When Policy Knocks on Your Classroom Door

ELL policy in your classroomAs a teacher, the word policy had a type of visceral reaction for me. Changes to policy invariably seemed to shift the very same teaching terrain that I was just starting to master. Even well-intentioned policies sometimes are met with exasperated “Another change?” from teachers like me. And, the everlasting question, “how am I going to make this work?”

As a side comment, it’s worth noting the irony in my visceral dislike of policy change, as I am now getting my PhD in educational policy studies.

For ELL teachers, the policy changes may be even higher stakes. Two news articles highlight the ongoing and shifting nature of teaching under ELL policies. First, in Arizona, a huge (and much needed) shift in how the state identifies and serves its ELLs. As EdWeek reports (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/learning-the-language/2016/05/arizona_federal_government_set.html), Arizona has consistently failed to identify English Language Learners due to low proficiency cut scores. Additionally, students who were identified as ELLs were often exited from language-support programs too early.

Now, without a doubt, a policy that unfairly and systematically reduces access to much-needed ELL support services needs to be changed. This is, at heart, a civil rights issue. Despite our celebration of this change, however, it’s worth noting that schools in Arizona and the ELL teachers within those schools are about to have their professional lives upended. More students entering programs, fewer student exiting, and teachers may have whole new systems to learn. Add to that the difficulty, the (seemingly unending) budget crunch that makes hiring new teachers unlikely. Cue up the possibility of larger class sizes, the mixed-level classes, and the mid-year schedule changes.

Similarly, New York City is experiencing difficulty in implementing their new rules about the requirements for ELL teachers. As Elizabeth Harris reports for the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/09/nyregion/new-york-schools-struggle-with-new-rules-to-help-students-learning-english.html) the changes requiring additional ELL teachers and bilingual programs are confronting serious teacher shortages. Teachers, principals, and union leaders highlight the challenge facing the new policy–especially finding enough certified teachers to go around.

Again, the policy change itself is likely a positive one, as it aligns more closely with research-based best practices on how to support our ELLs. But the changes are real, and their impacts on the daily lives of teachers should not be diminished.

Teachers are sometimes called “street-level bureaucrats,” to use Lipsky’s (1980) term. In other words, they are where the rubber hits the road and policy meets practice. Look at the archives of any educational research journal worth its salt, and you’ll likely see articles about the need to connect policy to practice. Too often, however, teachers are presented in these articles as a roadblock to policy implementation. That characterization ignores the vital role that educators play in understanding, adapting, and implementing policy. Additionally, when we present teachers only as roadblocks, we fail to consider the “why” of policy change resistance–and why teachers may have good reason to resist.

Teachers, facing policy change, may resist for many reasons. The change may threaten their core beliefs of what good teaching is and does (Corbett, Firestone, & Rossman, 1987), as some opponent of standardized testing argue. Or it may be perceived as overreach by policymakers who fail to fully grasp the complexity of schools. Or, and this is where I want to focus, it may simply be a natural response to change.

Humans, as a species, tend to dislike change that threatens our equilibrium. As Evans (1996) argued, change for teachers means the threat of losing competency. You finally feel like you’re getting a handle on things, and then another policy change appears on the horizon. You worry that everything you’ve just started to feel comfortable with doing will be lost.

The spotlight of national education policy continues to turn toward English Learners. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) continues to push state- and school-level attention toward ELL success. As new standardized test scores come out, newspapers report on the persistent and pernicious gap between ELL and non-ELL student scores. As educators, we recognize that policy changes designed to improve access are good, necessary, and important. But we may still feel that “Oh, no” when another department meeting is called to explain the newest changes.

So what do we do? The first task is to forgive ourselves–to forgive that annoyance or anger that comes when policy changes even when we support the new policy. We’re people first, and we may be stressed, tired, annoyed, and all-around done with the changes in policy.

The second task, when policy knocks, is to answer it and, to quote the awesome Tim Gunn, “make it work.” (As my coworker did not know who Tim Gunn is, I feel compelled to share this short sample: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbMLXEAHTTo). When policy arrives, the choice can be made–to resist, to slam the door shut, to build a metaphorical moat. Or you bring the policy into your class, but on your terms. You help decide what gets highlighted as you bring changes to your practice. Some things you can’t change, of course, but you can always adjust and adapt to some extent, even if it’s only your responses. This is the same sort of resilience and perseverance we teach our kids.

So when policy knocks, we answer. And we make it work.


Corbett, H., Firestone, W., & Rossman, G. (1987). Resistance to planned change and the sacred in school cultures. Educational Administration Quarterly, 23(4), 36-59.

Evans, R. (1996). The human side of school change: Reform, resistance, and the real-life problems of innovation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Harris, E. (2016, May 8) New York schools struggle with new rules to help students learning English. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/.

Lipsky, M. (1980). Street-level bureaucracy. New York, NY: Russel Sage Foundation.

Mitchell, D. (2016, May 4). Arizona, federal government settle dispute over English-language learners. EdWeek. Retrived from http://www.edweek.org/.

A former teacher from a high ELL-incidence district in Massachusetts, Alea is now finishing her doctorate in Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She also works at Mawi Learning as the School Partnership Specialist. When she isn't writing her dissertation, Alea can most often be found watching her beloved Red Sox, reading an unabashedly trashy romance novel, or eating her husband's homemade bread.

Category: Education