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Competing for Our Clients

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Public schools no longer have a built-in--zoned-in--public. Schools have to win their clients, their students, the hard way. The charters are coming and so are the vouchers. We can't just say that they will go away. They may run their course, but not until the test scores come in ... a few years down the way.

So what do we do in the meantime? We can't run and hide. My recommendation is that we get out in front and compete with these education attractions. It can be a lot easier than we might think.

For example, one of the attractions of charters and vouchers is the promise they seem to hold of more personal attention. This is a major new force in education. We work with parents and community today not simply because the research says this is the way to raise achievement. We do it because these are our clients, and they expect a level of personal service that parents in the past did not. Some parental expectations may be too high, of course, even unrealistic, but to dismiss them out of hand or to fail to work with parents to understand limits and possibilities would be foolhardy in a consumer age.

This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

The impact of a consumer culture, coupled with real worries parents have about education, demands that schools begin to market themselves as businesses do. Is this demeaning? Crass? Degrading? I don't think so.

One of the basic questions I ask in the training programs I conduct is this: "In two or three sentences, why would parents want to send their child to your school?" If people have trouble answering this, they may well have trouble keeping their schools open.

It's certainly time that schools paid more attention to parents and children as customers. This doesn't mean bowing and scraping to make their every demand a reality. But it does mean making our schools more appealing. We have to pay attention.

This is a message increasingly understood by districts across the country. A principal quoted in the Fort Myers, Fla., News-Press this year on that city's new public-school-choice program put it this way: "We're selling our programs and organization, which would be similar to what a businessman would do. I think students will see us as a viable option for learning. It's really a matter of, if we're not pulling in the kids, then we have to work harder."

Parents have concerns beyond academics for their younger children. Transportation is an issue. They want schools close to home, so that their kids are not bused across town. They want their children to be with the classmates they have known in earlier grades. Some parents may even move their children from school to school until they get what they perceive to be the right fit.

When parents opt out of the system in favor of different schools, what are they looking for? They are seeking standards, achievement, and high expectations, to be sure. But they are also seeking something more. Here's a quick summary of what I hear from parents across the nation:

• They are seeking some greater form of personal control, some sense that they can express their consumer activism on behalf of their children.

• They are seeking a code of behavior and standards and expectations about how children should act in school.

• They are seeking a school atmosphere that rewards high standards of achievement and behavior and provides disincentives to out-of-control and disruptive students.

• They are seeking a sense that achievement by their children can mean something--that when their children work hard, they will be rewarded.

• They are seeking a sense of greater personal attention--that the school cares about their child, their home, and them.

These realistic expectations deserve to be met. They are not pie in the sky. Public schools that dismiss the message that charters and vouchers are sending do it at their peril. It is a useful message, a reminder we need. And public schools, with their resources and experience, are actually in a stronger position to meet these expectations than start-up schools.

Many parents, in fact, talk about alternatives to the public schools without really knowing what is involved.

Many parents, in fact, talk about alternatives to the public schools without really knowing what is involved, what benefits they may realistically expect, what pitfalls they may face. We need to provide them with information and leadership. One relatively easy way to do this is to clip, save, and distribute all relevant articles and studies on alternative forms of education. Giving parents all the facts, and not just about the school trying to keep them, can be very persuasive.

When businesses woo customers, they assess their products and services and take steps to make them stronger. Schools can do even better. Here are examples of the kinds of questions school personnel need to ask themselves. Call it a personal school report card:

• Do we know what our customers want? Do we care?

• Are we ready to provide the kind of service and outreach it takes to woo and win our customers?

• Do we have ways (such as surveys) to find out what our customers care about? Do we do this regularly?

• Do we have a written statement of services and written materials soliciting parent comments?

• Do we make strong efforts to inform our customers about issues in education and the pros and cons of various initiatives?

• Do we give our customers the benefit of our expertise? When we buy cars or cosmetics, there are consumer reports to check. Whom do parents ask about schooling issues?

• Do we have front-line personnel trained and assigned to respond effectively to parent questions? This includes administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, and front-office support staff.

• What staff training needs to be provided? What parent training?

• Do employees in all facets of the school's work know how to put across the school's philosophy? Do they know and believe in the basic message and the pluses of our school?

• Do we have a way to determine how well the message is getting through and the effectiveness of our service system? When parents say they are moving their children from our school, is there a sign-out process that helps determine why they are making this change?

• How do I rank the overall service provided at the school where I teach? At the school where my children are enrolled? At the school I wish they could attend? What changes would I make to ensure that my school received more positive answers on this questionnaire?

Just as in the business world, there will always be the unappeasable, unpersuadable school client who can never be satisfied. But when educators get more Yes answers than No's and Not Sure's on this modest survey, they will be well on the way to competing effectively for their parents and students.

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