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Changing Education Through Public Policy

David McPherson

From Vietnam to Poland to the Middle East, David McPherson, a professor in the Department of Communication Disorders, has been influential in changing public policies to better serve children with hearing disabilities. At a recent Educational Inquiry, Measurement, and Evaluation (EIME) seminar, McPherson taught students how public policy can be developed to improve education.

Proposing a program to local or state legislatures will not bring about results if a person cannot establish why the program is needed said McPherson. He advised future educational leaders to consider the following before approaching any legislative body:

  1. Data. Public policy changes must be data driven. “We have to get out of our armchairs and really go and do something,” McPherson said.
  2. Resources. Administrators need to understand the importance of a new policy before they’ll advocate funding for it.
  3. The problem. Those who want to change public policy need to be able to demonstrate how the change will solve a public problem.

McPherson learned the importance of these considerations in Vietnam, where children with disabilities are traditionally kept out of society, including schools. Yet surveys in schools are the ways the country determines the population of people with hearing disabilities. McPherson decided that demographic studies would show the ministry of health the true scope of the problem. His study conducted hearing screenings in small villages of Vietnam. However, presenting data to the ministry would not be enough. “You have to present a solution with it and keep in mind their resources,” McPherson emphasized. “Children with disabilities are not always on the top priority for infrastructure. If they’re going to understand your problem, you’ve also got to also understand their problems.”

While in Vietnam, McPherson and other McKay School faculty held training sessions with physicians on how to do screenings and interventions for hearing disabilities. Their initiative now has support from the ministry of health in Vietnam because they were able to show the cost to society of not helping a hearing impaired individual compared to providing intervention and allowing him or her to contribute to society.

On one occasion, McPherson and other McKay School faculty visited a 21-year-old female who had moderate to severe hearing loss. Dr. Richard Harris made the ear molds, and McPherson put the hearing aids on. The woman’s father called his daughter by name, and she immediately turned around to him. He cried. “It was the first time I saw a man cry in Vietnam,” McPherson said. He asked the father why he was emotional, and the father said, “You don’t understand doctor. Now my daughter can get married and I can have grandchildren.” After sharing this touching experience, McPherson said, “We can make an impact on public policy on the big level, but we can really change the life of an individual.”

McPherson also shared an example of a policy change that failed to make an impact. The State of California decided to mandate that infants be screened for hearing impairments, but for several years this program failed, not because it didn’t identify children with hearing loss, but because there was no intervention. “We had these wonderful lists with no intervention,” McPherson said. He told students that intervention is always the most expensive and important part.

In Poland, McPherson did screenings on children in the public schools. He took a group of BYU students who were paired with Polish students, physicians, and technicians. After they completed the screenings, McPherson met with the ministry of health. He suggested the group develop remote screening techniques, allowing schools to administer the tests through the Internet and transmit the results to an institute. McPherson’s group developed a series of satellite medical facilities to receive the results on the students diagnosed with a hearing loss so that those students could receive the needed intervention. This project is ongoing and has been inexpensive. The institute in Poland is now the largest speech and hearing center for children in Europe.

Dr. McPherson told the EIME students that public policy has to start at the ground level. “You have to make sure that you are solving the problems before you go to the ministry, and you have to know what questions they are going to ask so that you can provide the answers,” he said. “If they don’t have the money, just ask for permission and then prove the viability of the project, and you’ll suck them into the project.”

In Syra, McPherson is working with the office of the First Lady, Her Excellency Mrs. Asma al-Assad and five other Syrian physicians and professionals in establishing a series of rehabilitation centers and the development of government policy on individuals with disabilities. Initially, the program was providing services from an old house, but now has a modern facility providing services for the blind, hearing impaired, children with autism, and individuals with speech and language disorders.

“In Syria and Poland, public policy was changed and lives were changed,” McPherson shared. Improving education through public policy is difficult. McPherson told students “You’ve got to be like a telephone marketer. You have to have thick skin. You have to not take no for an answer, and you have to believe in what you’re doing and have a passion for it.”

25 January 2010