Influencing Change: Advocating Around the Resistance

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Examiner, Volume 8, Issue 4
December 2019

By Deborah Lynam

Every student needs and deserves access to reading instruction that is evidence-based, and every teacher needs and deserves access to professional development and training that is grounded in the science of reading. Momentum has been building at a steady pace. Journalists have been spotlighting a need for change in national mainstream media outlets. Parents and students have been calling for change by publishing open letters to their state education officials. Teachers have been speaking out publicly about the gaps in their preparation programs and asking for change.  

Every student needs and deserves access to reading instruction that is evidence-based, and every teacher needs and deserves access to professional development and training that is grounded in the science of reading.

Advocacy is about change, but what is an advocate to do when faced with pervasive resistance? Advocates for evidence-based reading instruction have seen this resistance to change manifest itself in many waysfrom the inertia of school-based curriculum committees to subversive comments from faculty members at institutions of higher education to outright rebellion in the form of blog posts, white papers, and social media rants by passionate opponents. The best recommendation for advocates of change is to understand the common, predictable sources of resistance and to strategize a path forward. Here are a few insights about strategies to help influence and move policy. 

One Interaction Changes Nothing: Pursue a Common Cause 

Influencing policy at any level is not one-and-done deal. One conversation with a local board of education member about the science of reading changes nothing at the local level. One interaction with a state legislator will not magically produce a committed champion for literacy in the statehouse. Policy change takes time and requires a seat at the communal table.  

Policy change takes time and requires a seat at the communal table.

Strategic advocates figure out how to become involved, build key relationships, and move the “science of reading” conversation forward. They understand the value in bringing stakeholders together in pursuit of a common cause, in developing a plan to achieve that pursuit, and in sticking together and sticking with it until the goal is achieved. They know that decisions reached behind closed doors and imposed on people suddenly are the ones that meet resistanceSuccessful advocates find it better to plant seeds, one interaction at a time, hinting at what changes might be accomplished, inviting others into the planning, and seeking input along the way. 

Acknowledge the Fear: Adjust the Message  

Policymakers in positions of power, such as principals, superintendents, and board of education members, are uncomfortable with vocal, well-prepared and well-organized advocates They fear change. They fear the pushback. They fear the potential loss of control, and the possibility of looking bad or uninformed. Savvy advocates acknowledge these fears and know how to adjust their message accordingly. They tone down the rhetoric, leaving room for those affected by change to make choices, share opinions, and take on ownership. They see the benefits in assuming good intentions and listening actively.  

When calls for evidence-based reading instruction elicit responses like “This is just another attempt to blame teachers, to belittle the teaching profession, to push for misguided onesizefitsall reading instruction, that is fear. The prospect of change interferes with autonomy and can make people feel they are losing control within their chosen fields.  Smart advocates realize that hostile and aggressive interactions only serve to make people more defensive and do not advance the cause. 

Effective advocacy efforts mobilize people’s energy into real world actions designed to improve reading outcomes for all students.

In fact, aggressive advocacy produces much the same result as passive complacency; they both fall flat. Effective advocacy efforts mobilizpeople’s energy into real world actions designed to improve reading outcomes for all students. People need to be inspired into making individual commitments in support of larger collective change.    

There Are NShortcutsEstablish Credibility Over Time  

When a goal is worth achieving, there are no short cuts. All stakeholders involved in reaching the goal must have the courage and the willingness to do the hard work. Engaged advocates who are aware of what it takes to establishand more importantly—to implement informed literacy policy know that it takes persistence.  

Making the time to build rapport and cultivate working relationships with a wide variety of stakeholders is vitalAdvocates must consistently show up and follow up, build in real time for conversation and offer reasonable solutions. They must share the knowledge, experiences, and stories that decision-makers need to hear. In order to establish credibility over time, advocates learn to push back artfully while identifying common ground. They are selective in their asks and know how to signal when  they are going to press an issue. They spend more time on solutions than problems, and they know how to use questioning to guide discussions (e.g., “Help me to understand…”). 

Advocates can play a vital role in influencing and bringing about both policy and social change. It is important to acknowledge, however, that resistance is common, especially when people with vested interests feel rattled and threatened by potential changes. Personal interactions and relationships can transform institutions and positions over time and result in profound and long-term positive consequences for society. 


Deborah Lynam is the Director of Partnerships & Engagement at AIM Institute for Learning & Research and currently serves on the Family Engagement Advisory Board for the National Center on Improving Literacy. She chairs the NJ State Special Education Advisory Council and is a founding member of Decoding Dyslexia–NJ. 


Copyright © 2019 International Dyslexia Association (IDA). Opinions expressed in The Examiner and/or via links do not necessarily reflect those of IDA.