classroom.

Policies also have teeth, enforcement mechanisms that are more than guidelines and separate from cultural expectations.

Policy as context and tool

By creating rules and setting parameters, policy affects behavior and shapes what most people think is possible and acceptable. There are many ways this happens in education.

For example, a school funding law that provides more money for schools attended primarily by affluent students than for schools with poorer students, augments learning opportunities for students with relatively more resources to start with and diminishes opportunities for students whose circumstances create more learning challenges.

The policy shapes the behavior of teachers, making them more likely to gravitate to schools with more resources where they have a greater likelihood for success. It shapes the expectations of many students, causing them to think they earned or deserve what the school offers — for better or worse. And, the policy creates an attitude in the general public that resources are fairly allocated and that the abilities and attitudes of students are the main causes of their academic outcomes, despite the actual inequity.

Likewise, a funding law that hurts smaller schools may reflect indifference or ignorance on the part of policymakers or it may reflect the intent to accomplish something  like the fiscal asphyxiation of schools of certain sizes.

The same kinds of reasoning apply to other policies. A district decision to hire a social worker instead of a school police officer is a budgetary policy decision that creates a different set of expectations, behaviors, and likely outcomes for teachers as well as for students.

A district policy that mandates drill-and-test curriculum for all students scoring below thresholds on standardized tests will effectively block communities and teachers from using other curricular tools  like place-based learning or hands-on and project-based approaches  that could be more effective in engaging students and helping them succeed.

In this example, policy is a near-guarantee that lower-scoring students will not have access to the richer learning opportunities provided to other students, and the policy will push teachers who don’t enjoy following a scripted curriculum into classrooms where they can exercise more personal agency and pedagogical judgment. The outcome for students might be higher scores on paper, at least temporarily, but students are much more likely to miss out on the kinds of learning experiences that make a positive, long-term difference in their lives.

While funding, discipline, and the uses of testing are obvious examples of far-reaching educational policies, there are many others, including teacher certification and evaluation, curriculum standards, assessment practices, and charter authorization, to name a few.

In most cases policies have a profound effect on practice. “Policy is the context in which practice occurs and to a large extent governs what’s possible,” says Amanda Adler, Rural Trust consultant and editor of Rural School Funding News.

Yet the intent of policy is often masked. Advocates of a specific policy don’t always come clean about their hoped-for outcomes, and it can be hard for other people to discern what the underlying goals are.

Even the most carefully crafted policies cannot anticipate all outcomes, nor please everyone, so effective organizations usually have provisions for ongoing review and revision of policies. “Policy is a pretty blunt instrument,” says Page McCullough, Field Services Manager for the Rural Trust. “Making policy is often a messy process because it requires compromise; people rarely get everything they want and there are usually losers as well as winners.”

Yet it is exactly these characteristics of policy that make broad public involvement in policymaking so important.

Policy as affordance

Policy is also a way to increase the likelihood that certain behaviors will occur. In this way, policy is an affordance, meaning that it is something in the environment that signals possibilities for action. In much the same way that a knob signals turning, policy signals behavior.

For these reasons, policy has the potential to change people’s collective minds. It makes specific behaviors or conditions more common and therefore more acceptable.

This characteristic can work for good or ill. For example, if policy directly or indirectly denies healthy food to certain groups of children, society will increasingly see child malnutrition or even starvation as inevitable. But if policy provides many ways for all children to have nutritious meals, society will see child health and well-being as an achievable and supportable goal.

In public contexts and democratic organizations, policy has a chicken-and-egg quality: participants both influence and are influenced by policy decisions and implementation.

A rural voice in policy debate

It has been decades since American public education has been the subject of as much fierce debate and policy action as is the case currently. Nearly everything from teaching to resource allocation, student data tracking to parent involvement; and a wide range of privatization initiatives are up for grabs. These issues add up to much more than professional debates about educational methodologies. They cut to core values about the purpose and role of public education in democracy and the role of the public in determining what education is and who it answers to.

In upcoming issues, RPM will explore key aspects of public policy  how policy is made, the roles of research, organizing and advocacy, and legal action in influencing policy decisions, and most importantly, why rural children and their schools and communities must be represented in policymaking contexts.


Read more from the August 2012 Rural Policy Matters.