Be an Advocate

Who can be an advocate?

Simply put, anyone. An advocate is simply someone who is

  • committed to change,
  • willing and able to publicly share their commitments, and 
  • open to increasing their knowledge and understanding of key issues. 

What is advocacy? Why advocate?

Advocacy is defined as any action that speaks in favor of; recommends; argues for a cause; or supports, defends, or pleads on behalf of others.

Everyone advocates for something every day. Whether it’s more time to work on a project, new textbooks for a classroom, getting out of a speeding ticket, or asking for time to collaborate with colleagues, everyone advocates for at least one thing each day. Mathematics teachers and leaders have the experiences, perspective, and skills to be an advocate for themselves and for the teaching and learning of mathematics.

Sometimes, uncertainty surrounds lobbying and advocacy, and confusion exists about which is which. Not all advocacy is lobbying. But all lobbying is advocacy. Lobbying is a well-defined subset of advocacy.

“Lobbyists” are those who attempt to influence the actions, policies, or decisions of government officials. Generally, they are asking for a government official to take a specific action on a specific piece of legislation or regulatory action.

“Advocates” are those attempting to educate policymakers about the needs of their communities, discussing the effects of various policies on their communities, and proposing solutions to problems in their communities.

Sharing stories and data about the state of mathematics education in their communities and discussing how it might be improved is advocacy and is the charge of mathematics teachers and leaders. NCTM members are poised to be particularly effective advocates for the teaching and learning of mathematics.

Why does advocacy matter?

NCTM is the public voice of mathematics education, supporting teachers to ensure equitable mathematics learning of the highest quality for all students through vision, leadership, professional development, and research. Advocacy is important to achieving the organization’s mission.

Advocacy is any action that speaks in favor of, recommends, argues for a cause, supports or defends, or pleads on behalf of others. NCTM leadership and members are taking on advocacy daily.

Regarding the organization’s charge to support teachers to ensure equitable mathematics learning of the highest quality for all students, hundreds of policies—federal, state, and local—affect that charge. When the organization and its allies are pursuing the enactment of policies that better support the teaching and learning of mathematics, often the stories from classrooms and schools are most compelling to policymakers. Stories offer a personal connection to the state of mathematics education for students and teachers and exemplify the need for policy change. Advocacy matters in this endeavor.

Why is advocacy important to teaching and the teaching of mathematics? The President of the United States, the US Congress, the federal Department of Education, governors, state education agencies, school districts, superintendents, and countless others have opinions about what happens in classrooms, schools, districts, colleges, and universities nationwide, and convert those opinions into decisions about funding, professional supports, the amount of teaching time, the frequency of assessments and consequences of their results, the structure of teacher preparation programs, and many other policies that affect the teaching and learning of mathematics. It is crucial that mathematics teachers and leaders weigh in with these policymakers as they make these decisions.

A good first step in any advocacy effort is getting to know who represents you .

Effective Advocacy:
Problem identification, Causes, Solution Strategy

Effective advocacy comes in many forms, but often the most effective advocates have identified a problem, its causes, and a would-be solution.

Identifying the problem to be solved can be the easiest first step in advocacy. In education, policy problems are often about funding, but others are created by the implementation of laws or guidance developed by Congress, the US Department of Education, state education agencies, and the many others charged with supporting schools and learning.

Mathematics teachers and leaders can likely name several problems that affect the teaching and learning of mathematics. Teacher shortages, lack of professional development time and support, access to broadband at students’ homes, testing requirements, teacher certification processes, building conditions, and salaries are just a few of the issues that are top of mind for educators. But these issues present themselves differently in each community.

Effective advocates identify a pressing problem that policymakers can and should solve. Examples? Teachers must be adequately prepared before being placed in classrooms. Crumbling school buildings need repairs. Public schools must ensure that all students are taught well. Teachers must feel supported and respected.

Once the problem is identified, an advocate needs to identify the cause—or causes—of the problem and any contributing factors. For example, perhaps a teacher doesn’t have access to the professional development they need to meet the needs of their students. What could be the causes of the situation? Is it funding? Or is it the many competing needs being supported by the available funding? Sometimes even those in the affected classrooms could be confused by the competing policies and decisions and who is creating and making them.

As an example, the No Child Left Behind Act, enacted in 2002, required states to test students in mathematics and reading in grades 3–8 and at least once in high school. Although no federal testing requirements existed in subjects such as history, some states did require additional testing in other subjects. Because the federal testing requirements were tied to funding and other policies, however, many teachers and parents assumed all testing requirements were a result of the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. An advocate who wanted the testing requirements to change should know what the federal law said on the topic of testing, versus what their state requirements might be, before seeking a change to the problem—in this case, too much testing.

Every problem has a solution. Often when dealing with policy, multiple viable solutions exist. Determining the preferred solution and associated policy change(s) is developing what advocates call “the ask.” What is it a policymaker can do to solve the identified problem?

In education advocacy, “the ask” is often one regarding resources. More money in schools can arguably improve the teaching and learning that happens there. Robust investments in professional development for educators are arguably going to contribute to their efficacy.

Other asks regarding education policy might be more complicated. For example, federal investments in education often focus on communities and schools that are challenged socio-economically. NCTM and its members would argue that since the elimination of the Eisenhower Professional Development Program in 2002 and the Math and Science Partners Program in 2015, state and local leaders are not investing adequately in their mathematics teachers. Asking that the Every Student Succeeds Actbe revised so that states and districts are required to spend at least some of the funds they receive from the federal government on professional development for mathematics teachers would result in those charged with deciding how to use those funds to do just that. (Learn more about the timeline and iterations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law that governs most investments in K–12 education.)

