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Decision-Making and the Education Policymaker

Educational policymaking is a complex process; all are welcome.

Post by Benjamin Brock, MSW, PhD Student, Educational Psychology, College of Education, Temple University

Charged with immense responsibility and tasked with countless duties, education policymakers are at the helm of the social-cultural experiment we call public education. Despite their influence—education policymakers steward approximately 51 million public school students nationwide (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016) - these vanguards of societal change are often overlooked and misunderstood by research and the public. How, in fact, do education policymakers make their decisions, and what might be the most fruitful means for educational psychologists to engage them? What follows is a brief history as to how I became interested in, and involved with, educational policymaking, and how I am pursuing research on education policymakers’ decision-making. Finally, I offer suggestions as to how educational psychologists may get involved in the policymaking process.

Education Policy is an Instrument for Social-Cultural Change

While working at Philadelphia’s largest family homeless shelter, I realized how the lives of the children at the shelter were bound by lack of educational opportunities. With each school I visited, non-profit organization I interacted with, and school district meeting I attended, it became clearer to me that the lives of “my kids” were embedded in a complex network of social, cultural, economic, and political dynamics, and that the best way I could advocate on behalf of these children was through policy; specifically, education policy.

Reluctantly, I left my role at the shelter and began my academic study of policy. During my MSW program at Temple University I read Dr. Bruce Jansson’s (2008), The Reluctant Welfare State: Engaging History to Advance Social Work Practice in Contemporary Society, and nearly everything Dr. David Berliner produced; I believe I referenced Dr. Berliner’s (2006), Our Impoverished View of Educational Reform, in nearly all of my coursework. Their ideas regarding social policy, social welfare, and social justice convinced me to pursue work in the government sector.

While working for Philadelphia City Council as a policy director, I began to see the full system at play; from the laws that bind policies and thus, the actions of those within their respective domain, to the multilayered and complicated network of individuals who tirelessly strive to enact change, to the influence of external institutions on policymakers, and so on. I was baffled how, quite often, policymakers seemed to make decisions despite the advice of researchers, and despite what appeared to be in the public’s best interests. I began to wonder: How do education policymakers actually make their decisions? It was this question that led me to pursue doctoral work in educational psychology at Temple University, studying decision-making, policymaking, and education policymakers.

My Research: The Role-Identity, Motivation, and Action of Education Policymakers

Life events and processes like learning, development, and the policy decisions framing students' formal educational opportunities and experiences are distinct, yet inseparable, and are, singularly and together, complex dynamic systems with many interacting heterogeneous elements stitched together by the “. . . fabric of events, actions, interactions, retroactions, determinations, and chance that constitute our phenomenal world” (Morin, 2014, p. 5). My research aims to understand the holistic, contextualized, personal, and yet cultural-political, processes by which education policymakers make decisions. Different from a common view of decision-making as a linear and rational process made up of distinct and stable variables, I conceptualize decision-making as a complex adaptive system that reflects the policymaker’s identity and motivation. I use The Dynamic Systems Model of Role Identity (Kaplan & Garner, 2017) and employ a psychological-phenomenological methodology to capture education policymakers’ lived experiences, role-perceptions, deliberations, and decision-making actions. I hope that my findings will contribute to theory on educational policy decision-making, to understanding and appreciation of the way policymakers perceive their role and make decisions, and thus, perhaps, to actions by citizens, organizations, researchers (e.g., educational psychologists), and the policymakers themselves, who want to engage more effectively in educational policymaking to improve the lives of children (e.g., students) and adults (e.g., teachers) in the education system.

Discourse is a Powerful Mechanism: Suggestions for Engaging Education Policymakers

I propose six suggestions that may be useful for educational psychologists to best engage with education policymakers to influence their decision-making processes:

  • Get to know your policymakers. Policymakers care about the welfare of their constituents, they want to hear from you, and they want to engage with you. The more you know about them, their background, their interests, values, goals, previous actions, the better insight you will have about their worldview and initial stance on issues that matter to you.
  • If you are unable to engage with policymakers directly, try writing and disseminating a policy-related position paper regarding your area of expertise. You could host a webinar or post your lectures online as well so that policymakers and their staff might more readily access your work.
  • Stay informed and up-to-date on policy matters. For example, sign-up to receive legislative notifications via email so that you are always up-to-date. Attend committee meetings, hearings, and briefings as often as possible. This will not only keep you abreast of educational policy developments, it will also allow you to meet policymakers and their staff, which will go a long way, if, and when, you request a formal meeting to advocate the issue you are passionate about.
  • Sign-up to provide formal testimony at hearings and/or sign-up to offer your views on bills during committee meetings and action meetings. This will get your face known, and you might even get a policymaker to shift their position on the spot.
  • When meeting with a policymaker, be transparent, and keep it brief. Make your “ask” as soon as respectfully possible and in the form of an “elevator speech,” and let the conversation develop from there. Be sure your presentation is in the form of a story; don’t just present statistics and theory, make it personal and meaningful to the constituents the policymaker is tasked to serve. Tailor your “story” so that the policymaker might be able to utilize it effectively within the social, cultural, political, economic, and educational landscape before him/her.
  • If you bring materials (e.g. data, journal articles, position statements) to a meeting, provide the policymaker and whoever else is in attendance a one-page summary of your talking points (5-bullet points and 1-chart is an appropriate length). When the time is right, you can offer to leave everything else you brought for the policymaker and his/her staff to go over at their leisure. This not only respects the policymaker’s time and their other duties/responsibilities, it allows for the conversation to continue at a later date.
  • Don’t give up! Keep in contact after the initial meeting (and follow-up meeting); be respectful, but be persistent. Be mindful that although a meeting may not go the way you planned, you may have changed a staff member’s mind, who will then become an ally in your pursuit. In fact, you may want to meet with a staffer before meeting with the policymaker.

Remember, decision-makers are just like you and me: they have emotions, they experience stress, and they have their own beliefs, values, and goals that shape their perceptions and actions. Try to place yourself in their role; how might your view fit into their complex reality in which they must balance countless wants and needs? Educational psychologists have much to offer policymakers and will benefit from a deeper understanding of policymakers’ decision-making.

This post is part of a special series curated by APA Division 15 President E. Michael Nussbaum. The series, centered around his presidential theme of "Evidence-Based Change through Psychology, Policy, Professional Learning, and Participatory Practice," is designed to help education researchers extend the impact of their work. Those interested can learn more about this theme on page 7 of Division 15's 2017 Summer Newsletter.


Berliner, D. (2006). Our impoverished view of educational reform. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 949-995.

Jansson, B. S. (2008). The reluctant welfare state: Engaging history to advance social work practice in contemporary society (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Kaplan, A., & Garner, J. (2017). A complex dynamic systems perspective on identity and its development: The dynamic systems model of role identity. Developmental Psychology 53(11), 2036-2051.

Morin, E. (2008). On complexity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools, by level and grade: Selected years, fall 1980 through fall 2026. Retrieved from