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How to effectively engage with policymakers

Last year, I had the unique opportunity to work on federal education policy in Congress, serving as a legislative fellow in the U.S. House of Representatives. Selected by the U.S. Department of Energy as one of 19 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellows (K-12 STEM teachers from around the country who live and work in Washington for a year), my fellowship gave me a behind-the-scenes view of how the legislative branch actually works (or doesn’t). I also learned some valuable lessons about effective engagement with policy makers.

1. Understand your audience

Conventional wisdom suggests that money drives all decisions in politics, but I’m happy to report that elected officials in Congress are very responsive to their constituents. As such, scheduling meetings with your representatives can be a powerful way to advocate for a specific issue. Face time with a representative can be hard to come by, so consider scheduling time with a staff member. In Congress, staff-level meetings are incredibly productive, and staff-to-staff contacts drive much of the behind-the-scenes work. Don’t know the name of the staff member? Finding out is as easy as calling the office and asking: “Can you give me the name of the L.A. [legislative assistant] who covers education?” Contacting that person directly is a great way to both introduce yourself and set up a meeting to discuss your issue.

As a Congressional staffer, I took time to meet with everyone who contacted me. As a constituent, I had the opportunity to meet with staff from my own representatives (Republican and Democratic), all of whom made time to meet with me, usually within a day or two of the request. In the event that geography and time constraints prevent face-to-face meetings, phone calls can also work.

Congressional staff members tend to be young (mid-20’s to early 30’s), and most lack teaching experience. However, these staffers are generally smart and well versed in policy. The trick to effective advocacy is translating between the knowledge of the classroom instructor and knowledge of the policy maker. The more you can speak their language, the more likely they are to hear your message. It is also helpful to frame the conversation in terms of your representatives’ educational priorities (which is often easy to find on the representatives’ website); while staffers are responsive to constituent concerns, they are more responsive to constituent concerns that align with their boss’s priorities.

2. Craft your message

While the outward appearance of Congress suggests a slow, rather ineffective institution, Congressional staffers tend to work very long hours and have hectic schedules. Bottom line: advocates have to be persuasive and efficient. The most effective messages tend to be simple in format: they lay out the problem, they talk about why the problem matters, and they lay out a solution to the problem, with 1-2 specific actions the representative can take.

Prior to your meeting, take the time to condense your message down to a one-page document you can leave with the staff member. Where possible, talk about specific policy solutions; the more specific and policy oriented your solution is, the more likely the staffer will understand your solution. It’s not enough to say: ‘We need better professional development opportunities.’ You need to talk about increased funding for Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the policy framework that directs federal funding toward professional development. is a fantastic resource for learning more about specific pieces of legislation, as the site provides bill texts, summaries, and voting statistics.

Be wary of using too many anecdotes to make your case. While anecdotes can be powerful tools in framing the problem (or giving a glimpse into a proposed solution), they are only one component of an effective message. I had colleagues in the House who would tell stories about disastrous meetings with teachers who spent their entire meeting showing student work and telling stories about individual students. While that might work at a conference presentation, it doesn’t work when engaging with policy-minded individuals. Again, you have to speak their language.

It’s also important to recognize that teacher voice is one voice in the educational conversation, and representatives have to be responsive to all voices. The best message will frame solutions in a way that addresses all different stakeholders (parents, students, administrators).

3. Set realistic expectations

Effective advocates recognize that change happens incrementally, and sustained efforts are the key to success. That means we have to set realistic expectations about the impact of a single meeting. It’s questionable whether a single visit, from a first-time advocate, will change a member’s mind on an issue, or result in a new piece of legislation. However, office visits serve as an important first step in building relationships with members and staff.

Maybe after the office visit, you follow up with an email message. Maybe a few weeks later, you schedule a phone call to revisit the issue, putting it back on the staffer’s radar. Once that relationship is in place, it’s much easier to get in contact with a staffer when a critical vote comes up. Acting as a constituent, I was able to set up a meeting with my senator’s education staffer the day before a vote on the No Child Left Behind rewrite, and despite his packed schedule, he took the time to discuss my concerns about the bill, as well as the senator’s priorities. I have continued communicating with this staff member, even after leaving Washington, and he is always willing to engage with me when I have questions about education issues.

Prior to my fellowship, I found the notion of visiting a Congressional office to be very intimidating. But I was happy to learn that these offices are accessible to anyone who wants to visit, and are very receptive to constituent concerns. I also found the process of engaging with my own representatives to be very empowering, creating a feedback loop that resulted in more advocacy. While I recognize that educators face enormous time constraints, I would encourage those of you with an interest in advocacy to give it a try: it’s a lot easier than you might think, and is a critical step in ensuring teacher voice is part of the larger, national discourse in education.

Jeff Milbourne

Jeff Milbourne taught high school physics in North Carolina for 10 years, worked in the US Congress, and is currently wrapping up a PhD in Science Education. He is National Board Certified, a winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, and a member of CTQ’s Collaboratory.