Education Politics and Policy: Emerging Institutions, Interests, and Ideas

Sarah Galey
Michigan State University


The article reviews the most recent research on K-12 education policy and politics in the United States. I begin by exploring current reform trends and emerging institutional arrangements governing contemporary U.S. school systems in relation to patterns of increasing federal and state involvement in educational policy arenas. I then examine and synthesize studies from four key areas of educational policy research – accountability and teacher evaluation, market-based reforms, educational research utilization, and local and state capacity building. I conclude with an overview of gaps in the literature and suggestions for future research.

Key Words

Education Policy, Politics of Education, Accountability, Teacher Evaluation, Market-Based Reforms, Research Use


Current educational research unveils important patterns of change in educational governance and the process of policymaking. Growing public concern with the state of American K-12 education over the past several decades has prompted new efforts to improve schools and raise student achievement. The two most recent major federal education policies – Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act and Obama’s 2009 Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative – are key indicators of the growing involvement of the national government in education reform, not “just in issues having to do with civil rights and student rights,” as has characterized federal involvement in the past, but increasingly in matters that get close to the “core of the educational enterprise, curriculum, teacher qualifications, and the like” (Henig and Bulkley 2010, 323). In relation, standards-based accountability, which focus on improving educational outputs, usually in the form of student test scores, and market-based reforms, where the privatization of educational services introduces competitive market structures into the educational sector in the hopes of improving efficiency and educational quality, are both prominently featured in both NCLB and RTTT. Through centralization and privatization, these policy instruments tend to diminish the power of local school boards, as well as local teachers unions (Cooper and Sureau 2008; Goertz 2009; McGuinn, 2006) – a key characteristic of shifting institutional climates in educational settings.

In short, educational issues are no longer only a providence of local authorities, but rather are frequently front and center in state and national policy agendas (Henig 2013). In addition to being dispersed across multiple levels of government, educational policymaking and implementation processes are also becoming increasingly shared across public and private sectors. Nongovernmental actors, such as foundations, think tanks, and charter management organizations, play significant roles across the educational policy spectrum. They may, for example, advocate for a particular reform or program, produce educational research and data analysis for district and state officials, or organize professional development activities. This theme permeates current educational policy scholarship in a variety of forms, for example: the growing importance of outside vendors for managing state data and assessment systems; the growth and diversification of school choice options; and the rise of intermediary organizations (IOs) in the production and utilization of educational research. Relatedly, scholars have also noted the resurgence of “general-purpose” institutions for educational decision-making, which has contributed to new political dimensions where a diverse array of new interests that traditionally have left the educational policy sector to its own devices are now major players in school reform across federal, state, and local contexts (Henig 2013). Significantly, they often bring new ideas and beliefs with about how to manage and deliver educational services – one of the major drivers of the increasing use of market-based solutions in educational reform.

The introduction of so many new actors and organizations involved in educational policy also yields critical new avenues of funding and support for educational research and innovative reforms. New and existing educational organizations, for example, are especially concerned with the impending implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) – the new “U.S. intended curriculum” (Porter et al. 2011). Many policymakers and researchers are also focused on assessing and revamping statewide teacher evaluation systems, as well as the continued expansion of school choice options, particularly charter schools. Importantly, these endeavors and other major federal and state policy initiatives often require a massive influx of resources for a wide range of local reform activities. Numerous districts, for example, are currently engaged in major curricular overhauls in response to the CCSS, which require the retooling and retraining of the teacher workforce. Thus, while recent federal and state policies may form the contours of contemporary educational policy contexts, local conditions continue to have significant consequences for successful policy implementation.

In the first section of this essay I expand on these themes, reviewing recent research oriented towards key political and policy shifts in educational domains. The focus here is on major issues of policy formation and implementation in U.S. K-12 educational settings including: (1) analysis of recent federal reform efforts, (2) the implications of new, emerging institutional arrangements, and (3) the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The first part of this essay also serves as a backdrop for subsequent sections by introducing key contextual features of modern educational systems. Within this broader analytical framework, I then consider specific findings geared towards four key areas of current educational policy research – accountability and teacher evaluation, market-based reforms, educational research utilization, and local and state capacity building. Importantly, there are other key themes in current research that have important consequences for K-12 educational systems, but fell beyond the scope of this essay and were conscientiously omitted, including international education, pre-Kindergarten, and higher education, or K-16, policies.

Trends in Reform, Governance, and Intergovernmental Relations

Scholars have observed significant changes in how power and authority is distributed across educational policymaking arenas (Conley 2003). The past thirty years have been marked by an incremental and steady increase of federal and state involvement in U.S. schools, creating a “new order and era in American education” (Fusarelli and Fusarelli in press, 374). While states technically retain constitutional authority over educational processes, the growing federal role has been enhanced by “borrowing strength,” in which the national government advances its agenda by accessing and building on existing state and local policies (Manna 2006).

Emerging Institutional Arrangements in an Era of Reform

Over the past 50 years an assorted “alphabet soup” of federal policies has significantly increased the role of national and state governments in K-12 education, substantially expanding their funding and oversight of local programs (Trujillo and Reneé 2012, 2; Manna 2006). The 1965 enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) began a period of much closer monitoring of federal funds earmarked for education and whether they were being used effectively to achieve their desired outcomes (Rossi, Lipsey, and Freeman, 2004). Often referred to as “Title I” because of the funding designated for particular subgroups, the ESEA and its subsequent reauthorizations – most recently No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001 – have incrementally more tightly coupled federal and state governments with localities. Over the past three decades, the evolution of federal accountability policies governing educational systems has shifted from those with, “a primary focus on fiscal probity with limited scrutiny of schooling processes and outcomes” to policies focused on using measurable educational outputs, particularly student performance on standardized tests, to evaluate schools and teachers (McDonnell 2013, 170; Cohen and Moffitt 2009; McDermott 2011; Shipps 2011). Shortly after a wave of federal and state standard setting in the 1980s, states began to develop tests to track educational performance, which by the 1990s would “replace the wall chart for the purpose of rating and ranking states” (Shipps 2011, 274). Building off these themes in the 2000s, Bush’s NCLB act, and more recently Obama’s RTTT initiative, have further developed and entrenched state systems of standard-based accountability, where schools (and more recently teachers) are held responsible for educational performance (Fusarelli and Fusarelli in press; McDonnell 2013). Importantly, this evolution in accountability policies has provoked a narrative of centralization vs. decentralization that frequently pits national and state policy preferences against local authorities (Henig 2013).

