Topic 3: Practice - Policy Feedback Loops


Often PDSA cycles are carried out at the practice level.  However, Practice to Policy Feedback Loops are carried out on a larger scale in a more complex environment.  This process occurs less frequently and at slower pace than rapid-cycle problem-solving and usability testing. 

Practice to Policy Feedback Loops are PDSA cycles designed to provide organizational leaders and policy makers with information about implementation barriers and successes so that a more aligned system can be developed. Feedback from the practice level (Practice Informed Policy) engages and informs organizational leaders so that they can ensure that policy, procedures, resources, etc. enable innovative practices to occur in classrooms, schools, and districts (Policy Enabled Practice) as intended.

Critical to any effort to coordinate the implementation of the new practice, program, or policy, is the need to intervene actively, at multiple levels of implementation to help increase the likelihood that such meta-contingencies as funding, licensing, referral mechanisms, policies, regulations, and reporting requirements are aligned to support the new way of work.

This graphic illustrates the PDSA cycle in the context of a Practice-Policy Communication Cycle.  Policymakers often execute plans in the form of laws, guidelines, regulations and funding opportunities.   At some point “doing” the policy impacts the practice (e.g., at the teacher, school, or district level).  That’s often the end of the PDSA cycle. We Plan-Do and Plan-Do without feedback about how the policy is impacting practice.  The Study-Act Feedback arrow represents bi-directional communication; the direct feedback of information and data to inform policymakers about policy impact on practice.  Communication Cycles enable policies, structures, procedures and practices to become better aligned to support effective educational programs and practices.



Using policy to mandate change and provide incentives works best when:

“Haven’t we always used policy to promote and support change?”

  • everyone who is required to participate has the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to enact the change
  • everyone involved has a reasonably similar definition of the problem and potential solutions are generally known and agreed upon  
  • the only thing that was lacking to address the challenge and create change was permission, motivation, and resources to move forward

However, when it comes to adopting, effectively using, and scaling evidence-based innovations and instructional practices, we typically need to support educators in gaining confidence and developing new competencies.  Certainly policies should be passed and incentives provided that ‘enable’ the new practice to be used as intended.  But such policies and incentives are seldom sufficient for making transformative or systemic change that results in academically or socially significant outcomes. 

For example, Federal and State governments make new policies designed to improve practices every year so this is common across all States. What distinguishes successful system change efforts from the many failures that occur in education, health, and human services is the FEEDBACK from the practice level to inform the policy makers of the enabling or inhibiting aspects of the policy – right side of the graphic. 

And, not surprisingly, priorities related to using evidence-based innovations at the district, school, and classroom level do not always neatly align with the latest federal requirements, state statutes or school board mandates.  The system is a complex one with many adaptive challenges.  This means that there are many unintended or unanticipated consequences related to the adoption of any innovation. 

A process to ensure that ‘policy enables practice’ and that ‘practice informs policy’ can help improve our chances to make change and achieve outcomes.  Enabling policies set the stage for implementation, reduce perceived risk, and promote the new ways of work.  And when you add the opportunity for the practice level to inform policy about the impact there is a much greater likelihood that we will create ‘hospitable’ environments over time.  Recurring feedback loops that involve policy enabling practices and the practice level informing policy will create conditions that support, rather than hinder, the use of evidence-based practices.     

Key Functions and Processes

The System ‘As Is’

“What were they thinking when they mandated this?”

“These higher standards and incentives should get things rolling.”

“It was tough getting these regulations approved.  I wonder what support people will need to implement well?”

In most systems, there are no formal mechanisms for the practice level to inform the policy level.  Instead there typically are layers of managers and administrators between those implementing the practice and the ‘policy’ makers.  This ‘layering’ makes sense for solving the right problems at the right level.  However, some problems need to be ‘lifted up’ to the next level for resolution. 

Without a known and transparent process for communicating challenges to the right level, the layers serve to buffer the organizational leaders and policymakers from hearing about or experiencing the challenges and unintended consequences of the new policy, guidelines, incentives, or reporting requirements.  Or one-way communication prevents understanding other variables that maybe preventing implementation from occurring as intended.


