Bringing Stakeholders to the Policy Table

One of the fundamental challenges of crafting and implementing successful policies in education is that the people experiencing those policies first-hand—educators, students, principals, teacher preparation leaders, teacher candidates—have little influence in shaping them. After all, they’re at work all day, teaching and learning. They’re not in state education agencies or district offices, hashing out the nitty-gritty of teacher evaluation systems, tenure policies or compensation plans.

But those policies have a direct impact on what happens to students and their education outcomes. How teachers are trained and hired determines who stands in front of students every day, and how well prepared they are to do their jobs. How teachers are paid and evaluated affects how long they stay in the profession.

That’s why it’s critical that policymakers solicit input from those who will be affected by new policies, as they’re developing them. Educators, school and district leaders, parents and other stakeholders often bring perspectives that may not have been considered so far. It’s one of the reasons that we rely heavily on teacher and principal surveys and focus groups in our own policy studies. Perhaps most importantly, engaging directly with the folks who are experiencing the on-the-ground effects of policies can help generate greater buy-in, and avoid “gotcha!” moments when stakeholders feel caught off-guard by a new system or regulation.

Policymakers in several states are already testing out strategies for soliciting feedback, and they offer useful models to learn from. In Connecticut, state leaders formed the Educator Preparation Advisory Council (EPAC) to develop recommendations on educator preparation regulations. Drawing on the expertise of EPAC members, including representatives of pre-K-12 schools, colleges, universities, boards of education, unions and others, Connecticut developed a framework for strengthening educator preparation that was unanimously adopted by the State Board of Education. (Full Disclosure: TNTP supported CSDE on this and other work.)

In Connecticut, the process resulted in outcomes that met the state’s goal, while hearing the voices of those whose day-to-day work would be affected. This points to some best practices that can help policymakers elsewhere plan for productive conversations with educators:

Start with a clear goal. Policymakers should start with a vision in mind for what they hope to learn from the process and how the policy will help teachers and students. Are they trying to get big-picture feedback on an idea? Are they sharing a specific policy or several versions of a policy and looking for stakeholders’ input on the fine print?

Choose the right people to engage. Once policymakers know the purpose of going to the field, they can determine who can best provide feedback. Among those who will be affected by a policy change, consider who can offer a varying perspective, or who has unique expertise on the issue. Is it those who are most closely connected to the work at hand, and have the greatest on-the-ground knowledge? Or those who will be responsible for implementing the policy? Policymakers should be clear about whose input they want, and recognize that it may be different people at different stages.

Choose the right forum (or forums) to meet that vision. Opportunities range from one-on-one interviews with select educators, surveys, focus groups, task forces, and even formal cabinets or advisory groups. Make it as easy as possible for them to share their thoughts (for example, visiting schools to conduct focus groups, rather than asking educators to do the traveling.) There is no single best method to gather feedback; often, multiple strategies will be necessary at various points throughout the policy development process.

Come to the table ready to listen (even when the feedback is hard to swallow). Policymakers should have a plan in place to adjust course based on practitioner input. That doesn’t mean taking every piece of feedback that comes their way—but if they’re listening for concerns that seem consistent across large groups, or tweaks that would build trust in the process (like extending a timeline for implementation, or including a pilot year with opportunities to collect feedback and make adjustments), they’ll likely be better off than they were before soliciting the feedback.

Be transparent, even about the feedback that gets rejected. When policymakers opt to go a different direction than the feedback suggested, offering a clear rationale for the choice can make those who gave input feel listened to, even if their suggestions weren’t put into practice.

At the same time, successful conversations between educators and policymakers don’t rest entirely on the policy side. Educators and other stakeholders should be prepared to give constructive feedback. Rather than just saying no to a controversial proposal, for example, educators should offer concrete suggestions for how policymakers could improve the plan. All too often, policymakers don’t ask for input. When they do, teachers and school leaders should take every advantage, and ask themselves how they can contribute most effectively.

The process of collecting feedback—and more importantly, putting it into practice—is certainly harder than not collecting that feedback. But in the long term, policies crafted with the input and genuine support of educators will enable more sustainable change. Those policies will be smarter because they are informed by those in the field.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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