NCLB changed the institutional landscape by, among other things, mandating the annual testing of all students in core subject areas and imposing timelines for improving student achievement with sanctions for underperforming schools that did not meet “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) (Sunderman and Kim 2007). It became apparent early on, however, that states and districts had limited capacity to meet the ambitious goal of NCLB to reach 100 percent academic proficiency by 2013-14, and the 2008 recession only exacerbated these resource constraints (Manna 2011; McGuinn 2012; Sunderman and Kim 2007). Partly as a result, the Department of Education granted waivers to 43 states that significantly relax many of NCLB’s provisions (U.S. Department of Education 2014). Despite these waivers, Obama’s RTTT program has maintained the general course set by the law, but focused more on incentives and building state capacity to achieve performance-related goals – using the “carrot” rather than the “stick” to motivate reform efforts (McGuinn 2012). RTTT authorized a $4.35B competitive grant program that encouraged states to develop ambitious educational reform agendas, with a number of specifications for what that meant (known as the “four assurances”), including the development of comprehensive longitudinal educational data systems, the adoption of high-quality standards and assessments, the training the retention of effective educators, and turning around the lowest-performing schools and districts (ARRA 2009). Significantly, because of the provisions related to common standards and assessments embedded in RTTT, the policy is also closely connected with the enactment of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The CSSS, (discussed in greater detail later in this section), are a state-led effort to adopt “national” academic standards in core subjects, signaling a turning point in U.S. education, which has traditionally relied on states to set their own, unique academic standards. In short, states had a better chance of receiving grant money if they adopted the CCSS.

Recent federal policies also emphasize market-based reforms, representing another key driver of ongoing changes in educational governance. A number have scholars have articulated the prominent role of market-based principles in shaping NCLB, RTTT and other modern reform efforts (Apple 2007; Burch 2009; Hursh 2007; Trujillo and Reneé 2012). Market-based reforms are rooted in the idea that educational bureaucracies are fundamentally inefficient and do not provide enough incentives for schools to improve. Markets shift the incentives for change by introducing competition and accountability into the school system (Chubb and Moe 1990). In this context, the widespread acceptance of charter schools has “softened” the political environment for other forms of school choice, as well as the general privatization of educational services (Burch 2009). Much of the rhetoric surrounding modern school reform, such as the popular “Portfolio Management Model” (PMM) for urban schools, is frequently connected with market-based solutions, such as contracting out and the privatization of educational services (Bulkley 2010). Consequently, in current educational research and practice another major cleavage has unfolded involving the distribution of public vs. private sector authority over educational processes – with government institutions on one side and either market systems or civil society (e.g. parent organizations, religious groups, etc.) on the other (Henig 2013).

Finally – and largely as a consequence of many of the shifting institutional arrangements in educational policymaking discussed here – many scholars have noted the reassertion of general-purpose institutions for educational governance and, in relation, the systematic reintegration of educational issues into broader policy arenas and political debates (Fusarelli and Fusarelli in press; Henig 2013). This phenomenon is couched by Henig (2013) as the “end of exceptionalism in American education” and refers to incremental dissolution of education as a highly localized, expert-oriented enterprise controlled by education-specific institutions. It involves the increasing dominance of institutions like the national and state governments that take responsibility for a wide spectrum of public policy issues, such as health, transportation, housing, parks, criminal justice and education. For many years, educational systems have been governed primarily by “single-purpose” institutions responsible for educational alone, most prominently the local school district – a norm emanating from a historical desire to insulate schools from partisan politics and keep policymaking in the hands of educational experts and technicians (Henig 2013). Significantly, this trend intersects with patterns of centralization and privatization in ways that “influence receptivity to different political interests and policy ideas” at all levels of government (Henig 2013, 19).

Local Centralization – Mayoral Governance and State Takeover

Centralization at the local level – often prompted by accountability-based sanctions – has contributed to the reestablishment of general-purpose governance in the form of district takeover by executive and/or central authorities. Recent scholarship on this type of institutional shift has mixed results. Mayors and state officials have more political visibility than traditional public school boards and cater to a broader constituency – holding them accountable for school performance is intended to integrate district accountability, educational delivery, and the electoral process at a system wide level, as well as streamline educational services with other public policy sectors (Edelstein 2008). Meanwhile, the reallocation of single-purpose local power to central state-appointed “emergency managers,” the introduction of legal state takeover in the form of “extraordinary authority districts,” and district turnaround by state- and mayor-appointed school boards represent other forms of general-purpose centralization at the local level.

Mayoral governance of educational systems – which may include more or less centralized arrangements, ranging from full mayoral control to shared governance structures – has increasingly characterized institutional reform in several major urban districts across the U.S. over the past 20 years (for a rich overview, see Wong et al. 2007). An updated 2013 analysis by Wong and Shen (2013) shows that mayoral governance may have a slightly positive impact on educational achievement – mayor-led districts tended to show higher levels of student achievement growth than state averages of other districts. The magnitude of the effects, however, was generally small, ranging from 1 to 3 percent and was only found to be significant in one location (Boston). More robust statistical analysis also suggested that the initial academic gains may taper off after a few years – 7 to 8 – and continuous improvement may require mayors to adapt to changing local contexts over time. Recent analyses also suggests that mayoral governance may help to re-orient local agendas towards educational issues and service integration, often facilitating collaborations between educational actors and local service providers across different sectors (Snyder 2014; Wong and Shen 2013).

Next, a small but increasing number of states has authorized state-led turnaround districts to address “chronically failing” school systems. These “extraordinary authority districts” (EADs), also referred to as “legal education authorities” or “recovery school districts,” are districts created by legislation that asserts state authority over the lowest performing schools statewide, regardless of geographical location (Public Impact 2014). In recent years, some states have taken control of financially distressed districts as well (Arsen and Mason 2013). Current research on these entities is still developing, but initial observations are telling. Emerging work on EADs, while mostly descriptive in nature, reflects a strong preference for market-based reforms, indicating that state-led districts favor school-based autonomy and accountability, as well as partnerships with external providers and the expansion of school choice options (Arsen and Mason 2013; Education Achievement Authority 2014; Empower Schools 2014; Smith 2012; Smith 2013; Whitehurst and Whitfield 2013).