The following processes can be helpful when creating this policy to practice PDSA loop.

Get Ready - Exploration

Make no mistake about it, creating and productively using two-way communication channels between policy levels and practice levels is a paradigm shift.  You are challenging the status quo.  This means that time is required for discussion, buy-in and creating the process.  The Implementation Team can help navigate among levels and gain consensus and agreement to develop, try out, and improve the Policy – Practice Feedback Process.  Here are some questions to guide your work.

Do we have our rationales ready as we work to set up processes?  And are we able to tailor them to the people with whom we are communicating?

Do we have agreement between or among the ‘levels’ to productively participate in this type of communication?  For example…

  • Will principals or school leadership teams agree to ‘receive’ information from the classroom teachers in an organized way and on a regular basis?
  • Will the District Implementation Team agree to hear from building leadership and teachers directly about how implementation is progressing?  
  • Will everyone involved agree to celebrate the process of communication regardless of whether a challenge or strength is being highlighted (e.g. “Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention.”)?

Get Set - Installation

Do we have a transparent, shared process for communication?
Do we have agreement that issues will be addressed?

  • Will we agree to address the issue in a timely manner and/or communicate with those who can address it in a timely manner?
  • Will we get back to the originators of the information to let them know what’s happening?
  • Are we committed to understanding how the issues are impacting successful use of the innovation and persisting in finding solutions?

Do we have a process for orienting the participating groups to the forms, frequency, processes?  Do we have a way to get feedback on how it is working? 

Here is a link to an example of a linking communication protocol that may be helpful:
Handout 8: Communication Protocols Worksheet.

Go Initial Implementation

Engaging in PDSA work as the process is being used will result in an increasingly productive, timely, and functional process.  It may seem obvious, but the first few uses of the process should be treated as a usability test.  Or there may be emergent issues that stop the process in its tracks and call for rapid-cycle problem-solving.  The Implementation Team needs to be prepared to support the parties involved in engaging in what may be perceived as ‘risky behavior’.

Keep Going – Full Implementation

The end goal is to have the communication processes between and among levels routinized, transparent, reinforced, and functional.  It will take time and energy to get there.  The rounds of PDSA work will help get you there.  And an annual review of how well the processes are working also will help adjust the processes over time.


Other Processes

There are two other processes that can be used together or separately to help improve communication and feedback between and among levels.  These are linked-in agenda items and linked team membership.

Linked–In Agenda Items

A linked-in agenda items refers to beginning each meeting with agenda items that ask the following:

At the beginning of the agenda, the chair asks:

  • Is there any follow-up communication from our previous requests we have made of others?
  • Are there new issues that need our input and support that are coming to us from other parts of the system?

At the end of the agenda, the chair asks:

  • Are there any requests of others arising out of this meeting?
  • Is there information to communicate to others who have requested our input, support, or problem-solving?
  • Having these questions posed by the chair at the beginning of the meeting ensures that that the feedback loops are on the agenda. 

Having these questions posed by the chair at the beginning and the end of the meeting ensures that that the feedback loops are on the agenda. 

Linked Team Membership

Another logical way to encourage linking communication and policy-practice feedback loops is by ensuring that membership on each team (e.g. building, district, state), to the extent practicable, includes designated representatives from other levels.  Building teams could have a member of the district office who attends regularly or who serves as the point of communication.  District teams can and should have representation from building level staff and regular communication with relevant regional entities.  Embedding other levels in a single team helps facilitate communication. 


To conclude, practice-policy feedback loops are an example of an improvement cycle process.  Practice-Policy Feedback Loops are established to ensure that barriers to effective practice are brought to the attention of policy makers and to assist in the development of policy enable practices and practice informed policies.  Improvement cycles share a common framework, the PDSA Cycle, and can be used in various ways to facilitate the necessary adjustments to the system to support effective innovations.