PLE 2b: Module 1

PLE 2b: Analyzing critical policy influences and potential levers for change


The purpose of this PLE is to develop participants’ understanding of the role of governance and decision-making systems in influencing issues and problems and provide avenues for addressing these. To advocate or act on behalf of historically marginalized groups and students, and all children generally, leaders must know how decisions are and were made, the key governance and policy making bodies, and how different policy options create or constrain opportunities and optimizing learning conditions. While effective leaders need to understand and be able to navigate various decision-making systems and differentiate among policy levers, diversity-responsive leaders must be aware and able to investigate and act on how these impact opportunities for historically marginalized groups and students.

This PLE uses an inquiry process to engage participants in identifying, mapping and contrasting the governance and decision making systems that pertain to their selected issues and problems. By identifying and comparing, they will gain understanding of how different types of policy instruments shape their issues and problems and what policy alternatives might be pursued through advocacy.

  • Gain an ability to identify relevant school, district and state governance and decision making systems for different educational issues and how these issues are experienced by historically marginalized groups and students
  • Gain an ability to differentiate among policy development processes and the levers for change for policy making and influence for different educational issues and how these issues are experienced by historically marginalized groups and students
  • Be able to evaluate types of policy levers as they are applicable to different issues and problems and how these issues are experienced by historically marginalized groups and students

Essential question

How do we investigate and analyze policy making and influences on an issue or priority and how these issues are experienced by historically marginalized groups and students?


This PLE draws on the issue identification work in PLE 2a. In this PLE, participants will explore the policy context and decision making systems for the identified issue or problem. This PLE takes approximately 2 hours to complete, in walking participants through the steps of identifying relevant policy making systems and influences as they currently exist and potential policy levers for positively influencing the issue or problem. Through this PLE, participants will learn about the policy making process, policy levers, and examples of policy influences for different issues.

Pre-session work

To complete this PLE, participants must come with an issue, preferably as it has been identified in PLE 2a, and some understanding of a specific local or state context for the issue. Participants should do some exploratory work to identify relevant policies that frame their issue and the governmental or other decision-making bodies that are responsible for these. Exploratory questions to use can include:

  • What is the issue or problem?
  • What are the characteristics of the students who are affected most (and in what ways) by this issue or problem?
  • What programs, services and structures exist that contribute to the issue or problem or are inadequate in addressing this issue or problem?
  • What school, district or other agency is responsible for this problem or issue?
  • What policies and regulations contribute to the issue or problem or are inadequate to addressing this issue or problem?
  • What local, state, or national governance or decision-making bodies made the policies and regulations? Are responsible for implementing the policies and regulations?

Learning environment

This PLE is designed to be completed in a large classroom or other large setting, where there are Smart boards or newsprint available for small groups to work. The room should also be flexible enough to allow participants to post their political group maps and enable a gallery walk among all participants.

Primary activities

This PLE consists of four inter-related activities: brainstorming how to identify policy making systems and influences; mapping these out for selected issues and identifying patterns among multiple issues; identifying types of policy levers, their use for different types of issues and problems, and potential differential effect on historically marginalized groups of students; and reflection on the relationship among decision making processes, policy levers, issues and their effects on different student groups. 

    1. brainstorm sources of evidence to identify the primary policy making systems and influences on an issue or problem

  • news articles
  • websites
  • district policy manuals
  • published articles and books on a topic
  • blogs and other sources
  • influential individuals who could point them in the right direction.
  • reporting out
  • posting their findings on newsprint and having a gallery walk to review and then discuss
  • using one issue as an example and then comparing and contrasting other issues to show patterns of what they uncover and how.

To ascertain participants’ knowledge and understanding of policy making systems, the instructor will ask participants to first identify how they might uncover the primary policy making systems and influences on an issue or problem. Using their own issues or problems, participants will be asked first to identify what sources they might investigate, and then use these to identify primary policy making systems and influences.

The instructor can probe by asking them to look at:

The instructor can ask participants to pool what they have learned by doing one of the following:

  2. Mapping the decision making systems for an issue or problem

  • clarity on responsibility and influence, including the multiple layers and their relationships
  • gaps in policies and practices (does the issue fall between areas of responsibility?)
  • competing sources of influence and decision making
  • differential effects on marginalized groups and students (particularly racial/ethnic and socio-economic)
  • leverage points for action
  • opportunities for influences
  • how policies can differentially affect historically-marginalized groups

Next, once participants have identified the policy making systems for their issue or problem, they can map out how decisions are made within this system to influence the issue or problem (e.g. administrative action; laws; or regulations). This will enable the participants to identify the sources of decision making and the processes for decision making and influence. By hearing about these sources and processes of decision-making for multiple issues—as participants share with each other in small and large groups—they will learn about multiple decision making systems and analyze patterns.

Using the same strategies as outlined in the first activity, the instructor will now help participants to map the system(s) of decisions that contribute to a problem or issue (or could be used for its solution).

