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Update on NCTE's Advocacy Work

by Kent Williamson, NCTE Executive Director

Since the advent of Reading First and No Child Left Behind a decade ago through the sharp economic downturn in 2008, growing AYP pressures, and rise of the Common Core Standards, these have been challenging years for many literacy educators. It is common to hear dedicated teachers lament that they no longer are able to make the professional choices they once made about curricular questions, assessment, or in some cases, teaching methods. In the past year, there were highly public attacks upon the work ethic and professionalism of educators, usually as a pretext for cutting positions or job benefits.

In this charged context, members’ expectations of their professional organizations have changed, too. Simply providing peer reviewed professional materials or revitalizing meetings isn’t enough. Members want to know that their organization is effectively advocating for them, and for the principles they adhere to. At minimum, members want to know that their voices are heard by policymakers, and that their dissatisfaction with counter-productive policies register.

This report will attempt to accomplish three things:

How Are NCTE Policies and Positions Established and Where Are They Archived?

There are two basic paths for a proposal to become adopted as a policy or position of NCTE.

1.     Resolutions dealing with educational policies and approved at the Annual Business Meeting for the Board of Directors and Other Members of the Council by a two-thirds majority of members present become NCTE policy. Resolutions may be submitted by any Council member with five member co-signatories up to one month prior to the Board of Directors meeting. At that point, the Resolutions Committee considers all proposed resolutions, makes available at the Section Get-Togethers drafts of the resolutions it plans to forward to the Annual Business Meeting, and receives input regarding these proposed policies at an open hearing on Friday at the Annual Convention. Final versions of the resolutions are then discussed and voted on by those present at the annual business meeting. If approved by a majority of those present but not a two-thirds majority, the measure is submitted to the full membership in a mail ballot. Note that measures not submitted prior to the 30 day preconvention deadline may still be voted on at the annual board of directors meeting as “Sense of the House” motions. Those approved by a majority of those present do not become NCTE policy, but are recorded as expressions of those who approved them in BOD minutes.


2.     Executive Committee Decisions about  education policy also are recognized as official Council policy. The Executive Committee may vote on policy measures at any of its five meetings annually; any Executive Committee member may request that a position be considered on a meeting agenda, or a member may write directly to the NCTE president to ask that a position be considered.


When considering education policy proposals, the Executive Committee generally considers three factors:

1.     how a proposed idea aligns with established policy,

2.     the implications of approving a new policy for the Council’s mission, and

3.     the Council’s capacity to effectively implement a policy.


Once a year (typically, early in the Congressional session term) the Education Policy/Government Relations subcommittee of the Executive Committee makes a trip to Washington DC to meet with proponents of measures relevant to literacy education and Department of Education and Congressional committee staffers. On the basis of these meetings, they draft an annual education policy platform that, once approved by a majority of Executive Committee members, functions as a priority guide for our professional staff.


Regardless of which path a new policy has travelled, it is published on the NCTE website. Through their responsibility for NCTE finances and strategic priorities, the Executive Committee appropriates the resources needed to execute plans to effectively advance the policy as an influential measure. These plans are rarely confined to a single measure; that is, when our policies are applied to “real world” legislation or regulatory questions, they are often used in combination with each other or supportive research to effect change.


How Are Organizational Goals and Operational Priorities Established?

Far-sighted guidelines and positions have little effect if they aren’t understood, referred to, and relied upon by policymakers. And for this to happen, our positions must be supported by evidence/research, must be framed in terms that are compelling for an audience, and must win support from constituencies outside of the Council. We do not have the staff or resources to advocate effectively for all Council positions simultaneously while also advancing goals relating to professional learning, research, and service. To sort out competing priorities and invest Council resources appropriately in pursuit of our mission, the NCTE Executive Committee engages in both strategic program and fiscal planning.