Evolving Interests and Ideas

New decision-making venues mean new opportunities for political actors to exercise influence and lobby their agendas. One consequence of the shift towards a more centralized, general-purpose form of educational governance has been the corresponding arrival of a wide range of new actors and organizations interested in educational issues – many of them used to wielding influence in Washington D.C. and in state capitols (Henig 2013; Shipps 2011). Using a policy feedback model, which posits that, “policies enacted and implemented at one point in time shape subsequent politics as both an input into the policy process and an output” (McDonnell 2009, 417), McDonnell (2013) notes that modern policy regimes featuring standards-based accountability and school choice reforms have been accompanied by the arrival of a wide range of new educational interests, as well as the realignment of traditional educational policy actors. Mandates to improve failing schools, for example, have been accompanied by a “politics of bad news” that has fomented new parent groups interested in converting their underperforming public schools to charter schools, as well as state-led and mayor-led interventions (McDonnell 2013).

“Bad news” pressures have also garnered opposition from teachers unions that feel accountability policies unfairly target educators, holding them responsible for the problems of public education. Unions also objected to the focus on performance-based compensation and school choice in RTTT, although members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA) recognize that teachers are less influential than they were in the past and must make efforts to adapt to new policy directions in order to accommodate the “new education status quo” (McDonnell 2013, 177; Goldstein 2014; Weingarten 2012).In this new policy landscape teachers’ unions are vulnerable from both federalizing and privatizing forces that, on the one hand, challenge the influence unions have over local educational politics and district policy, and on the other, threaten the public system monopoly over education that is fundamental to union organization (Cooper and Sureau 2008). Nowadays, many union members are more open to tenure reform and there is a strong movement within the educator community – particularly amongst younger teachers – to work with reformers who support policies that unions have traditionally opposed (Goldstein 2014).

The phenomenon of “unions as reform partners” is based on the idea that teachers’ unions are legitimate stakeholders in the education system and their cooperation is a necessary, if not desirable, element of any school reform effort (Bascia and Osmond 2012). In contrast, some see such “reform unionism” as “completely wrong-headed” and continue to see teachers’ unions as self-serving adult organizations that permanently obstruct effective, high quality schooling by advocating for teacher benefits at the expense of student learning (Moe 2011, 242). This dichotomy echoes earlier analysis by Kechner and Koppich (2000), explaining that teachers’ unions can be treated as “the problem” or part of the “solution,” as a critical resource for improving instructional quality and educational outcomes. Either way, American teachers remain strongly committed to their unions – over 80% of teachers continue to support collective bargaining and their right to go on strike (Moe 2011, 404). Meanwhile, at the local level unions continue to play a central role in school district policy through collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) negotiated between unions and districts. One recent study, for example, shows that stronger unions can be empirically linked to CBA provisions that limit district administrator flexibility, such as their ability to use performance-based evaluations to make decisions about teacher placement (Strunk and Grissom 2010).

Finally, civil rights organizations adjusting to new output based definitions of equity, which focus on the “achievement gap” between affluent, high- and low-SES student populations, as well as between Whites and racial/ethnic minorities, have split in their support of test-based accountability. Some groups, like the Education Trust and the National Council of La Raza support accountability policies, while others, like the NAACP and the National Association for Bilingual Education have criticized the narrow scope of test-based accountability on sanctioning low-achieving schools, suggesting that policies should instead focus on holding federal, state and local governments accountable for providing resources to address gaps in student performance (McDonnell 2013). Overall, recent shifts in policy actors and ideas have been characterized on the one hand, by the introduction of a wide range of new interests and stakeholders, and on the other, by a significant reshaping of the interests and ideas of the existing “educational establishment.”

The Common Core State Standards

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in mathematics and English Language Arts (ELA) were developed in 2009 and 2010 by a collaboration of educational experts led by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). By 2012, 46 states and the District of Columbia had adopted the CCSS, but over the past two years the standards have become an increasingly contentious issue in educational and general policy circles alike (Hess and McShane 2014). A number of recent analyses exploring the evolving political and policy repercussions of the CCSS raise important questions about implementing and sustaining the standards.

Instructional Challenges

The first set of challenges related to instructional implementation is an especially pressing issue for educators. Indeed, in CCSS states, academic content and pedagogical approaches must be restructured to align with standards, which often focus on different knowledge and skills, as well as prepare students for new assessments being produced for the Common Core – classroom materials, instructional resources and teaching strategies will have to adjust accordingly (Hess and McShane 2014). In 2013, the annual Metlife survey of school personnel found that 59% of teachers and 67% of principals thought implementing the CCSS would be either “very challenging” or “challenging” – at the same time, most principals (90%) and teachers (93%) also believed that teachers in their school have the academic abilities and skills to teach the CCSS. The survey also signals significant obstacles for CCSS implementation in high-needs schools, where on average fewer than one-third of teachers believe their students are performing at or above grade level in mathematics and ELA (Markow, Macia, and Lee 2013). Recent studies of state alignment with the CCSS indicate the standards represent considerable changes for states – and some much more than others – as well as wide variability in state and local preparedness for many of these changes (Porter et al. 2011). Evidence indicates that there is low to moderate alignment between state standards and the CCSS – although assessments appear to be slightly more closely aligned (Porter et al. 2011; Schmidt and Houang 2012).

As a result of these challenges, successful implementation of the CCSS likely requires a major retraining and retooling of future and current teachers, requiring major overhauls of both pre-service and in-service professional development efforts (Hochleitner and Kimmel 2014; Kober, McIntosh , and Rentner 2013; Polikoff 2014). A 2013 survey of state leaders conducted by the Center for Education Policy found that rough half of the CCSS states (22) reported that more than 50% of their math and ELA teachers had received some professional development on the Common Core, while relatively few states – only 10 states – reported more than a 75% participation rate (Kober, McIntosh, and Rentner 2013). Traditional university-based teacher preparation programs, as well as alternative teacher certification programs, such as Teach For America, too will have to adjust to the way they train teachers so they are prepared to teach the CCSS (McShane 2014). Recent research, however, indicates that organizations may be a few years away from achieving this goal. A June 2013 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) surveying approximately 1,100 colleges and universities concluded that only 11 percent of elementary programs and about one-third of high school programs appear to successfully prepare pre-service teachers for the CCSS. Overall, in both instructional and pedagogical matters there is strong indication that some states will have little trouble transition to the Common Core, but for others, there is still a long way to go.

