Seven Thoughts on Education Policy

I created the eCard above and somehow it went viral. It's not all that clever or really all that funny. But somehow it struck a nerve. In the process, a teacher at my school e-mailed it to the staff and another teacher, in passing, said, "I really don't like when teachers post political stuff on staff e-mail. Actually, I don't think we should be getting involved in politics at all. Maybe privately, but not publicly."

It left me with some lingering questions: Should teachers advocate for or against policy? Is teaching inherently political? What do we gain and lose from political neutrality? Is it okay for teachers to talk politics in the staff lounge? In a staff e-mail?

Here are my all-over-the-place thoughts:

  1. Be an Advocate: Teachers need to advocate for or against education policies. There's a myth that we can just shut up and focus on our classrooms. However, the way we teach, what we teach, how the classes are organized, etc. all stem from codified policies. We need to offer an educated stance on policy issues and prove that nuance and intelligence can be more effective than fear and talking points. 
  2. Share the Human Side: Some of the hardest policies aren't directly education-related. I've seen what a broken immigration system has led to among my students. I'm most likely to alienate fellow teachers when I mention social and political issues that affect my students. However, I've learned that people will listen if I can share the human side of the issues. 
  3. The Context is Tricky: I tend to stay politically neutral on-site. I rarely get into education policy among colleagues when I'm hanging out in the staff lounge. However, I wonder what's lost in being neutral. 
  4. Offer Solutions: It's important to criticize bad education policies. However, we need to share things that will work as well. For example, in criticizing homework, I also offer some potential solutions, such as extracurricular academics, making homework optional and expanding tutoring. 
  5. Attack Policies, Not People: I've made this mistake often in my attacks on Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee. However, the real issue isn't whether or not they are good people, but whether or not their policies are helping kids. 
  6. Local Influence: It's easier to criticize national education policy than it is to criticize local policy. If I hate Success Maker (which I do) or a lesson plan format, I hate to be careful on how I express myself. It's easy for it to come across as insubordination. However, there are often channels that will allow for feedback. Sometimes it means joining a committee or talking one-on-one with a leader. But the local level is often where  you have the most influence. 
  7. We're All on a Journey: The truth is that I'm a hypocrite. I am against the test and yet I proctor it anyway. I claim that listening is important and yet I am too quick to advocate my solutions without listening to others. So, I'm left with the thought that I need to show grace toward those who are buckling under the pressure of the system or staying too quiet or buying into the company line too quickly. 
John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com for speaking inquiries on design thinking and creativity.


  1. Great blog! I have lived on both sides of what the one teacher shared with you...thinking we should keep our thoughts private. But when teachers say that they don't want to get political in that public space, they leave that public space to others way less knowledgeable about what goes on in our classrooms and schools. I think this is the reason why we have our current system. I never brought my own political agenda in the classroom (well, other than treat others the way you want to be treated -- which some politicians would do well to avail themselves of) but ultimately I found I needed to use my voice to educate others outside of our schools and classrooms.

  2. I think, honestly, that half the reason we are in the situation we are in as a nation is because people are not political. WE are supposed to be running the government, not the government running us. I also don't think that this ecard (which I love) is advocating for or against a government policy, but rather pointing out an obvious problem in our society. We value and fully fund a lot of programs, but not schools? There is something backward going on there.

  3. We are one of the most well funded education systems in the world. We continually throw more and more money at our education system and continually get worse results, while others countries do more with less. Results are achieved in the home starting with the parents. Unfortunately, we have destroyed the family in this country and think throwing more money at education will solve the problem. Look at homeschooling. Most homeschoolers have a strong family core and the average Homeschool student far out achieves the average public school student academically. They are more civically involved, volunteer more, excel at greater levels and they are not nearly as exposed to crime, drugs, bullying, violence and other anti social behavior as public school students. And yet, we are not throwing a bunch of money their way. We need to fix the home and core family values in this country. Otherwise no amount of money will fix the education system in this country.

  4. Neutrality is Not a (valid) option, imho.
    Teachers are clearly well(if not best) qualified to advocate on the form and nature of education, certainly more so than professional politicians.

  5. Hi John, I couldn't agree more. Education is by its very nature political, especially in the government sector. There area so many policies decided by government which directly affect our ability to deliver high quality education. There's no good hiding our heads in the sand. We have to advocate for the integrity of our profession and our education systems. Who else will do that for us?

  6. "Actually, I don't think we should be getting involved in politics at all. Maybe privately, but not publicly." is the only legal way for that to occur - when being paid with taxpayer money, government employees may not use that time to advocate for a political agenda.

    It is illegal (in our state, and many others) to use public resources for campaigning or political activities - so, sending that e-mail from a teacher's school district address could be a firing offense. It is, legally, the same as a political candidate using public-agency staff to conduct an election campaign.

    I would agree that on their private time, those with an interest in the topic should be more politically active (and I think that applies to *many* topics) - faulting them for not doing it at work = faulting them for adhering to the law.

  7. Teachers are affected by policies and so is there job. Therefore i think that teachers should be in the best position to criticise policies by suggesting better ones . Infact education policy makers should involve a majority of teachers specially before implimentation to a large scale .

  8. Education is very political and educators must learn to navigate the politics if they are to be successful.

  9. Great information. Your blog has become one of my daily websites to visit.


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