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When School Policies Backfire: How Well-intended Measures Can Harm Our Most Vulnerable Students

reviewed by Rosalind Raby - March 06, 2017

coverTitle: When School Policies Backfire: How Well-intended Measures Can Harm Our Most Vulnerable Students
Author(s): Michael A. Gottfried & Gilberto Q. Conchas (Eds.)
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 161250907X, Pages: 222, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

The purpose of When School Policies Backfire: How Well-intended Measures Can Harm Our Most Vulnerable Students, co-edited by Michael A. Gottfried and Gilberto Q. Conchas, is showing how to use case studies to explore the designed and unintentional effects of local, state, and national school policies. The book focuses on how policy failures often worsen the problem that these same policies are designed to fix. Unfortunately, policy backfires tend to hinder educational opportunities for non-traditional learners and for students who are in most need of support.

When School Policies Backfire consists of six chapters plus an introductory and concluding chapter written by the editors with help from Cameron Sublett and Odelia Simon. In the introduction, the editors share mini case studies representing contemporary educational and non-educational policies. They do this to explain how these well-intentioned policies simply do not work. They highlight the purpose of the volume by stating that, “[n]o one creates policies for schools hoping they will backfire” (p. 23). However, as the editors show, sometimes these efforts have negative impacts. The editors suggest that by understanding the consequences of unintended results, policy analysis can shift to include elements that could help avoid or mitigate future consequences stemming from policy mistakes. Each subsequent chapter (a) examines a specific school policy through a case study construct, (b) delineates its focus, (c) shows the consequences of the policy (both designed and unintentional), and (d) analyzes the population that is hurt the most.

In Chapter One, “When Targeted Interventions Backfire: How a Middle School Literacy Intervention Created Achievement Gaps” by Shaun M. Dougherty, the focus is on school literacy policy and its consequences when it is applied to different contexts within the same district. The main backfire is that variations in implementation result in many white, Asian, and Latino students succeeding. Unfortunately, they also significantly hurt the learning of Black students who study in this same district. Due to this process, a learning gap is created where one did not previously exist.

Chapter Two, “When Accountability Policies Backfire: Why Summer Learning Loss Affects Student Test Scores” by Andres McEachin and Allison Atteberry, examines accountability policies and growth models. While the authors believe that the aggregate-level conditional status metrics (ACSMs) theory is sound, the backfire was not in the implementation of this policy, but rather in the analysis of its results. In the case study, only spring test scores are compared and summer learning rates are not accounted for. In this context, advantaged students show learning gains as a result of summer enrichment programs, while disadvantaged students without access to these advantages show learning losses. As a result, not knowing the bias that is being measured results in a relative loss of standing for schools that serve disadvantaged students.

Chapter Three, “When Minimum Grading Policies Backfire: Who Decides Whether to Let Students Fail” by Martha Abele Mac Iver, focuses on implementing a minimum grading policy that transforms the grading scale from 0–100 to 50–100. The explicit purpose is to eliminate the lower aspects of the F grade. This policy is intended to change the grading system to prevent failure and is supported by teachers. However, the backfire comes from the community, parents, and politicians who counter the teacher's support and create a political environment that proves counterproductive to achieving the intended results.

Chapter Four, “When School Closures Backfire: What Happened to the Students at Jefferson High School?” by Matthew N. Gaertner, Ben Kirshner, and Kristen M. Pozzoboni, investigates accountability policies that result in school closure. The chapter does not analyze the policy itself, but instead examines the consequences of a school failure that impacts the hopes and lives of students. Evidence of this impact is seen in future test scores and from the students' own voices. The backfire is that a policy designed to improve student success destroys engagement and attainment.

Chapter Five, “When School Choice Policies Backfire: Why New Options for Parents Can Become New Barriers to Equity” by Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, centers on policies facilitating parental school choice in New York City. The intent is assigning students to schools to help distribute low-ranking learners. The backfire is the creation of schools for consumers where those with social capital know how to shop. The policies create additional barriers for students and parents to have access to high-quality school options. This includes choosing students through a lottery system, using high-stakes standardized exams to determine admission to elite schools, and lacking a sufficient number of counselors to build parental social capital and knowledge regarding high-quality school options. In the end, New York City schools remain racially divided.

Chapter Six, “When Technology Programs Backfire: How One Laptop per Child Taught Birmingham a ‘Costly Lesson’” by Morgan G. Ames, Mark Warschauer, and Shelia R. Cotten, explores the One Laptop per Child policy. Although students receive laptops, their school outcomes do not improve. The backfire results from a lack of communication about why the policy is needed, how it will fit into the school curriculum, how it will fit into home-life for students who already have a home computer, and how to build adequate technological support for the program. A lack of communication results in the poor or non-existent use of the laptops and no provision for sustainability.

In their conclusion, Gottfried, Conchas, Simon, and Sublett summarize the main points of the various case studies and reiterate a main theme of the book. Specifically, policies often do not succeed in the ways they were initially imagined. The chapter also suggests that to design better policies, two main lessons need to be learned. First, failure to address local circumstances and to understand how a policy is integrated within a setting is just as important to success as the failure of the policy itself. Second, failure to address agency support systems will lead to a deficit in communication and an inability to address stakeholder issues. As a result, this creates a lack of support for staff or students and will contribute to the policy’s backfire.

The expressed hope of the editors is to start a dialogue about policy and practices, be it popular debates or questioning more commonly held assumptions. Despite the book’s strengths, it also has some weaknesses. A framework for critical analysis is aptly given. It shows that the issue at hand is not to assess if educational policy choices are good but to forecast what future implications may arise. In this context, a comparison can be made to traditional leadership policy analysis of specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic, and time-related goals (e.g., SMART goals). Reflection is not only part of the process, but the future application of this reflection is also an essential part of the process. While this book encourages reflection, it does not fully acknowledge how to apply its lessons in our politically complicated environment. As such, I wish that the authors would have concluded by identifying the questions that are rarely asked and yet will strongly impact policy implementation. While the text presents numerous cases that illustrate where learning takes place after a negative incident occurred, the ability to learn how to figure out the questions in the first place is not fully explained.

Despite these weaknesses, When School Policies Backfire argues for the need to analyze past policies to understand that the best ideas do not always succeed, nor do they necessarily assist the people they are intended to help. The message of this readable book is simple and yet also is very important.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 06, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21855, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 4:36:42 AM

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About the Author
  • Rosalind Raby
    California State University, Northridge
    E-mail Author
    ROSALIND LATINER RABY, Ph.D. is Senior Lecturer at California State University, Northridge in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Department of the College of Education and is an affiliate faculty for the ELPS Ed.D. Community College program. She also serves as the Director of California Colleges for International Education, a non-profit consortium whose membership includes ninety-one California community colleges. Dr. Raby received her Ph.D. in the field of Comparative and International Education from UCLA and since 1984, has worked with community college faculty and administrators to help them internationalize their campuses. Dr. Raby has been publishing in the field of community college internationalization since 1985. Her latest book is International Education at Community Colleges: Themes, Practices, and Case Studies (Palgrave). Other publications on the topic of international education and community colleges are: “A comparative view of Colleges of Further Education (UK) and Community Colleges (US): maintaining access in an era of Financial constraint.” with Martin Jephcote. Research in Post-Compulsory Education 17,(3), September 2012, 349–366. Financing Community Colleges (2011); Community College Models: Globalization and Higher Education Reform (Spring, 2009); “Community Colleges and Study Abroad” in NAFSA’s Guide to Education Abroad for Advisers and Administrators: 3rd Edition (2005).
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