The instructor will encourage participants to compare and contrast their findings and probe for:

The instructor will then guide the participants to discover:

  3.Identify the policy levers that undergird your issue or problem and the potential levers that could be used to influence opportunity

Using their findings from the first two activities, the participants will then examine the policy levers/instruments that have created the problem or issue or present opportunities for action. Participants will work in small groups, of 4-5 participants each, using post-it notes to label the types of policy levers (based on McDonnell and Elmore’s categories of policy instruments) that undergird their issues or problems. They will also investigate how and in what ways the policy levers and decision-making processes differentially affect historically-marginalized groups of students, particularly racial-ethnic minority and low-income students.

Small groups will report out on the relationship between the policy instruments and issues that they find and the whole group will synthesize for pattern identification among the policy instruments and their differential impact on marginalized groups.

  4. Reflection

  • What local, district or state decisions would you like to influence on behalf of the full range of learners in your school/program/center?
  • What are the ways you could participate in local, district or state decision making to improve how well the full range of learners is served in your school/program/center?
  • How are historically-marginalized groups differentially affected by these policy making and decision making processes? How could this differential effect be mediated

The instructor will facilitate a whole group discussion about the nature of policy instruments, the underlying assumptions around their use, and the patterns that the group finds. The instructor and group will then explore how alternative policy instruments/levers might be beneficial. They will also explore the following questions: 


In a one-page memo, each participant is to map out the decision making systems and primary policy levers that shape the issue or problem each has selected and provide a rationale for advocating change within one system and through one policy lever on behalf of a specified issue or problem. The memo should include a discussion of the how marginalized groups of students are differentially affected. The memo should include internet links to relevant policies and governmental or other agencies.

This assignment will demonstrate participants’ understanding of decision-making systems and policy levers and provide background for subsequent action.

Field work extension

To extend this analysis further for field work application, the participant would expand the analysis to two or more decision-making systems (e.g. school and building, or local and state) and two or policy levers for possible action. The participant would then share his or her analysis and proposed change with an internship supervisor and evaluate the feasibility of the participant’s recommendations for further action and change.


The instructor could use the following rubric to assess the participants’ memos and provide feedback.






Identifies the primary policy system influencing (or could) the identified issue or problem





Identifies how the primary policy system influence how these issues are experienced by historically marginalized groups and students





Identifies a primary policy lever/instrument that frames  the identified issue or problem





Identifies how the primary policy lever/instrument influences how these issues are experienced by historically marginalized groups and students





Identifies a possible policy lever or instrument that could positively affect the identified issue or problem





Explains how a possible policy lever or instrument that could positively affect the identified issue or problem to benefit historically marginalized groups and students





Takes the context into consideration in proposing a policy lever, particularly for historically marginalized groups and students





Uses the course readings to inform the selection of policy systems and instruments





Includes relevant internet links to policies and decision making agencies







Required reading

Anderson, G.L. (2009) Advocacy Leadership: Toward a Post-Reform Agenda in Education. New York: Routledge (Chapter 6). “Toward a post-reform agenda.

Fowler, F. (2008). Policy Studies for Educational Leaders. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. (Chapter 2) “Power and Education Policy”

McDonnell, L. M., & Elmore, R. F. (1987). Getting the job done: Alternative policy instruments. Educational evaluation and policy analysis, 9(2), 133-152.

Suggested readings

Barry, B. (2005) Why social justice matters. Cambridge, England: Polity

Callan, P. M., Ewell, P. T., Finney, J. E., & Jones, D. P. (2007). Good policy, good practice. Improving outcomes and productivity in higher education: A guide for policy makers. San Jose, CA: The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Freire, P. (1999). Education is politics. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Fullan, M. (2003). The moral imperative of school leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Fuller, B. (2007). Standardized childhood: the political and cultural struggle over early education. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Haycock, K. (2002). State policy levers: Closing the achievement gap. State education standard, 6(Winter)

Kerchner, C. T. (January 2010). There’s lots to learn from L.A.: Policy levers for institutional change. PACE Policy Brief.

Polakow, V. (2007) Who cares for our children?  NYC: TC Press

Robinson, A. & D. R. Stark (2002), Advocates in action. Washington DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Romero, M. (July 2010). Key readings policy levers to promote social inclusion and respect for diversity in early childhood New York City, NY: National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University.

Theoharis, G. (2009). The school leaders our children deserve. NYC, NY: Teachers College Press.

Suggested readings related to special education

School Law  (revised biennially, latest should be 2010).  New York State School Board Association, New York State Bar Association.  Distributed by Lexis Nexis.

Wright, Peter, Wright Pamela, (2010).  Special Education Law second edition.  Harbor House Law Press, Virginia

Wright, Peter, Wright, Pamela, O’Connor, Sandra (2010).  All About IEPs.  Harbor House Law Press, Virginia.