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  Chapter 4
  Chapter 5
  Chapter 6
  Chapter 7
  Chapter 8
  Chapter 9
  Chapter 10
  Chapter 11
  Chapter 12
Tools for Critique: Chapter 4
Policy and Law: Rules that Schools Live By


Chapter 4, “Policy and Law: Rules that Schools Live By,” describes the complex education policy system in the United States. It reviews the roles and responsibilities of local, state, and federal government.  It gives special consideration to contemporary accountability policies that increasingly hold individual students, schools and teachers accountable, in various ways, for closing long-standing gaps in achievement. The chapter also revisits the role of the courts—first addressed in chapter 2—in protecting the rights of the nation’s most vulnerable students.

Chapter Headings

  • The Complex Education Policy System
    • Three Levels of Educational Governance 
    • How Do Policies Work?
  • Metaphors That Shape Education Policy
    • Schools as Economic Enterprises 
  • Effects of Contemporary Policy and Law on Students, Schools, and Teachers
    • Accountability for Results: Large-Scale Tests and “High Stakes”
  • The Courts and Education Equity

Generative Questions and Activities

    Policy and Law: Rules to Make Schools Effective, Efficient, and Equitable

  1. In discussing the adverse effects of No Child Left Behind on his school, high school teacher Mark Hill describes what the authors call “the perverse effect of prompting educators to target resources and support toward particular students whose test scores would help the school meet its NCLB numerical targets, rather than distributing resources and support according to all students’ learning needs.”   As a pre-service or current teacher who aspires to embody a social justice agenda, how do you respond to this practice?  Do you agree that it is an unethical use of precious resources?  What would you do if you saw this happening at your own school?  How would you attempt to redirect additional resources and support to the students most in need?  Discuss this issue in a small group.  If possible, work with someone who will take a school administrator’s position in defense of this practice.
  1. The authors posit that, “ideologies … exert influence in the education policy-making process.”  Provide one or two examples of current debates or controversies in your local school(s) that seem to align with particular political or philosophical ideologies.

    The Complex Education Policy System
  1. The authors note that, “in the last decade, mayors in some large cities like Boston, New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. have ‘taken over’ responsibility for the schools and appointed either the board members or the superintendent.”  This trend seems to be gaining in popularity. What do proponents of such “takeovers” say are the benefits?  What do opponents say are the disadvantages? 
  1. Do you think that popularly elected school boards are essential for widespread public participation in schools?  Or are these officials likely to be beholden to a few influential people who helped get them elected?  Are there other ways to guarantee that schools listen to and are accountable to parents and community members—no matter what the governance structure is “at the top”?  
  1. The authors also suggest that, “much of what states and local school districts do is now shaped, even controlled, by federal policy.”  Describe how federal policies affect curriculum and instruction at a school with which you are familiar.  Give specific examples. 
  1. NCLB began as a bipartisan legislative accomplishment but is currently the target of much scrutiny and debate. The authors note, “While many applaud NCLB’s basic premise … many others blame it for undermining high-quality curriculum and teaching … [P]olicymakers, educators, and members of the public at large have been calling for an overhaul of NCLB.” Imagine you had the opportunity to weigh in on the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (NCLB’s original name). How would you “overhaul” the policy? What aspects would you keep? Why?