Political Challenges

The CCSS initially emerged on politically untested – and thus unstable – ground, causing a growing number of educational policy experts to auger their impending difficulties jumping state and local political hurdles (Jochim 2014). Importantly, the standards emerge in a period of increasing polarization of the political parties at the state and federal levels, leading to patterns of “fragmented federalism” hindering coherent policy adoption and implementation across public policy sectors, but particularly in education and health (Bowling and Pickerill 2013). Several analyses point to the lack of input from state legislatures in the formation of the CCSS as particularly problematic for policy implementation (McGinn 2014; Jochim 2014). For the most part the standards were passed through state boards of education, which are appointed by the governor, and “politically insulated” in comparison to the re-election sensitive state lawmakers (Jochim 2014, 187). A series of articles from Education Week spotlight the rising opposition to the CCSS amongst state legislatures – over the past year and a half, at least 10 states have enacted legislation that either bars or significantly sets back the standards-adoption process (Gewertz 2014; Ujifusa 2014a; Ujifusa 2014b). According to a 2014 analysis conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), an organization that tracks state legislative trends, over 50 such bills have been introduced in 22 states. Notably, when bills did become law they were almost always in Republican-controlled states (Gewertz 2014).

Indeed, opposition is still emerging, but analysis suggests many of those leading the charge are established interests aligned with traditionally conservative elements of the Republican Party – many of whom see the standards as the imposition of a “federal curriculum” and a threat to state autonomy and local control (McDonnell and Weatherford 2013). At the same time, more nuanced arguments have emerged from all sides of the political spectrum. Some, for example, are concerned that the CCSS are a largely untested, “cookie cutter” curricular program that constricts academic content and pedagogical options, which will continue to emphasize a narrow focus on standardized testing (Tienken and Orlich 2013; Ravitch 2013). Still others are less concerned about the standards themselves, but rather, object to the prominent role that corporations and the education testing industry played in the creation of the standards and the way the standards have intersected with test-based accountability (Ravitch 2014). To be sure, the CCSS presents a great number of challenges in the near future for educational systems; whether or not states and districts will have the political will and resource capacity to meet these needs, which experts predict will have to be substantial, remains to be seen (Jochim 2014).

Review of Particular Reform Areas

Standard-based accountability systems are evolving to incorporate teacher evaluation, while market-based reforms, such as school choice, continue to expand and diversity. Given the prominence of both accountability and marker-based solutions in educational policy arenas, this section explores key themes in the research focused on these two particular reform areas.

Accountability and Teacher Evaluation

As the trends above indicate, test-based accountability policies have emerged as a central feature of educational systems where “student performance on standardized tests constitutes the core element of an elaborate system for judging schools and imposing rewards and sanctions on them” (McDonnell 2013a, 170). Evidence of this transformation is well documented (Goertz 2009), and scholars now look to the next iteration of the “accountability generation” of policies (Mintrop and Sunderman 2013) – teacher evaluation reforms– to understand how these multifaceted systems will continue to impact educational processes in the coming years. Indeed, a wealth of research has focused on the effects of school accountability – one of the major components of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – on a range of educational outputs, such as school quality, student achievement, instruction resource allocation, teacher assignment, and instructional practice (e.g. Cohen-Vogel 2011; Dee, Jacob, and Schwartz 2013; Grissom, Kalogrides, and Loeb 2013; Hanushek and Raymond 2005; Jacob 2005; Winters and Cowen 2012). However, given the rapid expansion of teacher evaluation policies in recent years questions remain regarding how the evolution of teacher-based accountability structures, which differ in significant ways from NCLB school-based models, will reshape educational landscapes.

From School to Teacher Accountability

While teacher evaluation is hardly a new policy idea, the intense focus on holding teachers accountable for student outcomes is a distinguishing feature of contemporary “performance-based” systems (Hanushek, Lindseth, and Rebell 2009; Lewis and Young 2013). In part, this is a reflection of a much larger transition in the discourse of public management that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s that goes well beyond the educational sector, away from focusing on equitable outcomes and bureaucratic oversight in order to maximize goals of efficiency, reflecting a new “management culture that emphasizes the centrality of the citizen or consumer, as well as accountability for results” (Manning 2001, 299; Fusarelli and Johnson 2004; Fusarelli and Fusarelli in press; Hood 1991; Hursh 2007). In this context, many see teacher accountability as the “logical next step to school accountability” (Kelly 2012, 13). With the growing accessibility of teacher-level data, the ability to link that data to student achievement data, and the development of sophisticated statistical models to make sense of that data, it would seem reasonable to hold teachers accountable for the learning that takes place in their classrooms. Well-crafted teacher evaluation systems are an integral part of this process – they must not only be able to accurately identify high- and low-performing teachers, but must also incorporate ongoing monitoring and feedback processes as tools for guiding professional developments and improving teacher effectiveness (Kelly 2012; Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness [MCEE] 2013).

Measuring Teacher Effectiveness

New teacher evaluation policies include explicit mandates for teacher quality measures to be linked with evidence of student learning, and more specifically for that evidence to include “student growth and/or value-added data as the most critical part of the performance measure” (National Council on Teacher Quality[NCTQ] 2013, 73). Despite the flurry of educational studies on such “value-added models” (VAMs) – statistical strategies to isolate individual teacher contributions to student learning – in recent years, little about the impact of VAMs in practice, or to what extent they may help or hinder effective teaching practices is yet known. (Corcoran and Goldhaber 2013). Supporters argue that VAMs, which focus on student growth data, are a marked improvement on NCLB-era accountability programs, which were based on simple cross-sectional comparisons of student groups, often yielding inaccurate and misleading estimates of performance (Kelly 2012). At the same time, VAMs have many of the same problems as cross-sectional studies, most prominently the simple inability of these models to eliminate all possible confounding variables, which include any other factors that may contribute to student achievement aside from the teacher (Braun 2005; Rothstein 2010).

At the same, VAMs remain a powerful analytical tool for gathering information about teachers and have become a “stepping stone in extending accountability practices to individual teachers’ classrooms” (Kelly 2012, 13). Used in correspondence with other measures of teacher quality, such as principal observations, they may be useful for improving teacher performance. In fact, VAMs tend to correspond with principal ratings and other measures of effective teaching (Harris, Ingle, and Rutledge 2014), indicating that VAMs, while not perfect, are picking up on “something.” Despite the extensive research on value-added models (VAMs) in recent years, as well as its popularity as a policy option, even the experts admit that we still know very little about the impact of VAMs in practice, or to what extent they may help or hinder effective teaching practices (Corcoran and Goldhaber 2013). Even so, VAMs have captured the attention of players across the educational spectrum as states looking for practical ways to implement statewide teacher accountability. Broad shifts in teacher policy away from focusing on professional training and development to focusing on measured outcomes, as well as from educator professionalism as the valued source of expertise to management and measurement as the defining element of expertise bolster the popularity of VAMs as a policy option, although many experts now think VAMs may be limited to being descriptive measures of teacher effects, and warn against using VAM-based systems for making high-stakes decisions (Konstantoupolos 2012; Harris 2009).

