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Ceremonial compliance: sustainability through policy implementation

We can always point to ‘Ceremonial Compliance when we reflect on policy implementation plans gone awry. What does it take to ensure that ‘what works best’ is captured at the system, schools and classroom levels and embedded in policy?

Sustainability and 5 Questions

I have long pondered the sustainability of best practice in system and school reform efforts. There are so many examples of failed attempts to ensure that students come first, that learning is at the core of our business, and that teachers feel supported in their efforts to teach all students – well.

I think we need to back up and ask ourselves ‘5 Tough Questions’:

  1. How are the shared beliefs and understandings about assessment that informs instruction captured in policy?

  2. How are assessment and instructional approaches collected, evidenced of impact, and shared as Knowledge Mobilization strategies across all schools in a system?

  3. How are all policies focused on the responsibility and accountability to the FACES of our students, teachers and leaders as learners?

  4. How is teacher voice inherited in the policy decision-making processes?

  5. How do systems leaders, school leaders and teachers unpack and understand the implications of policy in all that they do?

When systems engage in an attempt to implement strategies and policies for school reform, the challenge becomes whether they understand, adapt and implement these changes in classroom practice, successfully and sustainably, to ensure all students are growing and improving (our ‘Reason d’Etre’ in education).

David Labaree (2010) in his article, “Someone Has to Fail”, discusses how the education system is resistant to reform because organizations restrict the flow of policy from the rhetoric level (where policy is first established and mandated by policymakers and educational leaders) to policy implementation at the classroom level. Labaree determines that in order for policymaking to effectively result in school reform, change efforts need to successfully move from one level to the next, seamlessly, in the hierarchy of the education system. Labarree states that there are three levels in the education system: policymakers, school administrators and practitioners. Each of these ‘sets of actors’ occupies a critical part in the educational reform process. To Labaree’s research, I add my own: students as the fourth and certainly ultimate level of policy implementation and sustainability. For example:

Policymakers invite teachers and leaders in to be decision-makers in policy development

School Administrators (Superintendents, Supervisors and Principals) unblock the way for teachers and the broader community to establish the ‘look-fors’ of expected and effective practices in every classroom and become partners by conducting on-the-ground processes that get them into classrooms.

Teachers make their voices heard and buy-in to research-based, evidence-proven outcomes of strong teaching practices in every classroom.

Students are recipients of strong, impactful (gathered through evidence) assessment and instructional practices that improve their ability to declare their growth, achievement and next steps.

Why Do Our Sincere Reform Efforts Fail?

In my view, this is why educational reforms fail:

  • No alignment of policy with the current reality of schools and classrooms;

  • incoherence of the written, taught and assessed curriculum;

  • implementation fatigue of reformers at these four levels so ‘status-quo’ survives;

  • no leader, teacher and student voice, from the field, in policy development;

  • few examples of well-defined distributed leadership opportunities; and,

  • little attention in policy is paid to the importance of having a system and school ‘line-of-sight’ to students’ FACES (our moral and legislative obligation).

When it comes to policy directives, there can be resistance or a lack of effective change in which schools adopt multiple ‘initiatives’ and buy ‘the next best program’ to fulfil expected requirements and to respond to political and societal demands; however, school reform and change in schools’ learning culture is not always a direct outcome of policy implementation within schools (in personal conversation with Cristina Allegranza, Doctoral Student, OISE, University of Toronto, December 4, 2020).

School culture, that is held values and beliefs, communication and collaboration among teachers and administrators, may contribute or hinder policy development. David Zarifa and Scott Davies (2014) discuss the concept of ‘ceremonial compliance’ in which schools, for example, will conceal internal processes and core practices, while appearing, on the surface, to be actively engaged in school reform. “In education, organizational researchers refer to concealment as ‘ceremonial compliance’, a similar process in which organizations change their formal structure to signal conformity, but then allow their internal units to operate independent of these pressures” (Davies and Zarifa, 2009, p. 16). Does this research resonate with you as a leader and teacher?

What Does It Take to Lead While Learning the Work of System and School Improvement?

We know that students’ learn when practitioners change assessment and instructional practices to meet all students’ needs (Sharratt, 1996). Policies to embed this research fail when there is no movement from 1st- order change (telling and compliance) to 2nd – order change (changed practice to increase students’ achievement). In other words, we must

  1. unpack the sub-group data to ensure ALL students are learning;

  2. prove assessment is used to differentiate instructional approaches for all students;

  3. dismantle the hierarchical structures that get in the way of learning across panels, across departments, across sectors;

  4. develop and work towards unified goals and unifying goals of improvement in leadership, teaching and learning practices;

  5. build trust and open spaces so there are opportunities to hear all voices at decision-making tables;

  6. engage system leaders, school leaders, teachers and students in growth-promoting, distributed leadership practices that are authentic because there is responsibility by all for the outcomes of the work (Sharratt, 2019; and,

  7. keep policies in ‘draft’, never settling for ‘status quo’ but always inventing the ‘next best learning move’;

First-Order Change is engagement in the above seven ‘big ideas’. Second-order change begins when the 4 levels (system leaders, school leaders, teachers and students) move to shared responsibility and accountability and empowerment by demonstrating these seven ‘big ideas’. Why? Because they are totally committed to finding ‘what works best’ in learning, teaching and leading – and embedding them in policy to sustain the work. Only then does ‘dependency’ (first-order change) become ‘interdependency’ (second-order change) (Mujis and Harris, 2003). Enacting ‘second-order change’ moves those involved from ‘ceremonial compliance’ to enacting policies that demand educators take time to invest in their own learning and the learning of others. The result? All students own their own learning and improvement.


Davies, Scott and David Zarifa. 2009. “New Institutional Theory and the Weberian Tradition.” Canadian Perspectives on the Sociology of Education, edited by Cynthia Levine-Rasky. Toronto: Oxford.

Labaree, D. F. (2012). Organizational Resistance to Reform. Someone Has to Fail, 106–133.

Muijs, D., & Harris, A. (2003). Teacher Leadership—Improvement through Empowerment? Educational Management & Administration,31(4), 437-448. doi:10.1177/0263211x030314007

Sharratt, L. (1996). How Teachers Learn when the Stimulus for their Learning is ICT. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Toronto: Toronto Canada.

Sharratt, L. (2019). CLARITY: What matters most in Learning, teaching and leading. CA: Corwin Press.

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