To establish multi-year goals tied to particular issues or challenges facing our professional community, the Executive Committee engages in a practice we refer to as “strategic governance.” This involves

  • frequent consultation with the membership to identify general issues where NCTE leadership is needed;
  • extensive surveying/fact-finding with members to determine how the issue is influencing their professional work;
  • building an understanding of how trends in the broader society will change the issue in the foreseeable future;
  • making a realistic estimate of what NCTE can accomplish over a three-year time frame, alone or in concert with others, given the resources available to us; and
  • considering the ethical implications of our goal-setting choices.

Once this analytic process plays out, the Executive Committee creates a set of outcome statements that become strategic goals for NCTE work. Depending on what we’ve learned from analysis, this could mean developing a policy advocacy agenda, it could mean more professional learning resources need to be developed or alliances with other groups need to be forged, it could mean that a public relations campaign needs to be engaged in, or that new NCTE positions/guidelines or an evidentiary research base needs to be developed.

As strategic goal outcomes are clarified, staff and various appointed Council task forces or committees coordinate efforts to achieve them. This work is intensive and detailed; rarely is an operational initiative dedicated to the achievement of a single strategic goal outcome. Thus, staff implements an ongoing program of activity that aligns with the strategic and policy goals described by the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee monitors the ongoing work of the Council in pursuit of these goals through quarterly “Headquarters Update” reports. Each February, staff forecasts potential operational goals to be pursued in the next year and submits them for Executive Committee feedback. Once the EC provides guidance, a full organizational budget and general program of activity is drafted for review and approval by the Executive Committee in April. These plans and budget provisions go into effect in July. While goals/financial projections are updated annually, they align with three-year projections of activity (also agreed to by the Executive Committee and staff) that describe an evolutionary, iterative approach to pursue Council goals.


What Is NCLE and Why Is NCTE Establishing It?

Particularly in the past three years, the disparity between what many policy leadership groups regard as essential in education reform/literacy improvement and the recommendations of groups that study or support educators has grown. Some outstanding NCTE policies and reports (e.g., our definition and framework for 21st century literacies, standards for the assessment of reading and writing, definitions of teacher effectiveness, critique of Common Core Standards, and proposal for an Adolescent Literacy Transformation Initiative) were either rejected or disregarded by groups writing national education policies or funding reform initiatives. And yet, at the same time, there was a building consensus among groups that serve educators about what matters most in improving student learning (see the shared Principles for Learning developed by NCTE and five associations known as the Connected Learning Coalition and the ongoing work of groups like the National Writing Project, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, and the Ball Foundation).

What became clear is that there was a (familiar) narrative about failing public schools, poorly prepared teachers, and persistent declines in achievement as documented by standardized test scores that left no room for evidence that would support innovative alternatives based on inquiry, teacher learning, and site-based decision-making. We had to change the narrative, and realized that NCTE alone didn’t have the resources or credibility to establish a new paradigm. Moreover, we recognized that if we were to change minds about what counts in literacy learning, merely asserting our principles or positions was inadequate—we needed a sustained investment in research to establish the efficacy of a different model and needed to shift our focus from merely supporting the growth of highly-motivated literacy educators to supporting meaningful collaboration among whole school teams. Beyond teaching methods, we now need to focus on the organizational conditions that advance (or inhibit) literacy learning.

Fortunately, we had been building a relationship with the Ball Foundation to support school teams through the use of NCTE consultants and the content literacy module of NCTE Pathways. Ball, an operating foundation staffed by experienced educators who work actively on the projects they fund, had long been committed to improving literacy through work with whole school teams, and was looking for a way to scale up its work to influence thousands, rather than dozens, of schools. Thus, to help schools build capacity to continuously improve literacy learning across content areas, to develop a research agenda that will help us understand and overcome the obstacles to school-wide literacy improvement, and to help policy-makers understand what measures actually advance constructive reform rather than inhibit it, we received start-up funding to develop a National Center for Literacy Education over the next three years.

