On policy evaluation

This post is a part of a series being written for my EDUC6352 online masters students.


Policy analysis and evaluation seems like a straight forward and obvious requirement for school leaders and government departments. Basically if you implement policy one might assume that you would wish to evaluate said policy. However, in the frenetic pace of schools which, in Australia at least, have been in a policy reform cycle for at least two decades there is little chance to analyse nor evaluate policy as the next policy-cycle is upon leaders. Policy makers themselves are beholden to Australia’s short election cycle and the have to design policy to differentiate one government from the next with new policies and policy foci.

In NSW, for example, the department that was the Board of Studies became the Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards [BOSTES] and is now (as of January 2017), NSW Education Standards Authority [NESA]. The name changes reflect the change in focus by a body determined to continue to have a relevant role in education where the federal education departments (ACARA, AITSL and the Department of Education and Training) have increasing control over education.

In this climate of policy proliferation, reform and constant change it is very difficult to review a particular policy as the focus is already on what is coming next. (Visiting Professor of Practice in Education, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University) argues that policy evaluation is essential to ‘today to avoid mistakes being repeated for our grandchildren‘. He describes the growing influence of the OECD on education globally and the push for reform in many countries.

The OECD report that:

Once new policies are adopted, there is little follow-up. Only 10% of the policies considered in this dataset have been evaluated for their impact. Measuring policy impact more rigorously and consistently will not only be cost-effective in the long run, it is also essential for developing the most useful, practicable and successful education policy options“.

Sahlberg gives three reasons why necessary evaluations aren’t being conducted:

    • * First, rigorous evaluation of reforms is very difficult and expensive. Complex education reforms take a long time to implement. National curriculum reforms, for example, often take a decade before they are fully implemented in schools and adopted in classrooms. Fair and reliable impact evaluation can therefore be made only when implementation is completed or progressed so that impact can be measured.
    • * Second, too many education reforms end in failure or the end results are something very different than initially expected. It is understandable that there may be reluctance among politicians to spend significant amounts of money to evaluate something that was a failure.
    • *And third, more often than not, education reforms are highly political constructions – and therefore are high-stakes gambits when it comes to national politics. Many education reforms today are seen as part of more complex and comprehensive social policies that are interdependent and sometimes difficult to be evaluated separately.

Although the stakes are lower in schools, evaluation of school policies are not undertaken for more pedestrian reasons (lack of time, difficulty of undertaking a quality evaluation, lack of personnel with skillset, lack of funding to commission external evaluation, school has new policy focus). Sahlberg’s point that measuring policy impact is important for developing useful, practicable and successful policy is as relevant to schools as it is for education systems. Evaluation of policy in the school context helps for next iteration of policy development and implementation. Knowing what worked, what didn’t and why helps leaders development better policy in the future and builds upon the existing institutional knowledge base. Constant policy change without evaluation is hard to avoid in the current educational climate, but evaluation helps leaders make better decisions and build better schools.

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