Instead, consensus is migrating toward a “balanced assessment” approach in which student growth models will continue to play a major role in evaluating teachers, but are accompanied by a host of other measures of teacher quality – in other words a “multiple measures” approach. Multiple measures, including principal and peer observations, student surveys and even video monitoring, have become an important feature of teacher evaluation systems across the United States. According to the 2014 NCTQ report nearly all states require classroom observations as a major component of teacher evaluation, and 15 of those require multiple observations for all teachers. In these systems, VAMs still may remain a powerful analytical tool for gathering information about teachers – used in correspondence with other measures of teacher quality, such as principal observations, they may be useful for improving teacher performance.

Improving Overall Teacher Quality

Recent teacher evaluation research shows that evaluations may be used to improve teacher quality by, for example: integrating teacher preparation with teacher evaluation standards (Thorn and Harris 2013); incorporating regular monitoring and feedback of teacher performance into evaluations (MCEE 2013), particularly for novice teachers (Youngs 2013); and for improving the efficient allocation of instructional resources. Linking measures of teacher effectiveness to professional licenses, for example, may better help localities manage their teacher markets, particularly in areas with high turnover. Thus, teacher effectiveness ratings may eventually be specified to include meaningful indicators of different levels of effectiveness in different areas, as well as more specific subject, grade or subgroup (i.e. ELL, special needs, etc.) specializations in ways that maximize building-level resources and accelerate student learning (Kelly 2012).

Finally, current research articulates the clear potential for teacher accountability programs to reward effective teachers. Although the challenges inherent in measuring teacher effectiveness are present in any such incentive-based system, many are hopeful that this strategy may be useful in some situations, particularly for high-needs districts and schools – since teacher accountability emphasizes student growth over average scores (as past accountability programs have done) they may be especially well equipped to reward highly effective teachers in low-performing schools (Kelly 2012). In the end, while theoretically promising, current literature on merit-based pay in educational contexts has produced mixed results (Springer et al. 2010; Neal 2011). Moving forward into the future, teacher evaluation research will likely continue to delve more deeply into how evaluation systems may be used to improve teacher quality at both an individual level by heavily investing in instructional supports, as well as from an administrative standpoint by giving leaders better information for making important decisions about teacher assignments, teacher tenure, and other resource allocations related to teaching and instruction.

Market-Based Reforms

Market-based reforms have spread throughout the country, typically as programs that provide alternatives to the neighborhood-based assignment of students to a public school. Advocates of these policies, which include vouchers, charter schools, magnet schools and open enrollment, argue that the traditional public school system stifles innovation and competition, providing no incentives for schools to improve, and ultimately serves the interests of powerful teachers unions and educational bureaucrats rather than parents and students (Chubb and Moe 1990). These supporters also claim that school choice programs will give disadvantaged, geographically isolated students access to better educational opportunities by allowing them to leave underperforming and unsafe schools. Affluent students have always had this advantage because they have the resources to enter the private schooling sector, allowing them to opt out of poor neighborhood schools. Choice programs, argue advocates, should give the same opportunity to poorer students (Hoxby 2003).

While early forms of school choice – namely, magnet schools, which target racial and/or socioeconomic integration – enjoyed some limited success in the 1970s and 1980s, the advent of charter school policy with its broad bi-partisan support during the 1990s catapulted choice onto the educational agenda at all levels of government. The charter school movement has grown to over 6,000 schools serving 2.3 million students across 42 states (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools [NAPCS] 2014). Urban districts, in particular, have many large, longstanding charter school sectors that continue to attract new operators and students, with an average yearly growth rate of roughly 7 percent nationwide (NAPCS, 2014). Meanwhile, school vouchers and more recently tuition tax credits, sometimes referred to as “neovouchers,” have breathed new life into private school choice programs, where state and/or local governments support student attendance at private schools using public resources. These are distinct from public school choice programs, like charter schools, which also receive public funds but ultimately remain under the control of the state and accountable to public authorities (Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO] 2013). Magnet schools, which continue to operate with similar goals to their predecessors and open enrollment, where students are able to enroll in districts within their state other than their community schools, represent to the other two major forms of public school choice. Several themes are emerging in current school choice scholarship, including the increasing concern with student services and the focus on new, developing school choice markets.

Serving Students with Special Needs

Contemporary school choice programs now operate in an established infrastructure that is integrated with traditional forms of schooling. Consequently, recent choice research is not only interested in the relative success of choice programs vis-à-vis their public school counterparts (although this is certainly still a major endeavor), but also the broad impacts of choice sectors on public school systems, students, and families. Given their comparatively large share of the educational marketplace, this body of work is mostly focused on charter school impacts. Researchers are raising a multitude of important questions related to the systemic effects of charter schools and much of this work converges around the issue of whether students with particular needs are served in choice programs.

To start, there is growing concern regarding the exclusionary practices of charter schools for students with special learning needs, particularly students with disabilities and English Language Learners (ELLs). Among other things, schools may be reluctant to enroll such “high-needs” students because they are more costly and difficult to educate. In addition, schools may be worried about these subgroups’ effects on accountability-related outcomes (i.e. test scores, sanctions, teacher evaluation, etc.) since both ELLs and special education students tend to perform worse on standardized tests than their peers (Ni 2012; Abedi 2004). Research shows special education and language-minority students are underrepresented in charter schools, except when schools target these groups specifically. Several recent studies have found that students with special education status are much less likely to enroll in schools of choice/charter schools than their general education counterparts (Ni 2012; Scott 2012), echoing the results of prior research on this issue (see, for example, Arsen and Ray 2004). There is similar evidence of sorting of ELLs across schools. Recent studies found ELLs to be significantly underrepresented in charter schools within several urban areas as well as nationwide samples (Multicultural Education and Training Association [META] 2009; Sattin-Bajaj and Suarez-Orozco 2012; Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, and Wang 2011; Jacobs 2013).