Before describing the main projects of NCLE and what it can mean for members, it’s important to understand that even as NCTE will share authority with Ball Foundation and the many stakeholders in this project, we are taking a lead role because it gives us the powerful alliance needed to address the underlying “script” that has inhibited progress towards realizing NCTE’s mission. There are already thousands of teachers and school teams engaged in reflective practice to improve literacy learning—but their ongoing work hasn’t been networked, studied, or held up as a model for grassroots reform. Until we can do that, we stand little chance of redirecting the relentless surge towards test-driven interventions designed by people far from the classrooms where they are carried out.

NCLE Exchange

This free service will provide comprehensive support for outstanding literacy instruction in all content areas by sharing case studies and vignettes of powerful teaching and planning processes. More than just sample lesson plans and assessments, each release in this digital service will describe how to build the conditions that support sustained literacy growth and provide artifacts, videos, commentaries, and action research findings from individual teachers, teams, and community members working together to enrich student learning.


Stakeholder groups are those who agree to share resources or expertise in support of literacy learning across content areas. This may involve sharing peer-reviewed content, providing expert feedback to school teams, hosting practice fairs or demonstration sessions at national and regional meetings, participating in policy colloquies sponsored by NCLE, collaborating on national research initiatives, and attending the annual NCLE Working Summit to plan joint research or professional development activities.

NCLE Working Summit

Each summer, approximately 60 representatives from invited stakeholder organizations, innovative school leaders, researchers, and policy analysts will gather to collaborate in planning the next key steps in professional development, research, and policy required to expedite improvement in literacy learning nationwide through NCLE. Together they will design projects and studies to infuse important findings about effective literacy programs, teaching, and learning in all schools interested in pursuing them.

Literacy in Every Classroom Schools and Badging

Schools that are building the organizational conditions that support literacy learning school-wide and are willing to share accounts of how their staff are engaging in the professional practices that improve literacy learning will be recognized as Literacy in Every Classroom Schools. They will be eligible to earn recognition badges by sharing their experiences and will be provided with high-quality feedback and assistance as they progress.

Practice Fairs, Demonstrations, and Policy Symposia

Transformative change in literacy learning won’t happen unless there are numerous opportunities for both educators and policy leaders to analyze and understand what successful school teams are doing differently. Through the educational conferences and meetings of the NCLE stakeholder organizations for educators and policy colloquies organized by NCLE at state and federal levels, lessons learned from successful school teams will be shared widely and implications for better organizational support and policy will be derived. Literacy in Every Classroom Schools will be eligible to apply for funding to share their practices at professional meetings and local Practice Fairs.


What Advocacy Outcomes Has NCTE Produced Recently?

NCTE has established itself among educational associations in Washington, DC, as a reliable source of information about literacy and as an advocate for policies and legislation consistent with the organization’s goals and mission. Advocacy work takes building trust, timely availability when decisions are being made, and constant tracking of legislation and of implementation of policies. Outcomes of such efforts are sometimes overt and discernible through visible evidence and sometimes embedded in changes and processes in ways that are less discernible.

NCTE’s advocacy efforts have yielded positive results in multiple realms. Some of those include the following.

1. Embedding of concepts and language in legislation

NCTE has written and refined key terms embedded in legislation. Three examples of this important embedding are (1) the replacement of the “scientifically based” standard for research with the more open “scientifically valid” criteria in the Higher Education Act (HEA) and potentially in the reauthorization of ESEA, (2) the redefinition of “literacy coach” in the HEA to match the NCTE definition in its Literacy Coaching Clearinghouse, and (3) the defining terms “continuous” and “job embedded” for professional development in both the Senate’s proposed ESEA and in the Department of Education’s stipulations for several of its programs, current and proposed.

2. Writing legislation

With colleagues in the Advocates for Literacy group, NCTE has written and/or edited many sections of the LEARN bill, which has been introduced in both the Senate and the House and is incorporated in the Senate HELP Committee’s version of the ESEA reauthorization. Educating first some other members of the Advocates group and then staff members in both houses was an iterative process over several years. As concepts were modified, we continually explained the reasons for including certain features to staff of those writing the legislation and of legislators who would vote on it. Although it will be changed during the negotiation process in the Senate and then in the Senate/House reconciliation process, LEARN sets the scene for advances that NCTE supports. Specifically among those are the inclusion of writing every time reading is mentioned, the framing of a comprehensive approach to literacy that includes all grade levels and all content areas, and the importance of formative assessment as part of the approaches to assessment that are inevitable in this political environment. Of course, NCTE did not get all that it advocated for in LEARN, but the bill advances the cause of literacy instruction.

