Bridging the gap between policy and practice in education

Teenage students in class with computers, teacher explaining

By Armand Doucet

Global Teacher Prize Top 50 2017 and Teacher, Riverview High School, New Brunswick, Canada

and Beatriz Pont

Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– The gap between education policy and practice prevents progress in education.
– COVID changed the dynamic between educators and policy makers, empowering teachers to find and implement solutions.
– Open and effective communication between education practitioners and policy makers can help bridge the gap.

Over a year ago, we were both on a global panel discussing lessons learned and ways forward in education to proceed this last school year immersed in COVID. We realised quite quickly that by partnering-up our different views, as education practitioner in New Brunswick, Canada, also in contact with many teachers internationally, and as international education policy analyst at the OECD we could answer a major issue in education: the gap between perspectives on education, particularly between policy and practice in schools and classrooms. This gap prevents progress in education due to lack of understanding of the reality of schools and classrooms and of how policy can really be defined and implemented to be effective. We wanted to raise awareness of this gap so that it can be narrowed, so we engaged in a conversation on the lessons learned during COVID through our own work. We present here some of our observations from the analysis and from our own experience in schools, classrooms and in exchange with policy makers.

The start of the pandemic flipped the dynamic of policy makers and practitioners (educators) on its head. Educators were finding solutions to the problems they were facing caused by the pandemic. From professional development, meeting the equity needs of children, shifting their pedagogical practice and much more, educators felt empowered to solve issues that students were facing in their schools. It was happening from the ground-up as there was no time to waste. Contextualisation was key. Understanding and meeting their unique student needs was how best practices developed in each community.

Understanding and meeting their unique student needs was how best practices developed in each community

In many education systems, policy makers were playing catch-up as governments tried to understand how to proceed with health protocols while continuing to provide education across schools for millions of children worldwide.

During this time, we got together to discuss what were key lessons in education during COVID and reviewed some of the international analysis. Of course there were different approaches adopted by countries, some closing schools, delivering online solutions, others maintaining schools open with strict health protocols. Overall, we found that during this first wave, empowerment and local solutions were prioritised. As governments caught up, just before a second wave hit many countries, priorities focused on implementing COVID protocols, and keeping schools and children safe, while equity also came to the forefront. Decisions were being made mostly to find short-term solutions without looking at the larger picture and the impact on education in the future. With time and more experience in handling the pandemic, some referred to a slow shift towards top down policy communication and decisions. Daily changes in policies and decisions were affecting teachers and school leaders making it hard to engage and motivate students as well as plan and prepare for teaching.

We experienced and observed these shifts during the pandemic which of course varied depending on jurisdictions. There was limited data on what was happening in schools in terms of student learning and well-being, in terms of educational practice across schools. We realised that a few elements kept coming-up:

  1. We needed to find a common vocabulary between our silos. Policy and practice do not speak the same language. We assume that we understand and know what’s happening in our different sectors of education, but the reality is that academia, policy, politicians, school leaders, administrators, parents, students, NGOs, the community and educators are speaking at each other, not with each other. We don’t have common vocabulary or understanding.
  2. Shared consciousness between all education stakeholders does not exist. Decision-making, apart from at the start of COVID closures in education, may not necessarily have empowered teachers to do what is needed for students. Depending on the context, we can give schools and teachers space to make decisions while providing suitable support. Make it school- and classroom-based. Education policy makers should spend time in schools and classrooms before creating and developing programmes, policy, procedures or guidelines. This key dialogue will develop policy with the potential be effectively implemented, thus bridging the policy and practice gap.

Education policy makers should spend time in schools and classrooms before creating and developing programmes, policy, procedures or guidelines

The digital age had pushed our education systems towards change. From a focus on pedagogy being efficient, productive, and meeting key testing data points, to a complex world where the old rules do not apply to meet the demands being put on the schools and educators:  developing knowledge, competencies, social-emotional learning, skills as well as the former key focus of curriculum outcomes. COVID school closures showcased that many jurisdictions around the world did not align from the top down and that this misalignment was the reason many struggled to figure out solutions.

For school systems to close the gap between policy makers and practitioners, and be ready for uncertainty such as that brought about by COVID, open communication between education stakeholders as well as empowering the people closest to the students to make agile decisions is the way forward. This, of course, with support for training and capacity building, resources, networks and guidelines. Education policy making is changing, and COVID has provided a test of how it can be approached that we should not forget.

Please watch this video of our discussion that highlights the gap and ways to improve:

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Photo: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images