Policy layer enactment: New terrains of understanding


Funding Program:

SSHRC Insight Grant

Funding Amount:


Extensive education policy reform has occurred in most industrialized nations, as governments attempt to improve systems outcomes by issuing more (and often more prescriptive) policy. In some jurisdictions (including Ontario), this has resulted in "policy layers"-- assemblages of related or unrelated policy that directs practice in schools. Layers accumulate over time, leaving educators responsible for enacting multiple policies simultaneously. Little is known about how schools and individuals are affected by and enact (that is, learn about, cope with, prioritize and interpret) the multitude of policies. Sue Winton, together with OISE colleague Laura Pinto, will investigate this policy landscape.

The purpose of this research is to understand the complexities of policy layer enactment in Ontario secondary schools. Findings will shed new light on how policy is interpreted, prioritized and "done" in real-world contexts. Despite growing interest in studying policy, relatively few have investigated the enactment of multiple policies at the same time despite criticisms that single-policy research fails to capture actors' holistic experiences in managing multiple, competing policy demands, since they rarely deal exclusively with a single policy. Yet, understanding how the layers operate addresses essential questions about what occurs in schools.

Case study design is the most appropriate method to arrive at a holistic account of enactment since case studies utilize data from multiple sources over time to arrive at a holistic study of complex actions associated with enactment. Our research is guided methodologically by established qualitative methods from policy sociology, and augmented with post-qualitative methods. Resulting case studies can be used as a basis for international comparison, and reflect sound methods that have yielded useful conclusions for educators and governments. We intend to extend the research beyond policy sociology by drawing on post-qualitative techniques to generate new conceptual understandings of policy enactment and thus advance the field of inquiry. Qualitative and post-qualitative methods will result the collection of diverse and rich data, each data source serving as an agential force in the assemblage of "research" (Mazzei, 2013).

The proposed research will "bring tradition with us into the new" (Lather & St. Pierre, 2013, p. 630) to extend the "familiar intellectual geographies" of the established discipline of policy sociology by applying Policy 3.0 concepts and analysis. Whereas policy sociology tends to focus on issues of power and work structure, Policy 3.0 maps the ontological status of policy enactment by cutting across multiple disciplinary fields to develop new theoretical links. This approach offers several important knowledge contributions. It will provide new social and historical understanding of policy layer enactment in Canada. Aspects of the research grounded in Policy 3.0 will generate new conceptual understandings of enactment and thus advance the field of inquiry to better theoretical models.

The phenomenon studied (education policy layer enactment) is significant to the practical work of governments and educators. Policy has a direct impact on educators' work, and enactment has a direct impact on systems outcomes. In the long term, we hope that this research will change the way practitioners and policymakers think about enactment. Governments can apply findings by governments to improve policy processes in ways that strengthen Canada's capacity in education.
Better policy enactment, in turn, ought to result in direct improvements to the education system. While this research explores policy enactment in education, the methodology and findings will be relevant to other areas of public policy.