• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D., and Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • June – July 2006 • Dr. Abelardo Villarreal

At one time, only a small subset of schools were asking what changes needed to be made in public education to improve outcomes for minority children. But now, as the nation’s schools grow increasingly diverse, the challenges of answering this question have expanded to reach the majority of school systems in all parts of this country.

This article defines and describes the role of policy in shaping the quality of educational services to minority children and to those with special needs. In addition, it describes a set of criteria to assess the adequacy and appropriateness of policies that ensure students’ full participation, engagement and success in the educational process. Further, it assesses two major policies using the criteria outlined.

The Role of Policy in Shaping Education Services

Policy as defined in Webster refers to a “governing principle” or “written contract.” As a governing principle, a policy reflects a basic stance or position. Thus, it is intended to result in certain changes in practice associated with related issues.

An example of a policy is a state requirement for schools to report numbers of students by certain characteristics. The information is then used to inform an understanding of a school’s enrollment profile. Additionally, the policy may provide information deemed necessary to guide specific services for students.

The state of Texas already has an array of policies that are designed to identify minority students and impact the education programs that are provided to them. State policies often require collection of data on students’ racial and ethnic status and the income status of their families. These data are used to develop state and district profile summaries to allow for targeted funding resources based on academic achievement and for disaggregating information to enable state leaders to compare the relative achievement performance levels of different minority groups.

Prior to desegregation, no data were used to track the educational status of minority and non-minority students, as any policy review could focus on simply looking at school-level information. After school integration, district information was collected at an aggregate level, with no sub-group breakouts – providing an average of performance for the school or district as a whole.

The shortcomings of using such averages to inform education policy were best summarized by Dr. José A. Cárdenas, IDRA founder and director emeritus. He explained that the problem with averages is that a person could have one foot in a bucket of ice and the other in a bucket of scalding water, and the resulting average temperature of 72 degrees would disguise the reality that neither foot was in very good straits. Thus, policies that are designed to specifically identify minority student status can be useful in guiding policy efforts.

It is no doubt that policy impacts the nature and quality of educational services provided to minority students. National policy that evolved from the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision led to efforts to dismantle segregated school systems. And this eventually influenced state-level policies that mirrored the national requirements.

At the state policy level in Texas, school systems are required to identify students who have limited English proficiency and to provide specialized services to address those needs. The data are also used to provide supplemental funding to schools to help them provide the specialized services needed.

As the nation as a whole continues to experience growing diversity, there is a need for tools to assess the implications of polices on minority students and communities. Following is a framework developed by IDRA’s Dr. Rosana Rodríguez and Dr. Abelardo Villarreal for assessing education reform policies.

Criteria for Assessing Policies that Impact Access and Success

Policies that have positive impact on access and success for all students are characterized by the following attributes.


The policy includes communication and participatory processes that embrace diverse perspectives from the community being served. Key questions to ask are:

  • Does the policy address the diversity of the community in its focus and purpose?
  • Does the policy address the diverse nature of the state’s student population by pro-actively ensuring that low-income and minority students receive maximum benefit?
  • Do the decision-making bodies and leadership who will implement the policy reflect diversity?

Funding Equity

The policy provides for adequate funding for varied responses that serve a diverse student population. Key questions to ask are:

  • Are appropriate resources committed to ensure that problems are addressed?
  • Does the policy promote equity and excellence through equitable and appropriate funding for all students?
  • Is there a mechanism to acquire or dispurse funding, and is it fairly and equitably designed?
  • Is there recourse to correct disparities that might occur?
  • How will the recourse be clearly articulated and disseminated?


The policy assigns high priority to graduation, enrollment and academic success of minority students. Key questions to ask are:

  • Does the policy pro-actively articulate the highest level of commitment to the academic success of every student?
  • Does the policy promote the highest level of commitment and requirement for action from the institution?

Quality of Action

The policy provides an action framework that ensures programmatic activity is consistent with the highest quality instruction for a diverse student population. Key questions to ask are:

  • Does the policy propose viable solutions that are of the highest quality and aimed at minority student access and success?
  • Does the policy reflect an approach that is appropriate to the setting with viable goals, stated objectives and means to measure the outcomes for students?
  • Will the targets selected for the policy yield the greatest positive impact in supporting access, student persistence, academic success and graduation for minority students at key junctures in the educational pipeline?
  • Are the barriers that prevent inclusivity, access and success addressed?


The policy is flexible and adoptable to address various contexts within an action framework. Key questions to ask are:

  • Does the policy provide for an intentional process that allows for adjustments or changes as needed to better serve students?
  • Is there a method for evaluating the impact and effectiveness of the policy at regular intervals in order to provide feedback for assessment and planning?
  • Is there a means of adapting the policy to meet local needs and contexts to better serve students?