    Metaphors That Shape Education Policy
  1. The authors argue that the ideologies of meritocracy, deficit thinking, and racial superiority are “so pervasive that they enter into the policymaking arena as if they are natural and common sense.”  Do you agree with this analysis?  If so, list several instructional practices and match them with their supporting ideologies.  In each case, explain why/how they match. If you disagree with this analysis, is it because you think that even though ideologies exist, they do not influence schools in important ways; because you think that it is natural for all people to think this way—not just elites or those with more social power; or do you believe that in most schools people simply do not subscribe to these beliefs, and the authors’ analysis is wrong from the very beginning?   
  1. The legacy of the factory, well-managed corporation, and free market continues to influence the way schools are organized today.  What might an alternative model look like?  If you could create your own school, what political ideologies would inform your decision-making?  What policies would you implement in order to create your school?  
  1. David Berliner and Bruce Biddle argue that the charges leveled against schools by the A Nation at Risk report were hostile, politically charged, and largely untrue.  Can you think of more recent examples of politically charged educational issues?  How do different groups’ positions on these issues reflect different political ideologies?  Brainstorm a list of recent educational policy decisions that seem to have been made based more on political ideology than on empirical research.  
  1. In describing the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the authors note that conservatives in Congress vehemently opposed setting standards for resources and learning conditions.  As a result, they argue, the policies that emerged focused on “setting standards for what students should learn, in the absence of standards specifying the resources and conditions that such learning would require.”  How do you suppose conservative politicians justify these policies?  In your view, what political ideologies do these policies reflect?  Why do you think conservative politicians were so strongly opposed to setting standards for resources and learning conditions?  How do you make sense of this?  
  1.  The Coleman Report was perhaps the most influential education study in the twentieth century, and the authors address how the findings were used to support opposing policies: “Because Coleman found that academic outcomes were higher for blacks who attended desegregated schools, his findings were used as part of the scientific rationale for school desegregation … But, unfortunately, Coleman’s study was also used to provide political and scientific “cover” for those who resisted increasing resources for desegregating schools …” What is your interpretation of the implications of the Coleman Report’s findings, based on the authors’ summary? What would your policy recommendations be if you were James Coleman? Why?
  1. To what extent and in what ways do voucher plans, charter schools, and magnet schools reflect free-market ideologies?  How are these three schooling alternatives similar and different?  With a partner or in a group, conduct a debate on whether or not each of these plans undermines a commitment to public education.  Be explicit about the particular political ideology that informs your respective positions/arguments.  Be sure to do an Internet search of sites that support these market-oriented schooling philosophies.

  2. The latter half of the twentieth century and first decade of the twenty-first has seen increasing “privatization” of many previously public services.  Corporations such as Federal Express do work previously done by the Post Office; private security services guard some neighborhoods previously watched over by the police; and private K-12 schooling is increasingly promoted as preferable to public education.  What do you think of these trends?  Do they threaten, enhance, or have no bearing on the common interests in a democracy?  Why?

