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  • Writer's pictureDr. Kristen Mattson

How Policy is Affecting Professional Learning…and What You Can Do About It!

I initially wrote this reflection for a doctoral course called “Professional Learning in Education.” The texts we are reading have been very insightful, so I decided to share a few snippets of my learning with all of you as well 🙂

How Policy is Affecting Professional Learning…and What You Can Do About It!

 Most state and national attempts at school reform focus on what policymakers can easily control. The scope of that control rests on inputs – teacher professional learning experiences, class sizes, standards, curriculum, and assessments. Policy makers at all levels have control over time, money, resources, licenses and programming, and use these tools in their attempts to strengthen teaching and learning. There are at least five ways that policies can affect professional learning:

1. By encouraging or mandating professional development participation through incentives or regulations. 2. By providing professional learning resources to the field either through equitable access or by giving preferential access to districts according to set criteria. . 3. By regulating inputs such as teacher and principal quality though licensure. 4. By creating new organizations to support professional learning 5. By framing a particular way of thinking about teaching and learning.

While policy makers attempts at school reform may seem effective on the surface, there is no guarantee that policy will affect the classroom in ways that positively impact learning as such policies must go through multiple channels before they reach students. District and school leaders act as “policy mediators” to reframe the meaning of requirements handed down from policy makers. These mediators are district level leaders, building principals, and, most importantly, teachers (Martin, Kragler, Quatroche, & Bauserman, 2014).

So how can leaders make the most out of policy mandated training in order to make it meaningful to their teachers?

1. Don’t blame the policy makers! While it is important for teachers to understand where the mandate is coming from, leaders need to approach their staff with a positive outlook. Saying things like,‘“Don’t shoot the messenger,” or “central office said I had to tell you…” will only turn teachers off and keep them from engaging with the content of your message. The same advice holds true for the way teachers approach their students with new content, pedagogy, or instructional strategies.

2. Create ongoing, vertical communication channels among policy mediators. It is important that there is ongoing communication regarding policies and initiatives among teachers, building leaders, district leaders, and, if possible, the policy makers themselves. This on-going communication across all levels of policy mediators can keep the focus on student learning and help support teachers in their practice. Where possible, avoid “one and done” sessions of professional dialogue surrounding policy. When episodic PD becomes the norm participants rarely bring the learning into practice and tend to dismiss initiatives with a “this too shall pass” attitude. On the contrast, professional learning sustained and supported over time enables individuals within the organization to make impactful changes.

3. Situate the policy related PD within best practice or other building/district initiatives. Top-down, mandated professional learning often has the unfortunate stigma of being decontextualized from teachers’ everyday practices and perceived needs. This is why policy mediation is so important. As a district or building level leader, one must take the time to both comprehend and evaluate the ways in which policies or initiatives can improve teaching and learning for the people within their organizations. When teachers can see how the initiative will improve their practice, they are less likely to feel they have “just one more thing to do.”

4. Allot time for dialogue…and not just during the initial session. “Successful professional development creates a range of opportunities for dialogue among members of the professional learning community, guiding them through the appropriation, transformation, publication, and conventionalization of ideas” (Martin et. al, 2014, pg. 157). Remember that dialogue is a two-sided act. In traditional PD, the leader often took the role of speaker. It is important, however, for leaders to step back and listen in order to help staff construct meaning and understanding as well as show a mutual commitment to the initiative. Through dialogue, leaders, teachers, parents and students can engage in a systematic analysis of how the initiative or policy best fits the context of learning within the organization.

5. Share the “power”. In a recent study, Min Sun and colleagues (2013) found that a distributed leadership structure in school made up of both formal and informal leaders was the most effective structure for implementing external policies. Their work would suggest that local and state policy makers should attend to multiple layers of organizational leadership. Within districts and buildings, leaders should strive to identify, equip, and empower teacher leaders who can help support their colleagues as policy effects practice.

In conclusion, many districts and buildings may not have say over the top down policies, mandates, and initiatives that come their way. However, they do have power as policy mediators to present such policies in a manner which will positively impact learning in their own environment.


Martin, L.E., Kralger, S, Quatroche, D. J., & Bauserman, K.L (2014). Handbook of professional     development in education: Successful models and practices, Pre-K-12. New York: Guildford Press.

Sun, M., Penuel, W., Frank, K., Gallagher, A., & Youngs, P. (2013). Shaping professional development to promote the diffusion of instructional expertise among teachers. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 35(3), 344-369.

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