The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

School Reform

UMass researchers assess educational policy and outcomes in the classroom
  • Group of yellow school buses parked.

"So much of what we do, so many of the policies we’re looking at affect the daily life of people who may not have a voice at the policy table.“

- Sharon Rallis

In a time of budget cuts, lay-offs and collective bargaining crises in public schools, school leaders nationwide are struggling to implement policies that will balance improved student outcomes with the bottom-line. As a result, public schools, agencies, and districts need to demonstrate ground-level impacts of ongoing reforms—desperate times call for desperate measures and a more critical eye.

However, policies often do not play out in practice as intended. The School of Education’s Center for Education Policy (CEP) works with various education agencies to explore policy implementation at the program level.

“We try to use an ethical lens because so much of what we do, so many of the policies we’re looking at affect the daily life of people who may not have a voice at the policy table. We want to capture what happens to the people affected by the programs that develop,” says CEP Director Sharon Rallis, the Dwight W. Allen Distinguished Professor in Education Policy and Reform (Department of Educational Policy, Research, and Administration).

Typically, Rallis and the Center function as an intermediary between stakeholders, legislators, and students in the classroom by evaluating the success of educational programs that are meant to implement specific policies. Rallis and the team conduct contracted research and present their findings to policy makers and stakeholders. Their research is not solely focused on outcomes; it examines the processes involved in bringing about these outcomes. Rallis and doctoral candidate Rachael Lawrence point out that it is not uncommon for program implementation to be spotty; they are concerned that many funders often jump too quickly to attribute outcomes to a particular policy without looking first at whether or not the policy was carried through with fidelity in programs and practices.

“We are much more interested in what schools, agencies, districts are doing to raise student scores,”Rallis explains, “...than simply comparing scores between high achieving and low achieving districts,” finishes Lawrence.

As an example of their work, Rallis and the Center team are applying their skills in Portland, Maine to understand the impact of the Professional Learning Based Salary System (PLBSS)—the result of the district’s alternative compensation policy. If the system is found to increase teacher participation while improving student outcomes, it could mitigate the tension that currently exists between municipal management and teachers’ unions across the nation. In Portland, it appears to be doing just that.

Portland’s homegrown solution was a response to the city’s rapidly changing demographics. The district has had to adapt quickly to educate (what is now) an increasingly large immigrant student population. Teachers have had to learn new skills and techniques in order to respond to student needs, and together with the teacher’s union, the district determined that teachers are in the best position to understand what they need from professional development. Ongoing in-service professional development is required by most states, yet these programs are typically district-regulated.

“Portland decided to do something very different, which was to say basically: A true professional can identify what they need to know in order to improve their classroom practice,” Lawrence explains.

Thus far, the Center’s analysis of the program has been positive. They have found that since the system’s implementation, teachers have more actively participated in their classrooms and teacher retention rates have increased. Now that they have established the policy has been successfully implemented, the team is beginning to assess student outcomes in relation to the policy.

Currently in Massachusetts, Rallis and the team have been looking at implementation of policy of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Department of Mental Health, and Department of Public Health to collaborate in serving students in special education in institutional settings. Recognized for their detailed and descriptive reports, the Center team has evidence that their work is used by stakeholders.

“We find ourselves in roles of organizational change agents. We ask questions, gather data, ask more questions, and provide a systemic picture of what the program is actually doing. Often this picture facilitates change,” says Rallis.

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