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Working on Big “P” Policy to Advance Launch Years Work

August 27, 2021|By Brian Sponsler

The Launch Years Initiative hosted a policy forum in 2021 on how state, K–12, and postsecondary leaders can design and implement policies consistent with the recommendations proposed in the Launch Years report. The forum provided a powerful case for the critical role that state and postsecondary policy leaders—and community voices representing the perspectives of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI), and other minoritized communities—must play to ensure that mathematics is seen as a vehicle for achieving greater educational equity, rather than as a barrier to it.

This is part of a blog series inspired by that forum. 

One of the questions I have been pondering since my initial engagement with the Launch Years initiative began in 2019 has been, “What appropriate steps and frameworks can we use to make the case for state-level and state-wide policy change to support the Launch Years policy agenda?” 

When we talk about adopting big “P” policy, our task is to persuade policymakers who are contending with a wide range of issues. Naturally, high-influence policymakers, such as governors’ education policy advisors or legislators on education committees, have the authority to advance policy changes that will smooth student transitions from secondary to postsecondary education. Yet we must keep in mind that such policymakers’ prior experiences with the issues likely differ vastly from ours. 

In addition, these high-level policymakers may seem to have low information on these issues because they have not as yet been introduced to the challenges that pathways advocates are trying to elevate—or with the specific adjustments to state policy that reformers know are required to achieve more equitable education outcomes for all students.

When we think about how to get a policy proposal onto a crowded education policy agenda, we must be cognizant of the finite number of issues that policymakers are willing to spend political capital on—and of the limited amount of time these policymakers have to be fully engaged in reform efforts. 

Making the case for building math pathways from K–12 through postsecondary education

So how do we make the case for the Launch Years priorities that we know will benefit students? By going beyond arguing for math pathways on their merits alone—and instead demonstrating how important the pathways are in the context of the other education policy proposals that state actors are being asked to consider. 

Specifically, I would suggest to those seeking to elevate Launch Years policy reforms among other education reforms that they develop answers to the following questions:

  • How do Launch Years recommendations advance reforms that policymakers already care about? 
  • Why should a policymaker care more about Launch Years reforms than other policy reforms that they already care about?
  • Do the people who elect policymakers or otherwise make up their constituency care about this issue? If yes, how? If no, why not, and are there ways to engage with these constituencies around this work? 

The responses to these questions cannot simply be to more creatively represent the existing evidence in support of these reforms. Instead, answers must demonstrate that the reforms are consistent with the priorities of policymakers and their constituents. Nuanced responses to these questions will demonstrate to the policymaker that you understand the pressures they are under and the perspectives they have on the issues.  

Education priorities for policymakers focused in 2021

To better understand lawmakers’ policy priorities for 2021, we need to look no further than the Education Commission of the States analysis released in March 2021, Governors’ Top Education Priorities in 2021 State of the State Addresses.  

The issues identified in this year’s addresses should not surprise anyone, and the good news is the identified issues offer opportunities to tie Launch Years recommendations to policymakers’ agendas. From the Education Commission of the States analysis of 42 State of the State addresses, some of the key issues governors have prioritized include

  • funding
  • remote learning 
  • workforce development
  • reopening schools
  • student achievement and learning loss
  • physical and mental health of students and educators 

Other issues that present opportunities include education governance and

Customizing our approach to the local policy environment

When advocating for reforms to education policy, it is important to recognize that not all desired policy changes are within the purview of state legislatures. 

Policy authority depends on the governance structures and the historical precedents in each state and its communities. If the policy that we're trying to change is in state statute, then obviously we need an outreach plan that engages legislators. 

But some more technical or regulatory changes could be made at a state agency level—like the state department of education or the state higher education executive office. 

Launch Years has made broad statements on principles and policy preferences for how to build a more seamless math pathways structure from K12 through postsecondary education, but to communicate effectively at the state level, those statements should  be customized to address each state’s policy structures and environment. 

Localizing Launch Years principles and recommendations will ensure that we're aligning our messaging and engagement strategy with the priorities of the individuals and institutions with authority to make the changes that we seek for improving student learning. 

Contextualize Launch Years reforms as part of the larger college completion agenda

It is also important to develop an advocacy strategy that is mindful of the current education policy context within states. In particular, we at ECS have spent the better part of the last decade advocating to legislators for the college completion agenda, which includes advancing student progress through K12 education and ensuring smooth transitions into postsecondary education. These reforms, we argue, are necessary if we are to meet the demands for various credentials in the workforce that will contribute to the health of a state's economy. 

A key component of the college completion agenda that could be at odds with the Launch Years agenda is the focus on increasing degree completion among returning adult students.  It is part of the college completion mantra to say, “If every individual successfully makes it through your K12 system, earns a post-high school credential, and transitions into the workforce, you still will not have enough graduates to meet labor market demand." 

Because of this reality, a lot of attention has been focused on encouraging adults to return to postsecondary education and earn a postsecondary credential. Consequently, when advocating for changes in the mathematics pathways for K12 students, we need to acknowledge that doing so will require policymakers to shift their focus away from adult learners and back to the traditional K12 pipeline. 

Clearly, improving math pathways for K12 students and meeting the needs of adult learners is not an either/or proposition, but Launch Years advocates will need to understand and situate their agenda within the broader college completion agenda that maintains that it is not sufficent to improve only the college readiness of traditional high school graduates. 

Connect with policymakers at a policy level and a human level

Finally, we need to recognize that many policymakers have vastly different experiences with, and perspectives on postsecondary education—and mathematics in particular.  

From advanced degrees to high school diplomas, policymakers have themselves experienced a wide range of formal education experiences.  In some situations, policymakers may have benefited from the gatekeeper function that calculus plays to enable them to gain access to a highly selective university, while denying access to others. 

Others may have been ‘blocked out’ of educational opportunities themselves, yet still have been highly successful with very little formal education beyond high school. When engaging policymakers, it is important that reformers remember that the individual experiences of policymakers with mathematics education, postsecondary education, or any education beyond high school is going to differ vastly from policymaker to policymaker. 

We all know most politics and policies are personal. So it follows that Launch Years engagement strategies must account for the lived experiences of the policymakers we are asking to support reforms. 

In the end, a strong, well-designed, evidence-based policy reform alone is insufficient to achieving meaningful changes that generate equitable outcomes for today’s students. 

It is essential, therefore, that those reforms be crafted and advocated for in ways that recognize the unique state policy structures and local education policy context of each state, as well as the personal perspectives of the individual policymakers who have the authority to adopt reforms.

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About the Author

Brian Sponsler

Brian A. Sponsler, Ed.D., is vice president of policy for Education Commission of the States. In this role, he provides strategic leadership to the organization’s portfolio of policy products. He brings nearly two decades of experience in education policy research and practice, helping an array of policy decision makers craft sound policy to support student outcomes.