Goal Appropriateness

The policy focuses appropriately on the goal of access and success of every minority student. Key questions to ask are:

  • Does the goal correctly acknowledge the various problems associated with the lack of access and success for every student?
  • Does the policy derive from a focused analysis that identifies and processes institutional responses that present access and success?
  • Is the policy on target in addressing the systemic changes needed to support student access and academic success at key junctures in learning?

Agency Accountability

The policy includes structures that provide for enforcement and agency accountability. Key questions to ask are:

  • Does the policy foster shared accountability to support access and success for every student?
  • Does the policy have a method of enforcement for accountability?
  • Have means been identified to share broadly and receive feedback regarding the enforcement of the policy at regular intervals?
  • Have benchmarks been identified?

Institutional Accountability

The policy requires institutional accountability. Key questions to ask are:

  • Is there a provision to regularly conduct assessments of progress in serving students and report results through disaggregated means?
  • Is there a means of accountability for the policy that appropriately places responsibility on the system to support student success?
  • Does the institution open itself to a shared, formal examination of progress in supporting student access and success?
  • Is there a commitment to use the data collected as part of continued planning?
  • Is there a means of shared accountability to see students successfully transition from high school to college and college graduation?
  • Is engagement built into the systems of evaluation and reporting?

Educational Impact

The policy holds promise for making positive and lasting impact on access and success for all students. Key questions to ask are:

  • Does the policy provide a viable means for closing the achievement gap?
  • Does the policy support positive and effective solutions to increase student achievement?
  • Does the policy create a vehicle to increase enrollment, institutional persistence and graduation rates for minority students?


Acknowledge the inter-connectedness of systems from pre-kindergarten through higher education. Key questions to ask are:

  • Does the policy foster connections at key junctures in the pipeline from pre-kindergarten through higher education?
  • Does the policy promote interaction and shared accountability across traditional boundaries within the educational pipeline?
  • Does the policy foster greater articulation between systems in support of student success?

Assessing Recent Policy Reforms via the Policy Assessment Framework

In its recently-completed special session on school finance, the Texas Legislature adopted numerous new education reform policies. One such reform provided a new high school allotment of $275 for students in grades nine through 12 to help schools reduce dropouts, improve preparation for college and support expanded college enrollment. An assessment of the provisions of this new policy initiative however shows it has mixed implications.

On the one hand, the program partially meets the inclusivity criteria, but because it is provided to all schools without regard to relative needs of school districts, it is not effectively inclusive. On the funding equity issue, the new plan calls for an allocation that is not run through any equalization mechanisms found in most state aid formulae, so it fails this assessment. Because it targets the funds on graduation, enrollment and academic success, it gets an A+ in that area. Quality of action requirements are minimally addressed with local systems given great latitude in deciding how monies provided will be utilized at the local level. Flexibility is worked into the new reform, but it may provide so much flexibility that it may actually hamper targeting of new funding. On the goal appropriateness indicator, the new reform acknowledges critical issues that need expanded state action. Agency accountability is worked into the plan in the form of required progress reports, but requirements to evaluate program effectiveness are non-existent. The new high school allotment recognizes connections at key junctures, focusing primarily between high schools and colleges.

Another new reform policy calls for awards for teachers and schools that show notable improvement in achievement. On the surface this pay for performance sounds good in that there is an emphasis on overall improvement in achievement for all students. Judged against the framework however, the new policy promises to create more concerns than solutions for minority students in Texas.

Some positive features include initial targeting of schools needing improvement, some flexibility to allow local decision-making, appropriate emphasis on improvement, some accountability in use of funding, etc.

Its major shortcomings, however, include lack of sufficient provisions to ensure that minority, low-achieving students do not become victims of efforts to exclude them from selected classes or schools so that those educators and schools are better positioned to receive rewards for improvement. Competition for rewards may also result in less collaboration among colleagues and actually decrease the level of peer support, as educators compete with each other for available rewards.

These sample applications of the policy reform assessment framework provide an insight of how one can use these criteria to assess whether policies have the potential for improving access and success of minority students enrolled in schools.

We would encourage policymakers, educators and community members to review major education reforms using these factors as markers for potential improvement. Though not intended as the ultimate assessment, its application may help provide some structured process for assessments for people concerned with the array of education reforms that have emerged in recent years. At best, it may help inform refinement of proposed policies before their eventual adoption. At least, it may help review whether existing policies support or actually hinder commonly shared goals of improving achievement for all students, and particularly those students who have been historically ill-served or under-served in our educational institutions.

Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at: feedback@idra.org

[©2006, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June – July 2006 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]