Decide what it is you want the policymaker to do before you outline your problem and its causes. Assuming they are convinced by your case, you need an answer to the question, “How can we solve this problem?”

Messaging: Data, Story, Impact of Action

Beyond identifying a problem, its causes and the associated ask(s), advocates should consider how to frame the issue. Explain why it is important to you. Why does this problem have broader importance? How does it affect the teaching workforce, communities, the families’ schools serve, or your state or nation? Why should the policymaker care? Why should it be important to them?

Advocates and policymakers contend that any ask needs a compelling story. Who is the problem affecting and how? What happens if the problem isn’t addressed? What happens if it is? Who in the community is affected by the problem and would be helped by the solution? These questions should guide an advocate to developing a story that conveys the importance of the issue to them, their community and their audience.

Data can strengthen almost any argument. What data supports the contention that a problem exists? What data supports the validity of your ask? Find it and use it. It’s one thing to say that you know you and your colleagues are feeling stretched more than ever in your classroom jobs. It’s another to say that a regular full-time public school teacher worked an average of 52 hours a week on all school-related activities, even though they were required by contract to work only about an average 38 hours, according to the 2020–2021 National Teacher and Principal Survey.

The National Center for Education Statistics can help with federal data. The Education Commission for the States can help with state-level data, as can state Departments of Education. Other publicly available resources are useful.

In addition to a story and supporting data, an explanation of the impact of both the problem and the solution supports the ask. A discussion of the people or groups of people affected is helpful. A discussion of how the solution would help those affected is similarly effective. Explaining to a policymaker how the proposed policy solution will help people they represent and care about makes it easier for them to solve the problem.

Perhaps the biggest challenge advocates face is developing a story and an ask that is memorable. Make the story compelling and the ask and its supporting data as concise as possible.

Follow up questions that are focused on more detail are great, but those details aren’t necessarily the best starting point.

Taking Action:
Show up; Make a Friend; Be a Resource

A famous quote in advocacy circles, has been attributed to many different people: "The time to make friends is before you need them.” Building and maintaining relationships is important to productive advocacy. As is the case in any relationship, showing up is crucial. Don’t assume others are taking on the issues and problems you care about. Show up. Make a friend.

Make a friend.

Relationships are two-way streets. In addition to asking for help with a problem, make yourself a resource to policymakers. You know what is going on in schools and mathematics education in your community much better than any policymaker. Establish yourself as a trusted resource to policymakers. You will find that they will come to you with questions or concerns when mathematics education comes up in their work. Mutual appreciation is also crucial to successful relationships. Thank policymakers when they help you, ask questions, come to your school, or discuss issues important to you. Kindness and respect are key to any successful relationship.

Doing the work: Meeting with Lawmakers and Staff

A good first step in any advocacy effort is getting to know who represents you. Often, the most effective way to communicate with your legislator is to schedule a meeting to talk face-to-face (or virtually). These personal visits are the most effective advocating tool, but they also require the greatest amount of planning and time.

Meeting with federal representatives

Once you identify your three federal representatives, look at their websites for guidance on scheduling a meeting. There is no uniform procedure for handling meeting requests across offices. Most offices have a webform for requesting a meeting, or you can call the office and ask to speak with the scheduler. Lawmakers have offices in Washington, DC, and in their states and districts. You can request meetings at any location.

When requesting a meeting, let the scheduler know you are a constituent. Ask for a meeting on a specific day. If you have the flexibility to accommodate the member’s schedule, say so. Of course, Members of Congress are busy. If he or she is unavailable, the scheduler will ask if you want to meet with a staff member and will identify one on the basis of your issue. Call or email at least a week in advance.

Before the meeting, prepare effectively by identifying and practicing your story and explaining why the legislator should care about the teaching and learning of mathematics in their community, state, and country. Learn any position your legislator might have on K–12 issues that affect mathematics education.

Check out any statements on their website. Follow your legislators on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to get the most up-to-date information about policy stances. (Most members have links to their social media accounts on their websites.)

Write down your priorities before the meeting. Identify the problem you want to discuss, its cause(s) and the possible solution—the “ask.” You may also want to share what is happening in your school and classrooms and invite the lawmaker and staff to come visit. Always be on time and dress professionally. Remember, you have only 10–30 minutes to meet with each legislator. Even if you disagree with your legislator’s position or politics, be polite. Don’t talk about elections—past or future. A staffer may ask you tough questions. That is his or her job. If you do not know the answer, tell them that you will look into the question and get back to them. It’s a great opportunity to begin to establish yourself as a resource.

Your goal is to enlist your legislator’s support. Ask the staffer questions such as, “How does your boss feel about federal supports for mathematics educators?” or “Does your boss think that current mathematics assessments in grades K–12 are providing good results?” You can also ask questions about any education bills that might support the teaching and learning of mathematics.

You should always follow up by thanking the legislator or staffer for his or her time in a follow up email, reiterating the points you discussed in the meeting. Always offer to provide staffers and legislators with additional information on your work and school. You can also invite them to your school to see the teaching and learning of mathematics firsthand. 

Meeting with state and local policymakers

Often, meetings with state and local policymakers are less formal, but you can use the guidelines related to meetings with federal legislators when requesting such meetings.