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Finding a Silver Lining

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Across most of the country these days, education leaders are badly frightened and deeply concerned. Many of them--and the reforms they are pursuing--are under concerted attack by opponents who are well organized, media savvy, persistent, and nationally connected.

This opposition, too often labeled simply the "religious right,'' has already succeeded in, at a minimum, disrupting reform efforts in Ohio and Virginia and Pennsylvania. It threatens to dismantle the four-year-old, sweeping education reform in Kentucky. And it may succeed in preventing such a system from becoming a reality in Alabama.

There are many more examples, lots of them at the district or school level--such as in Littleton, Colo.--that could be cited. The phones at the National Center on Education and the Economy have been ringing steadily for months with pleas for assistance.

My purpose here is not to dwell on this storm cloud, but rather to suggest that it may have a silver lining: Educators are starting to pay serious attention to how they communicate with the public. They are starting to realize that they have to start listening instead of just talking. And they are starting to realize that when they do start talking, they need to use plain English.

I come at this from a particular point of view--that of a communicator, not an educator. The organization for which I work is pursuing the kind of education system that holds very high expectations for all kids, that offers all of our kids the educational opportunities previously offered to only a few, that is designed to produce not just accomplished workers but accomplished citizens. But while the center cares deeply about the substance--much higher standards, performance assessment, richer curriculum, connections to the world of work--we also care about how that substance is presented to teachers, parents, students, and taxpayers.

Part of the opposition that educators are facing is simply a political movement by a relatively small proportion of fundamentalist Christians to take over schools as the first step in obtaining national political power. Part of the opposition comes from the conservative groups such as Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum. Both groups have found that there are education issues--read this "outcomes-based education''--that are sufficiently explosive to generate active engagement. Both are capable of organizing communities in sophisticated, media-savvy ways to leverage their power into what seems like a very loud voice.

But their complaints are resonating with a much larger group of folks who are not happy about their schools. They are tapping into legitimate concerns of parents and taxpayers who often feel ignored by educational institutions unwilling to treat them as valued customers. If you look at the faces of the people who show up at anti-reform rallies, they look just like us--concerned parents who want their kids to succeed.

When reform opponents offer arguments about schools being focused on "touchy-feely'' outcomes instead of basic academics, this strikes a chord in parents and voters. Many parents complain that all they ever hear from their schools is educational jargon, language that is impenetrable and mushy.

Listen for a moment to Bill Spady, the outcomes-based-education guru: "As its name implies, Transitional O.B.E. lies in the Twilight Zone between traditional subject-matter curriculum structures and planning processes and the future-role priorities inherent in Transformational O.B.E. ... Transitional O.B.E. staff and community members almost universally emphasize broad attitudinal, affective, motivational, and relational qualities or orientations.''

Merely reading these words out loud at a meeting of parents can effectively mobilize opposition. While the intent is not evil, the words cry craziness when they hit the ears of average Americans. Indeed, this is the kind of language that plays directly into parental fears that educators are "experimenting'' with their children. The first point that Phyllis Schlafly makes about O.B.E. is that it "is packaged in a deceptive language that appears to be mischievously chosen to mislead parents.''

On the other hand, the language that opponents often use is crisp and down to earth; their sound bites work.

In Pennsylvania, for example, Peg Luksik could take on the bureaucracy as a mother of five concerned about who controls the children--parents or the state. She framed the issue. She set the terms of debate, and the state was unable to persuasively say why it was moving to the outcomes it had chosen, how those outcomes would be tested, or what the system would eventually cost. Ms. Luksik has become a folk hero of sorts, crisscrossing the country to decry "O.B.E.'' as a videotape of her complaints is circulated as widely as if it were distributed by Blockbuster. There are two new tapes in circulation these days that are taking a toll on the reform movement: One is a 45-minute package of two news specials from an Oklahoma City television station; the other is a 52-minute tape of another very articulate opponent, Kay Wall, in Connecticut.

Ms. Luksik and Ms. Wall badly distort the facts, but their message is as clear as Ross Perot's: The bureaucrats are out of touch with the wishes of parents and taxpayers. This is a message that connects.

So back to the silver lining. Educators have an opportunity to look at their language, at the many messages they are now delivering to their publics. Do they make sense? Do they communicate clearly? Are they in conflict? Do teachers and principals believe in the reform program or are they communicating a different message? Is the reform program out of bounds with the community's values?

If those of us who care about reform are unable to clearly state why schools need to change, and explain what we are trying to do, the public, at some point, is going to say no.

Over the past several years, the Public Agenda Foundation, based in New York City, has done outstanding work in examining the wide gaps between the public's view of what must be done to improve schools and that of educators, policymakers, and the business community. In helping us prepare a handbook for communicators, Public Agenda emphasized the importance of listening to the public and teachers in designing a reform program and continually communicating--honestly--what is being proposed and what progress is being made.

The opportunity exists for states, school districts, and schools to greatly improve their communications with the public, to build a greater public understanding of what they are trying to accomplish for children, and to build a much higher degree of public support. But this requires effort. It takes time and it takes resources. It is harder and takes longer to produce a short brochure or video in clear English than a longer piece that does not filter out the jargon.

It takes a commitment on the part of educational leaders to work at better communication. We seem to believe in professional development for teachers to help them succeed in the classroom. We ought to believe in communications training for principals and superintendents to help them succeed with the public.

The core of the opposition is basically a small group, but it is vigorously going after parents and taxpayers who are neither the far right nor the true believers. And it is this middle group of people that educators need to persuade that they should support the high-performing schools that most of us have in mind.

There surely will be some who read this as better public relations, and if they only see that, then I failed to communicate. Better public relations would be nice, but what is needed is a much deeper public engagement. We have an opportunity to communicate honestly with the public and with each other. The public cares about substance; people want better schools. If we start listening to them and talking with them, rather than at them, we might find them far more supportive than they seem right now.

Andy Plattner is the communications director of the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington.

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