Program Diversification

Burch (2010) observes the shifting narrative of school choice policies over the past decade in the context of contemporary federal reform efforts: “Before NCLB, much policy talk was organized around the question of whether we ought to increase private engagement in the design and delivery of educational services…[Now] conversation has shifted to how districts should organize and coordinate the engagement of private firms in the operation and management of public schools” (256). Two emerging forms of choice – tuition tax credits and virtual charter schools - represent a diversifying choice sector, as well as shifting educational norms that more readily embraces the privatization of educational services.

Shifting patterns in private school choice programs, which school vouchers have traditionally represented, but in the past few years have grown to include tuition tax credits, or “neovouchers,” has been noted in recent educational research. Unlike conventional voucher plans, such as those in Cleveland and Milwaukee, which reallocate funds directly to private schools, neovouchers programs add intermediary steps to the funding process by creating, “a tax credit mechanism that allows those that owe state taxes to reallocate some of that money from the state general fund to a ‘scholarship-granting’ organization” (Welner 2008, 6). In Florida, for example, the recently enacted Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program offers scholarships to eligible low-income students to attend private schools – 8 other states also have neovouchers programs focused on low- and middle-income students, while Arizona and Georgia have more expansive programs targeting all public school students (CCSSO, 2013). Emerging analysis of the Florida program suggests these reforms may lead to more competitive private school markets and higher test scores (Figlio and Hart 2010).

Intermediary non-profit organizations play a critical role in the creation of these scholarship grants by allowing private corporations and individuals to donate money in exchange for a tax credit, which is then administered to families and students for private and parochial school tuition. Effectively, these systems keep the state from directly paying for private schools – one of the major political drawbacks of regular vouchers – but still result in the government footing the bill through directly foregone tax revenues (Welner 2008). While these programs still only serve a fraction of a percentage of public school students, they are the fastest growing form of private school choice, and becoming rapidly more popular than conventional vouchers. In a 2012 analysis of school choice, researchers found that neovoucher use now outpaces conventional voucher use by almost a two to one ratio – with over 120,000 students using neovouchers in 2011 in comparison to only 70,000 students using regular vouchers (Miron et al. 2012).

Next, at the nexus of digital learning and school choice new technologies and a receptive political/policy environment have opened the doors for radically new educational arrangements, where teaching and learning occurs mainly in virtual spaces instead of traditional brick-and-mortar schools. These “virtual charter schools” generally follow the same rules and regulations as other charter schools, but deliver all of their courses online (Griffith 2014). Virtual charter schools can be seen as a small, but growing part of the state charter school movement, as well as an important institution vehicle for implementing digital and distance/online learning programs (Huerta, D’Entremont, and Gonzalez 2009). According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (2014), enrollment in virtual charter schools has grown to more than 310,000 students in 30 states, accounting for close to 1 percent of student enrollment in these 30 states. While these patterns are noteworthy, virtual charter schools continue to face many barriers to expansion, particularly funding. These schools have unique characteristics, such as unlimited school size and enrollment borders, that make them very difficult to finance using traditional funding, as well as hold them accountable for student performance (Griffith 2014). These concerns appear well founded. One study showed that students enrolled at virtual schools were falling behind their public school counterparts in both reading and math. Virtual school students were also more likely to transfer in the middle of year and have lower graduation rates than other public schools (Miron and Urshel 2012). A 2011 report of Pennsylvania’s charter schools corroborates these findings, showing that students in virtual charter schools have significantly smaller academic gains that those of their traditional public school peers (CREDO [Center for Research on Education Outcomes] 2011).

Research Utilization in Educational Policy

Another major topic of interest in current educational scholarship is research utilization: the growing place of research and evidence in educational policy arenas, as well as some of the key work emerging on evidence-based policymaking in local, state, and federal contexts. Two themes from recent scholarship are apparent: (1) the growing importance of intermediary organizations (IOs) in promoting and filtering educational research, and (2) the analysis of informational pathways, or “knowledge flow,” through which research is mediated in educational policy settings.

Evidence-Based Policymaking

Over that past decade, numerous federal and state policies have explicitly promoted the use of data, research and other forms evidence in educational systems, placing a significant premium on what we refer to as “evidence-based decision-making” (Honig and Venkateswaran 2012, 199).1 Significantly, current federal accountability policy requires the use of research-based evidence for school improvement efforts. Most private funders too, foundations and philanthropies, also mandate “research-based” interventions and will threaten to pull funding if results cannot be “proven” quickly enough (Lubienski, Scott, and Debray 2014). There are concerns on both the “delivery” and “demand” sides of educational research use. In a study of three local school boards in Wisconsin, for example, researchers observed that little, if any, critical thinking or scrutiny took place around research findings; meeting participants often made general and specific references to research, but these comments were frequently glancing and vague. The authors also found that previously held policy-related assumptions and beliefs determined how research evidence was processed and interpreted during deliberations by the meeting participants (Asen et al. 2012). In a similar fashion, an in-depth study of a local research organization showed that research evidence was “framed” in order to deliver particular messages about leadership and teaching – namely, that educational management should focus on the routine collecting and analyzing of, “quantitative data to measure, monitor, plan, and evaluate performance” (Trujillo 2014, 215).

These and other recent studies on research utilization raise concerns about the perfunctory and passive consumption of research in deliberative policy arenas, while also highlighting the important role of “sense-making” (see Coburn and Russell 2008), the process by which educational leaders filter, comprehend and form meaning around new policy, for the consumption of educational information and research evidence. Indeed, studies indicate research use is embedded in a dynamic, social web of actors and organizations with diverse, and sometimes conflicting, agendas. In addition, research evidence and educational data use between various levels of the educational system is often brokered through intermediaries – a trend that had accelerated rapidly in recent years. Generally styled as “school reform” organizations, their assistance is often aligned with current federal accountability policies and is targeted towards struggling schools and districts (Burch 2009; Trujillo and Wolfin 2014).