    Effects of Contemporary Policy and Law on Students, Schools, and Teachers
  1. The authors note that, “many of today’s ‘high stakes’ testing policies make students’ performance on a single test the only factor in making very important decisions, such as grade promotion, course placement and high school graduation.”  How are these policies different from testing policies that were in place when you were a K-12 student?  What do you suppose will be the long-term impact of these policies on students and schools?
  1. The advocacy organization FairTest recommends the following policies as alternatives to high-stakes testing for grade promotion: targeted support and services for students; professional development for teachers; mixed-age classrooms; continuous relationships with teachers; and the development of a variety of assessment skills and tools. (See Focal Point 4.1.) How do these policy alternatives for improving education for all students differ from the “exit exams” currently being used in states like California, Florida, and Illinois?  In your view, what would be some of the likely outcomes if these policy alternatives were implemented? What other policies can you imagine might be more effective than high-stakes tests in improving schools in the long run?
  1. Mauro Bautista addresses some of the inequities his English Learners (ELs) face when taking various state-mandated assessments. The tests have significant consequences for his students, including (but not limited to) their middle-school course placement, which typically leads into their high-school curricular “track.” What do you think about Mauro’s comments? What are some ways that ELs might be assessed fairly and more accurately? (Assessment is discussed in more detail in Chapter 7, and “tracking” is addressed in Chapter 10.)
  1. The authors note that, “Exit exam policies have been adopted in states that teach most of the nation’s students of color and English Learners.”  Why are the states with the most students of color and English Learners the same states that are imposing these high-stakes exams?  The authors suggest that students in these states have fewer educational resources and opportunities, noting that in California, the highest rates of exam failure occur at schools with shortages of qualified teachers and other resource problems.  However, many policymakers in these states claim that the threat of failing and of high rates of failure is prompting officials to make schools better.  What is your view of this way to “leverage” school improvement for those students who tend to have the fewest opportunities? 
  1. In 1999, the National Academy of Sciences declared that accountability for school performance belongs to the whole system, from states to parents, and cannot be imposed only on students.  Consequently, they concluded, high-stakes tests should only be used after changes in teaching and learning opportunities ensure that students have a genuine opportunity to learn what is tested.  The authors note that these findings support the professional standards established by AERA, APA, and NCME that same year (see Chapter 7).  Despite the fact that so many experts agree that a single measure should not be used to make high-stakes educational decisions, current policies continue to call for the use of a single test to hold students accountable.  What if policymakers actually listened to the experts’ recommendations?  What would policies informed by their recommendations look like?  What if federal, state, and local school officials were held accountable for providing students adequate opportunities to learn?  Brainstorm ideas for creating and implementing a “system-wide” accountability plan. Be as specific as possible.
  1. The authors discuss the immense pressure involved in raising test scores that can make “a testing policydecision intended for accountability purposes…become a curriculum policy that determines whatstudents learn, not just how their learning gets assessed.” To what extent do you see “testing” policies becoming “curriculum” policies in your school? What effects have you noticed on curriculum and instruction? On student learning?
  1. Many of the teachers cited in this chapter describe pressures to comply with various federal, state, and local policies.  Interview teachers at a school with which you are familiar to see how their experiences and perspectives compare with those of the teachers featured here.  What policies affect them (and their students) the most?  How are they (and their students) affected?  What pressures do they face with respect to these various mandates?  What strategies, tactics, and practices do they rely on to confront or avoid these pressures? 
  1. W. James Popham describes three negative consequences that high-stakes tests have on curriculum and teaching: curricular reductionism, excessive drilling, and modeled dishonesty.  Consider the situation at the school with which you are most familiar.  Have you seen any of these consequences there?  If so, which ones have you observed?  In what ways have they manifested themselves?  What other negative consequences do you think might result from the emphasis on high-stakes testing?  Likewise, describe instances where high-stakes tests are thought to be responsible for improved school opportunities and outcomes, and comment on these.
  1. The authors discuss the heated debates surrounding school closures in low-income communities that result from high-stakes accountability policies. They state that, “Even those who recognize the urgent need for improvement acknowledge that merely closing schools can put students at greater risk of educational, social, emotional, and physical harm by fracturing community ties and critical relationships between educators and students.” What do you make of these claims? Should perpetually “bad” schools be closed? Why or why not? What other alternatives to closure can you imagine that might retain the school as a vital community resource?
  1. Proponents of value-added measures (VAM) maintain that teachers should be evaluated based on students’ standardized test scores, and that VAM are the most statistically sophisticated means available. Opponents of VAM argue that teachers (and students) should not be evaluated based on a single test score and cite the statistical unreliability of the measures. What do you think about value-added measures? Engage in a debate with colleagues who may have a different opinion than you (or stage a mock debate). What can you learn from them? How does understanding their point of view help to strengthen your own argument?

  2. The authors describe several examples of lawsuits that attempted to strengthen educational equity and “adequacy” legal requirements.  Yet they also assert that taking legal action is only the first step.  Decisions such as 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, for example,show the importance but also the limitations of court decisions.  If there are, indeed, limitations, what needs to happen in addition to legal action?  What is the role of policymakers, community members, grassroots organizations, and teachers?  Investigate one of the educational equity cases from the late twentieth or early twenty-first century.  Consider what additional work will be needed at the state, school district, and community levels in order to achieve the goals of the equity-oriented legal action.
  1. Given the history of racist and unjust court decisions in this country, to what extent should social justice educators look to the courts for solutions to educational inequality?  How much justice can we realistically expect to result from the judicial process?  If litigation is one component of a broader strategy to bring about more socially just education policies, what are the other components?  How might litigation be integrated with more grassroots tactics in order to build a more powerful struggle for educational justice? 
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