3. The National Day on Writing Resolution

NCTE wrote this legislation, sought sponsors and cosponsors, contacted legislators to vote for the resolution, and encouraged groups to celebrate the day throughout the country. Having now established and repeated this process, NCTE can advocate yearly for this resolution. By drawing attention to the changing role of writing in society, we are making the case for it as an important education priority.

4. Common Core State Standards

NCTE makes clear publicly that the Standards would be different had NCTE been a primary author of the document or been consulted earlier in the process of development. Further, NCTE task forces offered timely, thoughtful critiques of sequential drafts of the document and published those critiques on its website. As of summer 2010, when it became clear that the vast majority of literacy educators would be working in the context of core standards, NCTE made a commitment to do all that it can to support those teachers in maintaining a principled approach to serving their students.

NCTE is providing support to teachers in several ways. Policy related ways include (1) participating in a coalition of organizations that share information about their initiatives that apply to the ELA Standards, (2) referring NCTE members knowledgeable about the Standards to other groups that are educating constituents at the state level about the Standards, and (3) alerting other organizations, Department of Education staff, and federal legislative staff to NCTE materials, including books, webinars, and conference sessions, that relate to the Standards.

Note that the NCTE book series, Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards, and its precursor webconference series, is unique among the materials available to teachers today. Rather than simply “unpacking” the standards or designating curricular materials or methods that align to them, it emphasizes teacher agency in interpreting the standards in light of the needs and knowledge of one’s students. It is this emphasis on inquiry and professional discretion that sets the NCTE materials apart. If NCTE were to simply ignore the Common Core Standards or condemn them, it seems unlikely that materials like these would be available to professionally active teachers and administrators. And it would do nothing to change the circumstances in which they find themselves.

5. Highly qualified teacher issue

NCTE is active in a loose coalition of civil rights groups and other educational associations seeking to safeguard the right of all students to have qualified teachers. The coalition has met with White House education leads and with legislative staffers about the problem of underqualified teachers being assigned disproportionately to poor urban schools. NCTE has drafted letters for the group and written parts of legislation that deal with teacher effectiveness using NCTE’s Education Policy Platform definition to broaden the ways in which teachers can be deemed effective. In one example, Senator Sanders’ amendment that contained that definition was voted down as an amendment to the HELP ESEA bill before the bill was voted out of committee, but provisions may resurface in other amendments once the bill goes to the floor of the Senate. 

6. Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy Program

The Department of Education rewrote its Striving Reader program to transform it into a comprehensive plan with state literacy teams and plans, a transformation sparked by LEARN provisions and the good sense it makes to organize and align across states. With funds already allocated, states could apply for money to constitute a team and then to develop and implement a plan. The fact that over 45 states applied for creating a team and over 35 states for implementation funding signals the success of the design of the program. After zero funding in FY11 to carry the plan forward, the FY12 budget includes $183 million for the work. As part of the Advocates for Literacy group, NCTE has conferred with Department staff all the way through this process and continues to be called on regarding Striving Readers.

There was some confusion among NCTE members and others when the Striving Readers program was transformed from a few pilots for individual projects to the comprehensive state literacy plan model. At this time, the good news is that both states that received grants for implementation and all those that applied will have technical assistance available for their work.

7. Communication with the Department of Education

The Department of Education has generally increased its willingness to communicate about its policies and practices. NCTE has developed regular connections with nine Department of Education staff persons both to furnish them information about NCTE ideas and concerns and to receive timely heads up about developments: Peter Cunningham, Jo Anderson, Karen Cator, Massey Ritsch, Karen Stratman-Krusemark, Deborah Spitz, Miriam Lund, Laurie Calvert, and Steven Means. These connections have enabled an interview by NCTE members with Secretary Duncan, three sessions done by Peter Cunningham at the 2010 NCTE convention, integration into the Department-funded AIR-based project on on-line communities of practice, and other activities.