Intermediary Organizations

Lubienski et al. (2014) observe that the increasing application of research evidence in educational policy contexts has opened the door for new intermediary organizations (IOs) to influence policy trajectories: “One way that institutions and sectors deal with shifts in the production and consumption of information is to create new organizations that mediate the process” (137). Scott et al. (2014) examine the activities around school district efforts at reform, analyzing the role of IOs in promoting “incentivist” educational policies, such as merit pay for teachers and charter schools. The authors find that IOs play a critical role in brokering key research findings and policy reports in ways that filter out policies they oppose, while casting their preferred policy options in a positive light. In this way, IOs are able to leverage their position of “expertise” within district reform networks in order to influence the policy agenda. Local IOs in New Orleans, for example, have tended to have low research capacity, strong policy preferences for or against charter schools, and relied on external national coalitions and local networks for policy advice and technical expertise (DeBray et al. 2014)

As IOs in educational research production and advocacy, foundations and philanthropies are growing in influence. Scott and Jabbar (2014) argue that foundations wield a great deal of influence over policy trajectories by occupying a central “hub” position to other IO “spokes,” which allows them to apprehend informational flows in ways support their policy agendas. Other work supports this conceptual framework. In an extensive multi-year study of educational foundations in Los Angeles and New York City Reckhow (2013) finds that foundations are central players in both districts. As IOs, social network analysis revealed foundations were part of an “informational core” of actors that most frequently exchange policy information, including data and research, as well as grassroots knowledge about community needs. Importantly, Reckhow (2013) notes that a monopoly on data and research at “the core” by foundation-supported nonprofit research organizations can lead to a noninclusive policy process, where community stakeholders are disenfranchised from educational reform efforts.

Information Brokering and Knowledge Flow

Policy-related information, including research evidence, is rarely produced or consumed in a linear fashion, but instead is a result of the social ecology and interactions of a wide array of actors occurring within a particular institutional/organizational context (Tseng 2012). Social networks and informal pathways are particularly important for the efficient flow of policy knowledge, practices and strategies, or policy “know how” (Finnegan, Daly, and Che 2013; Frank 2015; Nutley, Walter, and Davies 2003). Importantly, high levels of trust and opportunities for social interaction are critical aspects of successful school reform (Bryk and Schneider 2002), as well as an important part of research utilization for school improvement at all levels of educational governance. At the local level, the formal and informal organizational structures between educational leaders (district officials and principals) contribute to the flow of research evidence within school districts (Honig and Venkateswaran 2012; Honig et al. 2014), as well as between district central offices and school buildings (Daly et al. 2014a; Daly et al. 2014b). Problematically, underperforming schools – presumably the most in need of reform-related knowledge and well-researched solutions – may be the least likely to share information related to research as well as be connected to external educational information networks (Daly and Finnegan 2012). In these contexts, individuals that “broker” information, or in network terms, fill the “structural holes” (Burt, 2001), between district officials and school building leaders are critical for sharing evidence and advice related to data use.

Local and State Capacity Building

The next few years represent a critical time for educational systems as states transition to new and evolving policy regimes that include the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), new teacher evaluation systems, and expanding school choice markets. In light of the ongoing whirlwind of educational reform, the final section of this paper considers recent research on local- and state-capacity building to meet current policy demands. Significantly, a number of scholars have articulated the past failure of recent reforms to, “tighten linkages among curriculum and instructional materials, teacher training, and assessments in the standard-based accountability ideal” (McDonnell 2013, 183; Goertz 2009; Ravitch 2010).

Local Context

Schools exist in a complex social and organizational environment where a host of outside factors influences teaching and learning processes. This is particularly true of students’ socioeconomic backgrounds, where race/ethnicity, income level, family characteristics, and peer and/or neighborhood attributes – to name a few – are all closely correlated with educational outcomes. While a full overview of the contemporary social context of schooling lies well beyond the scope of this essay, this qualification is critically important in a performance-based accountability system because most schools, high- or low-performing reflect the composition of their students. Despite the intention to reward schools that work against the association between achievement and socioeconomic status, many worry that performance-based systems actually reward high-performing schools for the existing social capital of their students and their families, while low-performing schools are left to rely on their organizational capacity – thus, without investing in capacity low-performing schools may get worse relative to high-performing schools (Elmore 2002).2

In this vein, segregation by race/ethnicity and class continues to play an important role in sorting students into public schools leading to vastly different school contexts. It is not uncommon for students to attend schools that are racially and economically isolated with little to no diversity in the student population along either dimension. Segregation is a difficult issue, however, because, for the most part, school segregation is a reflection of much broader trends in residential segregation related to household income and, therefore, well beyond the direct control of educational authorities (Frankenberg 2013; Reardon and Yun 2005). In addition, the wide variation in local/school context is also a reflection of a historically devolved system – what McGuinn (2012, 140) calls the “50/14,000/130,000 problem in American education reform” – in reference to the difficulty of implementing coherent reform amongst 50 distinct state educational systems with roughly 14,000 school districts containing almost 130,000 schools. No matter how clear federal goals are, the United States still lacks a national system of education to pursue those goals. In the end, states retain the primary Constitutional authority over educational systems, as well as most of the financial responsibility for funding reform efforts (Cooper and Fusarelli 2009). Thus, wide variation in school quality exists state to state, between and even within districts.

Instructional Capacity

Current research suggests there are widening gaps in student achievement between states, as well as increases in what Elmore (2002) calls “the capacity gap” – referring to states’ varying abilities to monitor reform efforts and provide technical assistance to local school districts (Chubb and Clark 2013; Kober and Renter 2011; McGuinn 2012). Many states are concerned about being able to provide the instructional resources and technical expertise to support the impending implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Some studies, for example, suggest that CCSS text complexity standards for elementary-aged students are “aspirational”, and warn that student literacy development, motivation and engagement, particularly in the primary grades may suffer as a result. The authors also worry about the effects of such high demands in already “failing schools,” which are likely to see even further dips in test scores, and what impact this, in turn, could have on teacher feelings of efficacy and teacher attrition (Hiebert and Mesmer 2013). Teacher attrition is a major issue for underperforming schools and districts, and past research has linked poor test performance to low levels of teacher satisfaction and teacher retention (e.g. Olsen and Sexton 2009).

On the other hand, a number of scholars have articulated the great potential of the CCSS. Despite the challenges discussed above, there is evidence that the implementation of the CCSS has opened the door for unique collaborations and alignments of policy and practice – an ideal that has eluded educational policymakers for many years (Youngs 2013). For example, the simultaneous implementation of the CCSS and new teacher evaluation policies may reduce uncertainty in the evaluation process by giving teachers a clearer message about what their students are expected to learn, as well as more confidence that state assessments used to create performance measures are actually aligned with what they are teaching. Advocates also argue that the national scope of the standards presents an opportunity to share resources, while also cutting down on instructional expenses. The rapidly growing education technology market, for example, allows teachers to access a large and diverse group of providers for relatively little cost (McShane 2014). From a capacity standpoint, there is evidence that the CCSS have also helped policymakers and educational leaders realize the substantial instructional assistance needed for teachers to be effective in standards-based accountability contexts, such as lesson materials, teacher training, and curriculums aligned with assessments (McDonnell and Weatherford 2013) – a feature conspicuously missing from previous accountability efforts (Ravitch 2010).

