Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Fall 2017

Cynthia Coburn
“At SESP, you have the understanding of teaching and learning on one side of the house and the deep understanding of policy on the other. When we make connections between the two sides of the house, we can improve lives.”


Education and Social Policy in One House

By Julie Deardorff
L E F T T O R I GH T Debbie Kim and Eleanor Anderson

LONG MARGINALIZED BY TRADITIONAL EDUCATION SCHOOLS, the field of education policy has begun to mature over the last decade and is now central to the work of many education scholars. The School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) is leading that charge.

As one of the few schools in the nation to bring the science of learning and the study of social policy under the same roof, SESP emphasizes that solving education problems will require thinking across these domains.

Through its jointly appointed faculty, scholarly research and undergraduate and graduate level education, SESP is training the next generation of leaders to understand the complex interplay between policy and people. The wide-ranging effort zeros in on the learning, understanding, and actions of children, teachers, administrators, and policymakers at all levels of the education system.

“At SESP, you have the understanding of teaching and learning on one side of the house and the deep understanding of policy on the other,” says Cynthia Coburn, professor of education and social policy who has studied education policy implementation in schools and districts since her days as a doctoral student at Stanford in the late 1990s. “When we make connections between the two sides of the house, we can improve lives.”

SESP faculty members play a key role helping their students connect policy and learning in ways that flow down to the students in the classrooms. Professors Coburn, James Spillane, and Jeannette Colyvas hold joint appointments in the Learning Sciences and the Human Development and Social Policy doctoral programs, where they develop young scholars with expertise in both the learning sciences and social policy research.

Jim Spillane
Jim Spillane
Jeanette Colyvas
Jeanette Colyvas

Both Coburn and Spillane, Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change, argue that successful education policies depend on the learning and sense-making of those who design the policies as well as those who have to carry them out.

For example, in his book Standards Deviation, Spillane described how Michigan implemented a “standards-based reform policy” that involved developing new curriculum guidelines for teaching science and mathematics. Michigan also aligned state policy to the frameworks and developed accountability mechanisms and professional development to help teachers adapt their methods to align with the new curricular structure.

Spillane then investigated what transpired at multiple levels, including the classroom, school, district, state, and nation.

He found that the implementation of new state policies for the math and science curriculum and teaching didn’t follow a straight and coherent trajectory as it moved from the state’s policy to the teacher’s classroom where it could impact students. Instead, the process was more like the game of “telephone” where a message gets passed from one player to another, and often ultimately changes.

“State policymakers and national reformers relay ideas to the field,” Spillane wrote. “District policymakers construct understandings of these ideas and pass their understandings on to school leaders and teachers. By the time the story is retold by the final player, it may be very different from the original.”

Coburn has argued similarly that making and implementing policy involve sense-making and learning on the part of many different people in the education system. In one study, Coburn investigated how changing the reading policy in California influenced the policy and practices of leaders in two elementary schools, as well as teaching methods.

She found that school leaders’ understanding of reading instruction and the desired policy reform influenced what they emphasized, which in turn shaped how teachers responded to reading policy in their classrooms.

For example, school principals shaped what teachers learned and understood about the new reading policy by deciding what information to highlight and what kinds of professional development opportunities they designed for educators in their schools.

When people and policy meet

Recent PhD’s like Debbie Kim and Eleanor Anderson were drawn to SESP because it stressed the importance of the connection between education and policy. Working with Spillane, Coburn, Colyvas, and others, they now have a dual-sided understanding to their research, teaching, and service in the field as they embark on their careers.

Kim, who received her doctorate in the Human Development and Social Policy program, researches policy and human learning to explore how people interact and behave with policy. In one of her projects, she looked at how research and data helped institutional actors make decisions, such as selecting a new mathematics textbook and rolling it out districtwide.

The process is seemingly straightforward. But Kim found that everything from internal politics and teacher turnover to a lack of coordination among departments sabotaged the effort in one district, delaying the delivery of new textbooks by more than a year.

“Schools are organizations in a multilayer system,” says Kim. “You have schools within districts, districts within states and states within a country. When you start laying policies on top of each other, it’s pretty easy for things to get lost in translation.”

Anderson, who received her PhD in Learning Sciences, is studying restorative justice, a new policy on school discipline. High school discipline policies are typically punitive, often resulting ultimately in the student’s suspension or expulsion from school.

While these policies are intended to teach students positive behavior, studies show that they often have negative consequences, such as triggering drop outs and perpetuating racial inequalities.

By contrast, restorative justice policies are designed to address current damage and to de-escalate minor issues before they become serious. All forms of restorative justice policies and programs work on strengthening relationships and repairing harm, rather than rigidly imposing harsh punishments.

Using Chicago Public Schools data, Anderson “knits together organizational theory with studies of policy implementation to understand the patterns of schools trying to shift away from traditional systems of discipline,” Coburn says.

Rather than using a singular approach to investigate how restorative justice policies are adopted by schools and classrooms, Anderson examined systems of interrelated structures that had continuous, multidirectional effects. Educators’ thinking and learning constituted an important part of her approach.

“My research is animated by a deceptively simple problem: How can good ideas be implemented well?” Anderson says. “Organizational leaders and front-line practitioners are faced with the challenge of not only shifting established routines, but also of making new practices last. I’m inspired by the tremendous possibilities for social change in learning to do better.”

The power of combining education and social policy

For Coburn, the chance to work with students like Kim and Anderson, and to bring education and policy together under one roof, influenced her decision to come to SESP in 2012.

“Education isn’t isolated from other social issues,” Coburn says. “It feeds into poverty and social mobility, and it’s affected by neighborhoods, housing, health care policy and immigration policy.

“What’s exciting about SESP is that we take a serious look at the interconnection among a range of social policy issues that impact the kids, teachers, administrators and school policymakers,” says Coburn. “And it trains people to do good things that improve education.”