According to Stein (2004), a policy is a “system of thought and action used to regulate and organize behavior” (p, 5). From my own understanding, a policy is a set of rules or laws that aim to control or monitor behavior to ensure that the rights of the citizens are protected and to ensure that these citizens are accorded the privileges they are entitled to. I also used to think that policies are very objective, that they are “black and white,” which means that they are based on facts and figures and that their implementation is uniform and based on standardized practices.
However, after reading the chapter on Policy as a Cultural Construct” by Stein (2004), I gained a new perspective or understanding on what policies are and what occurs during the policy-making process. In particular, I realized that policies and the policy-making process are not so objective and “black and white” after all. I realized that they are also very subjective in that their development and implementation are dependent on the perceptions and understandings of the policy makers with regards to what the problem is, what the solution to the problem is, how the policy can help solve the problem, and who will benefit from the policy. I realized that culture plays a big role in the policy-making process in that the cultural and socio-economic backgrounds of the policy-makers influence their perceptions of the problem, as well as their perceptions on how this problem can be solved. In this regard, it is possible for policy makers to misunderstand the problem and develop ineffective policies. Unless they have experienced the situations of the populations or sub-populations whose problems they aim to address, they will not be able to completely relate to what these people are going through. For example, a policy-maker who has been raised in a middle-class family may not completely understand the parents who would rather keep their money for the family’s meals instead of using it for sending their children to school.
I also used to think that policies aimed only to promote the good of the public or their target populations. However, I learned that policies are a double-edged sword in that while they help to alleviate a specific need, they also tend to create stereotypes or categorizations of the populations that they intend to serve, which in turn can result in stigmas. For example, labeling students as “Title 1” or “Educationally disadvantaged youth” connotes that the student must be poor, black, and somewhat hazardous to the society. In the same manner, even the process of determining who’s entitled to the benefits of such policies is quite discriminatory in nature. More specifically, policy-makers consider the beneficiaries of policies as those who are deprived, deficient, and deviant. However, there are no objective standards for determining what deviant is compared to the norm. In this case, the identification of populations that are considered deficient or deviant seems quite discriminatory. The irony is that while policies are supposed to be promoting equality, they also create divisions and distinctions at the same time through their use of labels. As well, another “side effect” of such education policies is that the stereotypes or stigmas they denote influence the way teachers deal with their students. Teachers tend to have pre-conceived notions about students who become eligible for the said policies and programs, which can limit the learning opportunities that they provide these students.
According to Stein (2004), policy analysis is a process that “focuses on the relationships between specific policy configurations and discrete policy outcomes” (p. 5). It aims to determine the factors that encourage the behaviors promoted by a policy. However, even policy analysis can be quite subjective in nature in that it is often influenced by the analyst’s cultural background or understanding and interpretation of a policy. As asserted by Stein (2004), the meanings of policies are different for every person and this may serve as a hindrance to obtaining an objective analysis of a policy. In this regard, cultural approaches to analysis promote the evaluation of a policy as a rich and complex system of belief. As such, cultural analyses pose limitations in the evaluation of policies and can even lead to distorted views of the beneficiaries of these policies, as well as the life conditions of these beneficiaries.
In this regard, a critical policy analysis is important for obtaining a more objective and accurate evaluation of a policy. As it will involve the perceptions of experts from various sectors of the society, a critical policy analysis can lead to the identification of ways by which policies can be enhanced so that they are better able to address the problems they intend to solve, so that unintended outcomes may be avoided, and so that ineffective policies may be modified such that their detrimental effects may be curtailed.
With regards to funding for educational agencies in the not-for-profit sector, this can be allocated through state and district mechanisms. Every level of the educational bureaucracy is monitored to ensure the proper use of funds. In particular, the Department of Education monitors the states while the states monitor the districts and the districts monitor the schools (Stein, 2004). Moreover, state or district monitors visit the beneficiaries of the funds to ensure that the granted funds are properly used.
The granted funds also serve as incentives to encourage the proper implementation of a policy, yet at the same time, they can also lead to the misuse of the policy’s provisions. For example, an educational institution may be provided with funding in order to raise the assessment scores of Title 1 students. However, as the institution achieves this goal and succeeds in increasing the assessment scores of Title 1 students, there’s a possibility that they will receive less funding for the program’s implementation. This can provide a conflict between the institution’s interest and that of the government, which in turn can result in the institution being unable to sustain the progress it has made. It may also discourage the institution from giving its full effort towards achieving the program’s objectives just so they will not be deprived of funding. Moreover, policy compliance entails the use of certain language such as “Title 1,” “educationally disadvantaged youth,” “at-risk youth,” and “disadvantaged children,” despite their negative connotations. Failure to use such language signifies non-compliance. While policy makers may have recognized the negative effects brought about by such language to individual students and have thus shifted to applying those labels to the educational institutions instead, such a shift does not guarantee that they will no longer affect the teachers’ perceptions of their students’ capabilities. In this regard, funding for such policies may benefit the educational institution more than the students. Such funding can be used for teachers’ salaries and other needs of the school, but may not necessarily result in the improved academic performance and improved well-being of the students.
In conclusion, reading the chapter on “Policy as Cultural Construct" by Stein (2004) changed my understanding of policies and the policy-making process. While I used to perceive these as very objective in nature, Stein’s (2004) discussion of the cultural aspects of policies and the policy-making process have made me realize that they also involve much subjectivity. As the development and implementation of policies are greatly influenced by the cultural and socio-economic backgrounds of the policy-makers, it is important that these policy-makers obtain an accurate understanding of the problems that policies intend to address as well as the beneficiaries of such policies. This understanding can be obtained through the conduct of critical policy analyses, which involve the perspectives and feedback of experts from various sectors of the society. As well, it was discussed that while the implementation of educational policies help alleviate the educational needs of underprivileged students, the same policies can also create stigma and negative connotations against these students. As such, a balance should be achieved in the development and implementation of policies so that their unintended outcomes may be avoided.
Stein, S. J. (2004). The culture of education policy. Teachers College Press.