Teachers Pursue Public Policy Degrees to Better Advocate for their Students

Millions of dollars are spent every year on education policy research, but actual classroom teachers struggle to access it. Researchers normally don’t translate their findings into easy-to-read briefs that educators realistically have time to consume. Additionally, teachers are often left out of the process as government officials enact education policy based on that research.

[Above: University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Public Policy building]

These factors combined result in government policy and legislation often lacking important voices — those of the teachers who help make a difference on the front lines. To tackle this problem head-on, more K-12 teachers are running for elected office, where they can directly affect policy decisions, while others are pursuing public policy degrees at colleges and universities across the United States.

Institute of Education Sciences (IES) director Mark Schneider calls the disconnect between teachers, education researchers, and policymakers the “last mile problem,” or the challenge of “getting information into the hands of the people who need it the most,” he says. Schneider says K-12 teachers want to participate in education research, yet many believe research is “done to them and not with them.”

Jennifer Steele
Jennifer Steele

But teachers have begun to take a stand, most notably in the 2018 midterm elections. A record number ran for public office and widespread teacher protests took place around the country regarding the lack of compensation and funding for public schools. Teachers felt the time had come for them to represent education in the public realm, says Jennifer Steele, EdD, an associate professor in the school of education at American University (AU) in Washington, D.C., and an affiliate faculty member in the university’s department of public administration and policy.

Steele, herself an educator who followed this path, says pursuing public policy degrees allows teachers to become better advocates for their students. “Part of my initial interest in getting a doctorate in education policy was to think about how to support evidence-based literacy practices in high school that prepare students to be college- and career-ready,” she says. “There’s a huge interest in education policy among teachers. … They’re intellectually curious and they’re driven by a desire to really make things better on a larger scale.”

Combining Policy and Practice

Educators are finding ways to enter the public policy and research realm, sometimes making the decision to leave the classroom to do so, according to Chris Curran, PhD, assistant professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

Chris Curran
Chris Curran

Before making this transition, however, gaining first-hand classroom experience is invaluable, he says. Curran began his career as a middle school science teacher in a disadvantaged area of rural Mississippi. After he noticed the impact of inequitable school funding, poverty, and racism, he decided to leave the classroom and pursue a PhD in educational policy and leadership at Vanderbilt University Peabody College in Nashville, Tenn. “In many ways [working in Mississippi] was some of the most meaningful, purposeful work I’ve ever done. There’s really nothing that compares to watching that light bulb [turn on] for a student,” he says.

But teachers don’t necessarily have to abandon the classroom altogether to pursue policy studies. The School of Public Policy at UMBC helps close the gap between educators, researchers, and policymakers by catering to its master’s and PhD programs part-time students, Curran says.

Approximately three-quarters of UMBC graduate students in these programs attend the university on a part-time basis and are often working simultaneously as teachers or district administrators. They are able to practice in their field and then “come to classes at our school of public policy at night, dive into the research, and acquire the methodological skills to conduct their own research,” Curran says. Their studies influence practice at the ground level in classrooms, he adds.

A UMBC partnership in the Baltimore area also helps bring stakeholders closer together. Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University, and Baltimore City Public Schools have created a long-term research partnership between academics and educators for data sharing, regular meetings about policy, and more effective translation of research into practice.

Steele, the AU professor, is also involved in partnership programs funded by IES. In a four-year study on dual-language education in a school district in Portland, Ore., she and other researchers collected administrative data, conducted focus groups with teachers, and gathered input on strengths and challenges. Steele’s team then presented their findings to administrators and teachers in the district, inviting them to share their perspectives. “I think the two-way street communication makes for better research,” she says.

Faculty at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis also believe education policy is intimately connected to social issues. The school does not offer a specific focus on related policy but rather embeds K-12 education topics within its social policy curriculum.

Laura Bloomberg
Laura Bloomberg

Students with an interest in this area are encouraged to take elective courses in the school of education, says Laura Bloomberg, PhD, dean of the Humphrey School and former member of the executive council at the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration. Students can also self-design a concentration in education policy or inequities.

Both Bloomberg and Steele advocate for more teacher voices when it comes to crafting and enacting educational policy. Public policy schools can require students to complete internships and gain exposure to real-world perspectives, Steele says. She also emphasizes the importance of courses in implementation science and stakeholder analysis, the latter of which involves understanding how a single policy change can affect different constituents, such as students, parents, local community members, teachers’ unions, schools of education, and more.

Alleviating the “Last Mile Problem” 

When asked how schools of public policy can fix the issue of information not reaching educators, Bloomberg says the field of education policy has a “translation issue” that can be alleviated by thinking about “what the consumer of our information needs.”

She emphasizes the importance of teaching public policy students the skill of translating detailed research papers into “succinct, evidence-based, very carefully worded but brief policy memos for a decision maker.” Such writings can help make complex information easier for busy classroom teachers to understand.

Steele believes another solution is using social media platforms like Twitter creatively to disseminate research results. In addition, she encourages researchers to make short videos summarizing their findings. “These gorgeous, high-production value videos that some research teams have made, … you can put those on YouTube and they are a great resource for a lot of people,” she says.

The latest education research doesn’t necessarily have to target those in the classroom, Steele adds. “We want our teachers to be aware of research and how it works, but we also need to realize that sometimes the district level and the state level is where the main level of education research often is, and that’s okay,” she says.

Stéphane Lavertu
Stéphane Lavertu

There are some inevitable limitations to collaboration between education policy researchers and teachers, says Stéphane Lavertu, PhD, associate professor in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University and co-principal investigator for the university’s Education Governance and Accountability Project. Teachers tend to look for answers to complex problems, but research normally addresses narrow issues. Compiling findings over time instead of releasing them piecemeal might provide more holistic answers to complex questions, Lavertu says.

Bloomberg “loves the idea of more teachers preparing themselves with good policy expertise” but also worries more will leave the classroom because they feel they must in order to improve conditions for themselves and their students. “We also have to create an environment where people who say, ‘I want to teach. This is the most noble profession, and I want to do it for my career,’ feel like they can,” she says.

Even as teachers enter the world of politics and policymaking, the onus remains on researchers to make their information easier to access and understand for both educators in and out of the classroom, Steele says. “It’s really the job of researchers to bring greater public understanding.”

Ginger O’Donnell is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article ran in our March 2019 issue.