In recent decades, there has been an emphasis on quantitative, causal research in education policy. These methods are best suited for answering questions about the effects of a policy and whether it achieved its intended outcomes. While the question of, “Did it work?” remains critical, there is a need for research that also asks, “Why did it work? For whom? In what contexts?” To answer these types of questions, researchers must incorporate rigorous qualitative methods into their quantitative studies. Education research organizations like the Association for Education Finance and Policy have explicitly invited proposals using qualitative and mixed methodologies in an effort to elevate research addressing a range of critical education policy questions. Funding organizations, including IES, encourage applicants to incorporate qualitative methods into their research process. In this guest blog, Amy Cummings, Craig De Voto, and Katharine Strunk discuss how they are using qualitative methods in their evaluation of a state education policy.
In our IES-funded study, we use qualitative, survey, and administrative data to understand the implementation and impact of Michigan’s early literacy law—the Read by Grade Three Law. Like policies passed in 19 other states, the Read by Grade Three Law aims to improve K-3 student literacy skills and mandates retention for those who do not meet a predetermined benchmark on the state’s third-grade English language arts assessment. Although the retention component of these policies remain controversial, similar laws are under consideration in several other states, including Alaska, Kentucky, and New Mexico. Below are some of the ways that we have integrated qualitative methods in our evaluation study to better understand the policy process in the development of the Read by Grade Three Law.
Collecting qualitative sources helped us understand how the policy came to be, thereby assisting in the structure of our data collection for examining the law’s implementation and subsequent effects. In our first working paper stemming from this study, we interviewed 24 state-level stakeholders (policymakers, state department of education officials, early literacy leaders) involved in the development of the law and coded state policy documents related to early literacy to assess the similarity between Michigan’s policy and those of other states. Understanding the various components of the Law and how they ended up in the policy led us to ensure that we asked educators about their perceptions and implementation of these components in surveys that are also part of our evaluation. For example, because our interviews made clear the extent to which the inclusion of the retention component of the Law was controversial during its development, we included questions in the survey to assess educators’ perceptions and intended implementation of this component of the Law. In addition, it confirmed the importance of our plan to use state administrative retention and assessment data to evaluate the effect of retention on student literacy outcomes.
To trace the Read by Grade Three Law’s conception, development, and passage, we analyzed these qualitative data using two theories of the policy process: Multiple Streams Framework (MSF) and policy transfer. MSF says that policy issues emerge on government agendas through three streams: problem, policy, and political. When these streams join, a policy window is opened during which there is a greater opportunity for passing legislation. Meanwhile, policy transfer highlights how policies enacted in one place are often used in the development of policies in another.
We found that events in the problem and political streams created conditions ripe for the passage of an early literacy policy in Michigan:
- A national sentiment around improving early literacy, including a retention-based third-grade literacy policy model that had been deemed successful in Florida
- A pressing problem took shape, as evidenced by the state’s consistently below average fourth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress
- A court case addressing persistently low-test scores in a Detroit-area district
- Previous attempts by the state to improve early literacy
As a result of these events, policy entrepreneurs—those willing to invest resources to get their preferred policy passed—took advantage of political conditions in the state and worked with policymakers to advance a retention-based third-grade literacy policy model. The figure below illustrates interviewee accounts of the Read by Grade Three Law’s development. Our policy document analysis further reveals that Michigan’s and Florida’s policies are very similar, only diverging on nine of the 50 elements on which we coded.
Although this study focuses on the development and passage of Michigan’s early literacy law, our findings highlight both practical and theoretical elements of the policy process that can be useful to researchers and policymakers. To this end, we show how particular conditions, coupled by policy entrepreneurs, spurred Michigan’s consideration of such a policy. It is conceivable that many state education policies beyond early literacy have taken shape under similar circumstances: a national sentiment combined with influential brokers outside government. In this way, our mixed-methods study provides a practical model of what elements might manifest to enact policy change more broadly.
From a theoretical standpoint, this research also extends our understanding of the policy process by showing that MSF and the theory of policy transfer can work together. We learned that policy entrepreneurs can play a vital role in transferring policy from one place to another by capitalizing on conditions in a target location and coming with a specific policy proposal at the ready.
There is, of course, more to be learned about the intersection between different theories of the policy process, as well as how external organizations as opposed to individuals operate as policy entrepreneurs. As the number of education advocacy organizations continues to grow and these groups become increasingly active in shaping policy, this will be an exciting avenue for researchers to continue to explore.
This study is just one example of how qualitative research can be used in education policy research and shows how engaging in such work can be both practically and theoretically valuable. The most comprehensive evaluations will use different methodologies in concert with one another to understand education policies, because ultimately, how policies are conceptualized and developed has important implications for their effectiveness.
Amy Cummings is an education policy PhD student and graduate research assistant at the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC) at Michigan State University (MSU).
Craig De Voto is a visiting research assistant professor in the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an EPIC affiliated researcher.
Katharine O. Strunk is the faculty director of EPIC, the Clifford E. Erickson Distinguished Chair in Education, and a professor of education policy and by courtesy economics at MSU.