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Informing Policy in a Time of Disruption

With recommendations based on research and relationship-building, students in HGSE course influence state policy and make real-time impact in the field.
HGSE students meet with Jeff Riley

The group meets with Jeff Riley and his team. L-r: Mekka Smith (course teaching fellow), Valerie Eisenson, Leldamy Correa (chief of staff to Riley), Jeff Riley, Paul Reville, Ryan Herman, Valentina Tovar, Kathryn Monroe, Austin Batson

How do policy decisions like mask mandates and other COVID-related mitigation efforts come to life? A group of master's students in Professor Paul Reville's fall course, State Education Policy in Times of Disruption: A Policy Practicum, had first-hand involvement in the decision making, as part of a semester-long project which saw them immersed in the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). 

HGSE master’s students Ryan Herman, Kathryn Monroe, Molly Reardon, and Valentina Tovar and Harvard Kennedy School students Austin Batson and Valerie Eisenson met twice a week with Jeff Riley, Ed.M.'99, commissioner of DESE, to get hands-on experience by researching, making recommendations, and, ultimately, influencing important policy decisions for all schools in Massachusetts. (Five other student groups in the course were matched with other state education organizations in Massachusetts.) 

Reville, who joined HGSE in 1997, says he has designed this course over the years to expose students to the vital and challenging role of the states in the U.S. intergovernmental system of policymaking. His experiences as the Massachusetts Secretary of Education, State Board chair, and the top adviser to Governor Deval Patrick informed the course's more recent design. 

"We immerse the students in the theory and practice of education policy and familiarize them with the policymaking ecosystem," Reville explains. "Then we ask them to seek answers to such key questions 'Who makes policy? How is it made? Who has influence and power? When is and isn't policy an effective tool for improving education?' The course has evolved over two decades and currently centers on policymaking during times of disruption, such as the pandemic.” 

As schools reopened in the fall, the uncertainty and time-sensitive decisions around attendance, testing, hybrid classrooms, and mask mandates made this time unusual from a state policy lens. All students formed "consulting groups," after which they were matched with client organizations working at various state policy levels, including the Rennie Center of Education Research and Policy, Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, and the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care. Subject areas ranged from higher education, legislature, diversity and inclusion, tech equity, and pandemic management, to name a few. These clients had pre-existing working relationships with Reville that allowed students to get valuable feedback from both Reville and the clients. 

"I can't highlight enough how much [Professor Reville] is willing to leverage his network to help us succeed and find projects that interest us," says Tovar. "It made all of us really comfortable with asking him questions throughout the course about the different policy organizations in the country." 

The group working with Riley was tasked with evaluating statewide masking policies. They had the significant challenge of assessing the limits, thresholds, and the impact of that policy on students, educators, parents, and the community and were asked to make a policy recommendation by the end of the course. In addition to attending regular meetings, students created a policy pitch and participated in a state policy board meeting to complete ongoing reflections. 

Although state policy differed from her prior experience as a middle school teacher, Reardon saw her work with DESE directly impact her community. 

"I had several friends who were in classrooms directly being impacted by the conversations we were having," says Reardon. "I've learned a great deal about the negotiation process in state governments which was very different from my prior experiences."  

"This work illustrates the power of experiential learning at HGSE: students immersed in actual policy work, having an impact and making a significant difference in the real world." – Professor Paul Reville

The course's teaching fellow, Ed.L.D. student Ben Lewis, supported the students by providing feedback on their policy memos and pitch. He was particularly impressed by an interactive dashboard that the students created to inform Riley and DESE that combined policies in different states with case rates, vaccinations, and wastewater viral load data. 

"What was most impressive to me was how they discerned their roles and understood the needs of the team," Lewis says. "It was amazing to see a group come together like that. The level of coherence they were able to build in such a brief time and then turn that into a clear product for the commissioner was inspiring to see."  

The team's policy recommendation included an extensive review of data and policies in the United States and overseas. The dashboard of consolidated information with specific mask mandate details in response to different infections and deaths worldwide enriched DESE's decision while devising their COVID policies. 

"As I was learning about international educational systems, this class was pushing me to learn about the role of the state in federal countries," says Herman, who will be taking lessons learned to future work in Mexico, where education is similarly decentralized into state departments.

Commissioner Riley says he was thrilled with the students' input across the semester. He enjoyed their diverse perspectives, relevant research in navigating the pandemic, and proactive analysis of mask mandates worldwide. He invited all students to return to DESE this spring to continue advising him. 

"The students did a superb job of regularly presenting research and data that helped inform the department's recommendations to the Board of Education and other senior government officials," Riley says. "They definitely influenced the course of state education policy in this crisis. I came to rely on their counsel and have invited them to continue to consult with me now that the course is over. That says it all." 

Although the students could not provide precise details of their recommendations, Riley says the team provided crucial research that helped them decide on the current mask mandate in which, as of January 10, 2022, all Massachusetts schools require students and staff over the age of 5 to remain masked indoors, except for schools with more than 80% vaccination rates. The group was again instrumental in providing valuable research to inform the recently announced decision to lift the mask mandate on February 28.

The course repeatedly stressed the role of research in policy work, but allowed that research can never be the only factor, given each community's unique cultural and political needs. Instead of seeing decisions as black or white, the course chiseled students' ability to negotiate, take perspectives, and build strong relationships — skills that come into play when dealing with several diverse stakeholders during complex disruptions like the ongoing pandemic. 

"[The students] rose to the challenge, took full advantage of the opportunity, and exceeded all expectations," Reville says. "This work illustrates the power of experiential learning at HGSE: students immersed in actual policy work, having an impact and making a significant difference in the real world."