8. Member advocacy

NCTE members are encouraged to become knowledgeable about and active in influencing education policy. NCTE conducts letter-writing campaigns, provides updated information about legislative actions, supports a cadre of Policy Advocates, and sponsors a yearly Advocacy Day and Advocacy Month.

Although NCTE is asked to sign on to letters supporting a wide array of initiatives, NCTE signs on only to those for which we can identify close alignment to an NCTE position or policy priority. Equally important, however, are the letters that NCTE and its members write to garner support for Council positions, guidelines, and values. Members are invited to use templates or to write their own letter or postings aligned to Council policy to influence their Senators or Congresspersons about such matters as literacy across the grades and across the curriculum, teacher evaluation, effective programs in jeopardy (like the National Writing Project),  gaps in availability of technology, and provisions of ESEA.  NCTE is careful to choose judiciously in the number and kinds of communication it recommends to members.

Updated information about legislative actions is provided through the In the News section on the Connected Community. Once or twice a week NCTE posts a link to an article about an important matter of policy. The choices of posting are based on NCTE foci and availability of material for linking.

NCTE has Policy Advocates assigned to each House and Senate member of an education committee and to the education members on the appropriations committees. These Policy Advocates, who meet at the Annual Convention and communicate online throughout the year, have responsibilities to keep the legislators aware of NCTE positions and to advocate for those positions. Although Policy Advocates change as committee membership changes, some former Policy Advocates, having developed skills at reaching legislative staff members and legislators, continue to be active in the policy realm, locally and at the state and federal level.

The NCTE Advocacy Days held each spring offer members opportunities to become current with legislative initiatives and to convey to legislators and legislative staff members’ perspectives from and experience in the field. Legislative staff members appreciate concrete examples of what works for teachers, examples that buttress or refute positions that they may have or that supply needed education about life in the classroom. For members unable to come to DC, NCTE provides suggestions about activities to do at the state or local level during Advocacy Month.

9. Coalitions

This report has already alluded to Advocates for Literacy, a group of about seven very active and seven sometimes active member organizations who have worked together closely to cultivate support for literacy on the Hill, and to the Highly Qualified Teacher coalition, a group of about fifteen organizations that has championed fair distribution of effective teachers. NCTE has also carefully tracked and learned from the Rethinking Accountability coalition and signed on to its Joint Organizational Statement on No Child Left Behind. And the Council has been an active participant in various initiatives hosted by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

Earlier, we also mentioned how NCTE has served as a central player in the Connected Learning Coalition (CLC), which has generated a set of Principles for Learning that has been shared with legislators and with the Department of Education. Recently, the Coalition issued a statement about assessment that will again signal the willingness and commitment to work together around important topics. CLC members include the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Council for the Social Studies, the National Science Teachers Association, the Association for Career and Technical Education, and CoSN, the instructional technologists organization. This important group has coalesced in ways that surprise and please policymakers who often think that groups only look out for themselves. Secretary Duncan and other Department of Education officials have met with the CLC, and the CLC members will have joint sessions at one another’s conferences in 2011 and 2012.

Given the array of policy questions and issues that have influenced literacy teaching practice and research since the summer of 2005 when NCTE organized a Washington, DC, office, the list of our efforts is understandably long and varied. It’s an era that has been dominated by a reform paradigm anchored in standardized testing, narrowed curricular focus, and a cramped view of education research. Yet, even under these adverse circumstances, we have been an energetic proponent of progressive education principles. With active member support and leadership, our strategy of engaging constructively with the spectrum of policy groups working to shape literacy policy gives us the best possible chance to effect changes consistent with NCTE principles and values.  



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A Professional Association of Educators in English Studies, Literacy, and Language Arts