Data System Capacity

One major consequence of thirty years of test-based accountability is the unprecedented amount of information now available to evaluate students, teachers and schools. States, in particular have played a pivotal role in the production of performance data through the creation and maintenance of statewide student information systems (SSIS): “SISS represent the main arteries of the information infrastructure of test-based accountability. They track the progress of individual students across the K-12 system, through college and beyond.” (Anagnostopoulos and Bautista-Guerra 2013) At the same time, states still rely heavily on local intermediaries to put into place the personnel and technologies needed to gather and report the information required to meet state and federal accountability requirements. Consistent with other evidence discussed above, state and local capacities to fulfill data-based needs still vary considerably (Anagnostopoulos, Rutledge, and Bali 2013). A small number of states have taken the meaningful steps in better equalizing and systematizing data systems for local use, emphasizing the vital “nuts and bolts” of these systems, such as adequate teacher of record definition, a strong teacher verification process and an ability to connect students to more than one teacher (NCTQ, 11).

Gaps and Future Research

In this paper I have reviewed current trends in education policy research. I have targeted recent publications in education policy and politics related to new forms of governance and institutional arrangements, major contemporary reform efforts, research utilization, and local/state capacity issues. Looking across the various education policies addressed in this review and the associated recent research, several key themes emerge. One of the major themes is the involvement of many new and influential actors, public and private, in education policy arenas. The current research represents a substantial start to understanding how these entities have integrated into the existing educational infrastructure, but there is still much work to be done in this area.

Foundation involvement in educational enterprise is particularly notable. Recent findings indicate that foundations and other private non-profit and for-profit organizations, such as think tanks and charter management organizations, have significant influence over the educational policy agenda, particularly as brokers of policy information and research (Reckhow 2013; Debray et al. 2014). Much of this scholarship, however, is limited to studies of urban school systems and more general narratives set at the macro/national level. We still know very little about the internal processes of these organizations, how they set their political agendas, or what education policy venues they target and why. Moreover, there is very little empirical evidence or data on foundations and other non- and for-profit policy activity. This lack of evidence also brings into stark relief the larger concern that these organizations are often neither transparent nor accountable to the educational community or general public. The next wave of research in this area may consider focusing on more rigorous applications of existing interest group and advocacy coalition theories to understand how foundations and other private organizations influence education policy and politics. This inquiry should also be extended to investigate how these organizations influence policy implementation processes and the micro-politics of districts and schools.

More public actors too, such as mayors and state governments, that have not traditionally been involved in education policy, are now major players, although their influence varies widely depending on state and local contexts. This shift has not gone unnoticed by the research community but new and existing forms of local centralization need more scholarly attention. The literature on mayor-led districts is robust, but needs to be updated. Despite the popularity of mayoral governance as a structural reform in the past two decades, with the exception of a few notable pieces (see Wong and Shen 2013) not much has been written on this topic recently. Meanwhile, there is a gap in the literature on other forms of local centralization, such as districts run by emergency managers, state-led district takeovers, and state-run turnaround districts.

Another major theme in the literature is the shifting roles of traditional educational interests in the new policy landscape. The evolving role of teachers’ unions is particularly fascinating and presents an important avenue for future research. Teachers’ unions as the traditional political muscle of key educational stakeholders must adapt to the current policy climate, but it is unclear what their new role(s) may be. To be sure, large-scale federal and state reforms – standards- based accountability, teacher evaluation systems, and market-based policies, to name a few – have undermined the strength of teachers’ unions, but they retain legitimacy and a strong constituency. Research shows that unions had adapted in various ways: reacting defensively, working in collaborations with reformers, and developing their own reform agendas (Bascia and Osmond 2012). Over the next few years, policy scholars should pay close attention to how teachers’ unions and possibly other forms of teacher-led collective action develop. Researchers should also begin to investigate the broader educational and structural consequences of such a significant reshuffling and reorganization of teachers’ unions.

This review also points to several areas in need of further inquiry when it comes to major reform efforts underway in educational settings. Recent school choice research has focused on the effects of charter schools on broad patterns of student sorting, and has begun to investigate new kinds of public and private school choice. Given the expansion of charter schools, researchers should continue to question their system-wide impacts on local educational infrastructures and patterns of student mobility. Meanwhile, much more research is needed on emerging forms of school choice, especially virtual charter schools and neovouchers given their growing popularity as policy options.

This review demonstrates that state standards-based accountability systems are now incorporating teacher evaluation policies, albeit to widely varying degrees and with mixed results. While value-added policies (VAMs) that evaluate teachers based on student test scores are in vogue, consensus is migrating towards a “balanced assessment” approach where VAM scores are used in concert with other measure of teacher quality. Research in this area should follow suit. Scholarship is already moving in this direction, but more information is needed on the effectiveness of evaluation models that use multiple measures of teacher quality, as well as how new evaluation systems can be used to improve teachers’ instructional practices. In addition, researchers should pay more attention to other factors beyond teacher quality that effect student outcomes in the context of contemporary evaluation systems, including principal quality, school organization, and district processes.

Finally, there is a clear theme of increased data and research use in educational settings. Current research has begun to explore this trend and its impact on educational processes, answering some questions, but raising many more – particular the ability of state and local educational authorities to meet the new data demands. Importantly, the increased demand for research evidence and data-driven decision-making coincides with a shifting policy environment that now often includes the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the introduction of teacher evaluation policies. These policy demands will place a heavy burden on state and local educational systems in the coming years and researchers should play close attention to their combined and overlapping impacts on schools and students. Overall, scholarly research is working hard to keep pace with the rapidly shifting world of education policy and politics. While not a complete review of the literature on K-12 education policy, this review synthesizes some of the major themes in current research, and highlights scholars that have attempted to address ongoing challenges confronted by researchers and policymakers in contemporary educational contexts.

1 This trend may also be associated with the generally increasing popularity of randomized control trials of public policies.

2 Notably, there is a rich literature on grassroots politics and parent engagement in school reform and the transformative power of community organizing in the struggle for educational equality that went beyond the scope of this review (for recent work on this topic, please see Warren and Mapp 2011 and Hong 2011).


Sarah Galey is a doctoral student in Educational Policy at Michigan State University. Her research interests focus on the impact of policy-oriented social networks on educational structures and processes, including school leadership, reform implementation, and the diffusion of innovations in educational organizations. She also has a broad interest in the application of network theory and analysis in policy research.


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