Teaching Education Policy & Politics from a Distance

CTS Director Joe Bishop Tackles Remote Instruction Amid Pandemic

Joe Bishop, Director, UCLA CTS

Joseph P. Bishop is the Director of the Center for the Transformation of Schools (CTS) at UCLA. At CTS, he works with colleagues on campus and across California to help educational leaders develop and implement strategies that place equity at the center of classrooms, schools and educational policy.

Bishop earned his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, Policy and Organizations from the University of California, Santa Barbara and has held a number of senior level policy positions with state and national education organizations.  Before coming to UCLA, Bishop was a senior policy advisor with the Learning Policy Institute where he oversaw the organization’s school funding portfolio and supported state efforts to address teaching shortages and build quality early care and education systems. He also formerly served as a governor-appointed member of the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

This spring, Bishop is adding a welcome wrinkle to his role  – for the first time he is teaching a class at UCLA — Policy Analysis and the Real Politics of Education.And making matters a little more complex – with campus closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic – he, like many other faculty members, is teaching the class using remote-learning technologies.

The course explores the central role education policy continues to play in debates about the nation’s future.Education policy represents a powerful vehicle to address historic patterns of inequality and opportunity, yet many policy responses have proven to be largely inadequate in reducing racial disparities in academic outcomes throughout the United States.

Issues such as racial segregation, school funding inequities, teacher shortages, language rights and more continue to generate considerable controversy and conflict.  A schools-alone policy approach that ignores the needs of the community in which education institutions are situated has proven to be insufficient, and at times has actually accelerated education disparities. The changing racial, political and social characteristics of students and education decision makers is allowing for more critical conversations today about the purpose of education policy as an instrument for social change and justice.

The primary goal of the course is to provide students with a foundational understanding of the educational challenges impacting American public education and the role of policy in mitigating those challenges. Students in the course are encouraged to explore the ways in which policy and politics shape education, learning about the major policy issues in education and are encouraged to reflect upon their own educational experiences.

As the Spring quarter of the course rolls out at a distance, student have had access to traditional academic resources. However, to enhance the distance learning process Bishop has also invited a range of policy experts to share their views and engage in discussion with students during Zoom lectures.  For example, in one class session exploring the role of the federal government in supporting the educational success of students and families, participants included Arnold Fege, President, Public Advocacy for Kids, Janel George, Senior Advisor, for to the Learning Policy Institute, and Bruce Lesley, the President of First Focus. Other policy leaders have also participated, giving students access to experts with deep levels of real world policy experience.

Bishop shared more about his course on, “Policy Analysis and the Real Politics of Education,”and the challenges and strengths of distance learning with Knowledge That Matters.

John McDonald: So, tell me a little about the class.

Joseph Bishop: The class is Policy Analysis and the Real Politics of Education. We want students to rethink what policy is — who designs, who implements, and who’s involved in the policy-making process.

Education policy in the United States was not originally intended to address inequality or genocide or slavery, it was intended to prepare people for agrarian society and the industrial age.  We want students to gain some historical perspective and context about education policy, but fundamentally, because of poverty and the fact that we know that schools alone can’t address deep social divides, we have to think much more broadly about what policy is and what it could be. I want students to walk away with a much broader idea of what policy is. And I think in particular, I want them to see themselves in policy in ways that they didn’t think of themselves before.

We are also talking about how research rarely informs policy and the politics of education. We’re having great conversations about why education policy has been ineffective, about campaign finance reform, a lot of topics. But all these pieces ultimately are about who’s in power, who’s not in power, who are the haves and have-not’s in our society, and whether education policy is a vehicle to either change that or to reinforce some of those patterns.

JM:With the pandemic, things kind of got turned on their head, and this quarter all classes moved to remote learning. What’s that been like? What were your challenges and concerns?

JB:At first, I think I was concerned that the technical parts of teaching… I mean, that the technology itself would become a big barrier for students. And also me, just fumbling or not being able to use Zoom very well as an instructional tool.

I was also worried that some students would not have access to a computer or a good connection.  What do we do? What can I do differently? And I was thinking, Okay, for 75 students, how is this going to work? How am I going to keep students engaged for a two-hour lecture?

So, I purposely brought in more guest speakers with the intent to expand student perspectives on who policymakers are:  including classroom teachers, principals, community organizers, civil rights attorneys and Governor Newsom’s education advisor.

JM:One of reasons I wanted to interview you was what when word first went out we were moving to remote learning, I saw you speak out on Twitter and say, “Hey, I’m going to make this as good as I can.” You seemed kind of excited about it. So, how is it going? What excites you about this?

JB:I’ve just been excited about, “Okay, we have to make this as entertaining, as engaging as possible for two hours.” And frankly, it’s a good distraction for me as an instructor for the class.

I feel like it’s an amazing opportunity to get students thinking about their potential and what they can do in this world. Because I think right now we’re all very much in a reactive state. We feel like we don’t have control, to a large degree, of what’s happening in our surroundings and in our world.

We’re bringing in speakers to help them think about what does that mean, but also to think about what essential question for our democracy: what’s the appropriate role of the federal government, the state, and locals in supporting the educational success of students and families.

I am really thinking about this group of 75 students. I’m also working, closely with my TAs, Felicia Graham and Mary Louise-Leger, who are Urban Schooling doctoral students.  We plan together every week: “Okay, I’ll do this, you do this.” I think it’s much more of a collaborative teaching model because when you’re managing a slide deck, a chat box, students raising their hand…it’s a lot for one person to manage for a large lecture.

JM:So, have you been able to get some support?

JB: I’m finding out that we have a lot of resources on campus that I didn’t know that we had, and experts on campus around distance education like Mitsue Yokota. And in GSE&IS, we had department-level training and meetings, and an advisor was assigned for each of our classes. I’ve had a lot of people check in and say, “What do you need?” We have done prep calls for the class. I feel like communication has been really stellar.

JM:Now that the class is in full swing, what do you think, how do you feel about distance learning?

JB:Well, learning still is a relational process that best happens in person. There’s just something about it. One student shared with me that she’s not shy, but on video she says it feels weird to ask questions or to speak up. I think it’s bringing up unexpected dynamics that wouldn’t exist in a face-to-face learning setting.

But I think COVID-19 has required us to accelerate the way that we think about learning for the university quickly. We’ve had to learn how to provide distance education to students who deserve a quality education. And this I think this has really pushed us to start implementing some different ideas and instructional models.  Remote education is one of them.

I must say, people are really adapting and learning quickly. So I’ve been really impressed by, honestly, UCLA’s response to this. I know that there’s still things to work out and work through, but I think the attitude of most has been, “All right, I’m going to roll up my sleeves and do what I can to make this a quality learning experience because the students deserve it.” That to me, has been encouraging. I’m impressed by the faculty and their willingness to jump right in.

And I’m just impressed by how students are committed to the class and want to do well and want to learn. 75 students staying on the Zoom call for two hours with me? That’s impressive.