There’s an educator in the White House. What does this mean for policy?

More votes were cast in the 2020 presidential election than ever before. People across the country are listening, debating, and volunteering—ready to take an active role in our democracy.

With the election of President Biden comes a new direction for education policy, along with a newly appointed secretary of education. As a Biden administration begins, what can teachers expect in terms of policy priorities? Additionally, whether it’s locally or at the state or national level, how can classroom teachers make an impact and get their voices heard by the people writing and executing new directives?

Dr. Aaliyah Samuel, executive vice president of government affairs and partnerships for NWEA, shared her insight on these issues and more with our teacher newsletter, Show of Hands. This article first appeared in the December 2020 issue. Some of her responses have been edited for length and clarity.

From your perspective as a policy expert, what opportunities for change or progress lie in the years ahead?

One of the things COVID has done is really opened the door for the need to think about school differently. Going back to a traditional model isn’t going to be easy, and for some teachers and students it’s not an option, so there’s a lot to consider. Although there is a big push to reopen schools, which is critically important for some students and families, I just think that the model of education is going to have to be nimble to meet the various needs of families and teachers. And there’s just still so much unknown with the virus that there is going to be a huge influx of folks who are ready to go back and others that say, “I don’t ever want to go back.”

For example, my 10-year-old, he’s virtual for the year, and they gave us an option to revisit that last week. We sat down and talked to him and asked him what he wanted to do. And he was like, “So it’s just two days a week, there’s no PE, there’s no recess, there’s no lunchtime?” And he was like, “Oh, no, then I want to keep working at home.”

I also think that it’s important to underscore the opportunity for innovation in education. Simply put, we don’t have to return to the exact same model that once existed because we know it didn’t work for so many students. So how can we use this window of opportunity to reimagine and modernize education?

According to President Biden’s education plan, he intends to focus his administration’s efforts on teacher pay, ensuring schools have resources, equity, and college and career readiness. Is this a departure from what we’ve seen in the past four years?

I would say, yes, it is a big departure from the last administration, but not from the national discourse. I think education advocates have very much been pushing for the same thing. It just wasn’t necessarily a priority in this administration. And one thing that became crystal clear during this pandemic is the need for teachers. Teachers are frontline workers and should be paid accordingly. It’s time to address the compensation gap from early childhood into K–12 and increase pay holistically for educators.

Do you the think the teacher voice will be front and center with Dr. Jill Biden, a lifelong educator, in the White House?

Absolutely. I do think there’s going to be a real emphasis on the practitioner voice. I also think that, because of the eruption of conversations about equity, income and racial diversity will be at the forefront. I do think that the importance and need for diversity across all fronts will also be critical. It’s time to bring all voices into policy conversations. I love the phrase “Don’t do anything for us without us.” This is a time to truly include everyone as we continue to rebuild.

But even before those conversations kick off from the White House, educators need to remember: you are not powerless. You don’t have to wait to figure out what they’re going to do. We’ve seen, when teachers rally together, what they can do for change. We saw it in Arizona. We saw it in North Carolina during the teacher strikes. Itis a matter of getting organized and being willing to take a strong stance to say, “This is what matters with us.”

I think we have to flip that narrative of waiting for the opportunity versus taking the opportunity.

As federal, state, and district leaders and policymakers begin to determine what the “new normal” looks like, how can teachers make sure they’re a part of those conversations?

Now, more than ever, we have to empower our teachers and leaders, whether it’s at a local level through their teacher unions or the state level through advocacy organizations, to elevate their voices. Teachers are critically important. This is the chance for them to say, “We’re frontline workers. If you want us to reopen schools, give us the resources and the pay that we deserve.”

One of the big things President Biden is serious about doing is stacking more political-appointee positions and more positions within the education with actual practitioners—people who have been teachers, who have been on the ground. And, so, the fact that we will have more educators in these positions of power means it’s a great time to elevate that voice.

If I’m a classroom teacher and I’m excited about this opportunity, where do I start? Do I need to devote a lot of time?

It makes sense to think closer to home at first, at the state level, because so much of a state’s budget goes toward education. Understanding the importance of voting and putting people in those state-level positions that match what you fundamentally believe in is critical. Local elections absolutely matter.

I would say start with your colleagues because you have to get larger buy-in from your peers. From there, it’s coming up with what those common concerns are. Once you know your priorities, next steps can be phone calls or in-person meetings with district leadership or key legislators in your state to say, “Here are the things that are important to us.”

In terms of engagement, it can vary based off of interest, availability, and ability. Some teachers can commit to contacting the teachers’ union or writing pieces for the local paper. For some people, it can be as small as, “I’m going to make sure I vote or really pay attention to the candidates.” For others, it could be, “You know what, I’m going to write an email to my local senator so things important to teachers don’t go unnoticed.”

Figuring out not only what you want your voice to be, but how you want to use it, matters.

You transitioned from teaching and school leadership into full-time education policy and advocacy work. What advice would you give to teachers who are thinking about getting more involved in their communities?

A lot of times advocacy and policy seem like that big thing for someone else to do. But it really starts with a collection of voices that start to create the reverberations that you need to create policy change. It starts with a small group of people who fundamentally believe in something, who are willing to talk about the issue, bring other people into the conversation, and expand it. I mean, we’ve seen advocacy take off from Facebook groups, from coalition letters; it starts with really getting clear on what the challenges and opportunities are and just rallying and bringing people together. It’s not as big of a thing as people make it out to be. It really starts with just exercising your voice.

Are there any sites or places teachers can go to learn more about education policy or getting involved?

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a good one. Also the K–12 Daily newsletter from Education Dive, along with FutureEd, a think tank out of Georgetown University that publishes research, reports, and articles.

Sign up to receive the next issue of Show of Hands, and hear more from Dr. Samuel about the education policy landscape in her podcast, Testing America’s Freedom, available now. Learn about President Biden’s pick for secretary of education, Miguel Cardona, and his pick for deputy secretary of education, Cindy Marten, in EdWeek.

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