What Gives a Policy Power?

Laura Desimone
Thursday, June 9, 2016


C-SAIL’s research approach is grounded in the policy attributes theory, developed by Andrew Porter and his colleagues two decades ago. The framework suggests that there are five key features of successful policies: authority, specificity, consistent, power and stability. The higher a policy is on one or all of these attributes, the greater the chance it will work. In a recent blog post Andy Porter talked about the interaction of power and authority, and in another post I talked about what we mean by authority and how our study is measuring it.

Here I discuss power and how it relates to the implementation of standards in the classroom.

Power is defined as rewards or sanctions. A policy has power if educators are rewarded for behavior or outcomes consistent with the policy, or are penalized for behavior or outcomes inconsistent with the policy. Such rewards and sanctions can be tangible, such as an increase in pay linked to increased student test scores. Or, power can work through less tangible but still extrinsic rewards or penalties, such as public recognition of either good or poor performance.

A policy has power if educators are rewarded for behavior or outcomes consistent with the policy, or are penalized for behavior or outcomes inconsistent with the policy.

No Child Left Behind and other accountability policies are known for the power that was attached to them—the promise of providing or withholding school funding based on student achievement results; the “grading” of schools based on their students’ standardized test scores.

As with previous waves of standards-based reform, for the current college- and career-readiness standards to have power, it would mean that explicit rewards or sanctions would have to be attached to their use and/or outcomes related to their use (e.g., teachers using them in the classroom, and students learning more as a result).

Previous research has shown that power can be an effective mechanism for behavior change, but if it is not accompanied by authority (e.g., educators buying into the policy and believing it is good for students), then power-driven policy change is short-lived, and its effectiveness goes away when the sanctions or rewards are taken away.

C-SAIL will explore how power is operating in the standards system in each of our partner states. We will examine what power mechanisms district and school leaders and teachers perceive as operating in their state’s system—are teacher evaluations based on teachers’ use of standards and resulting scores on aligned tests? What mechanisms do schools/districts/states use to reward or penalize teachers?

We will be able to compare how power operates across different states, districts and schools. We will also examine whether and how power mechanisms differ for educators across various environments, such as teachers of English language learners, students with disabilities, and elementary versus high school students. Further, through analysis of our survey data, we will be able to examine how power interacts with the other policy attributes, and if policy environments that leverage power in certain ways tend to have instructional and achievement outcomes that vary from their peers.

In C-SAIL’s effort to understand and identify the challenges and successes of the implementation of college- and career-readiness standards, examining how power is used to leverage behavior change will help us achieve a deeper understanding of the impact of standards-reform on classroom instruction and teacher motivation.