Introducing the Little “p”

Introducing the Little “p”

As I was leaving the office today I picked up my mail to see the newest Phi Delta Kappan in my mailbox. I don’t work for the magazine but I will say that personally I almost look forward to receiving it.  For those that know me this should stand as a bit of a surprise. Despite my academic position, I don’t take pleasure in reading. I’m picky about what I read and I read it when I need to know something.  Something about the Kappan makes it visually simple which is appealing and the featured content feels “need to know.”

So I opened the magazine as I was leaving the building and casually began flipping through the pages to see what might catch my attention.

A path created by data” was in bold letters, at the top of page 40. As I backed up to see what it was about I found the article does a deep dive into the qualities of high-performing schools with a large population of students of color and from low-income families. At the top of the list was the fact that such schools apparently “incorporate what we know from research.”

For the past few months, I’ve spent considerable time, along with the team at UD, talking through how research is incorporated into practice, “research utilization” as they say. Understanding how this happens will be dependent on a series of measures we are creating, which has resulted in lots of debates and discussion about how to measure the way that research is (or is not) incorporated into schools. To say the issue is complex is an understatement.

I remember when I first began doing work in food policy and many began to talk about the supermarket as a potentially important place to implement programs and do research. Foundation leaders and researchers reflected on what was on the shelves often asking why certain items were placed where they were, and how they even got there in the first place. Underneath their questions were concerns, and eventually a wish for interventions that would direct consumers to healthier products.

While it may seem a distant topic from supporting schools, I assure you there are many similarities. Anyone who shops at a supermarket regularly knows that the produce section is very different from the dairy section, and the way that cereal is shelved is very different from the way that carbonated beverages are displayed. However, what is less clear are the ways in which stores stock those items, how they decide what to advertise and when. These decisions are made differently for different stores, and considerations fluctuate according to the types of customers who shop there. Some are regulated by federal laws, such as those that guide safe food handling practices, while many others are guided by the store managers, category managers, or the corporate office.

One thing we learned, and a concept that has become militantly common in public health, is the concept that policy takes the form of big and small policy decisions, articulated as the big P and a little p. By big P we mean state or national policy change. These are the kind of policies that many of us think of when we first hear the terms: formal laws rules and regulations, court rulings and budget funding. The Every Student Succeeds Act is a good example. In food policy, Child Nutrition Reauthorization may come to mind.

The little p while termed “little” is likely to generate a huge impact, but because it refers not to federal policy changes but rather smaller institutional policies or practices it is dubbed “little.” The p reflects the size of the implementing organization rather than the impact that results.

A little p refers to the day to day practices, administrative activities, and cultural norms that administrative bodies establish as they work toward achieving goals set by big P. 

Indeed, these guide much of the day to day expectations or practices and have a significant impact on how things get done, when they get done, and who does them.

In my spare time, I serve on the school board of the public school district where my children go to school. We are always discussing policies, but it’s not the big P as often as it’s the little p kind. We spend time thinking about how to support the administration as they strive to close gaps in test scores, implement valuable student activities, and conduct the endless array of the important management functions for a large suburban public school district. We worry about how to fund teacher salaries during lean economic times, how to ensure we maintain an efficient administrative and instructional structure that supports the needs of all of our district’s students at all stages of their education.

As we begin to uncover how research is used when evidence is brought to bear, it becomes increasingly important to also engage more thinking on the processes, procedures, administrative infrastructures, and community influences.

Doing so supports implementation and can lead administrators, teachers, and parents alike to use research-based findings.

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