School & District Management Opinion

Telling the Story of School Reform

By Gina Burkhardt & Richard Lee Colvin — October 28, 2008 7 min read
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The daily, unglamorous work of improving public education rarely captures headlines or generates chatter unless it fails. If the failure can be blamed on a well-paid superintendent, especially an outsider with a strong personality, so much the better. This definition of news leaves communities in the dark about the hard decisions that must be made every day on the most important contributors to learning: curriculum, teacher quality, instructional practices, and assessments.

The story of the reform of New York City’s public schools under the leadership of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel I. Klein, for example, is a compelling one and has been highlighted for educators and policymakers all over the country. Mayor Bloomberg, having secured direct oversight for the city’s schools from the New York state legislature, appointed Klein, a former federal prosecutor, as his point man. During their tenure together, they have focused on improving school leadership, increasing accountability, and giving principals more power over hiring and spending. More than 300 new schools have been created, 60 of them charter schools. Test scores are up, dropout rates down, teachers and principals are paid more, and parents’ satisfaction with their children’s schools has grown.

Yet Klein, in an interview on the Web site BigThink.com, found fault with at least one aspect of his performance. He believes he has not worked hard enough to personally tell the story of the changes in philosophy and practice that both produced results and generated controversy. It’s a lesson, he says, “I wish I had learned sooner.”


Ambitious changes that disrupt the status quo—such as, in the case of New York, issuing letter grades for schools and negotiating a contract that reduces the role of seniority in teaching assignments—require the district leadership to step out and tell the story so that the community understands the rationale behind the decisions and the outcomes that can be expected.

“We let other people characterize the changes in ways that were both inaccurate and harmful,” the New York City chancellor said ruefully. “These things are controversial, and you’re running up against people who have very sophisticated media machines … who can be counted upon to mount an effective defense.”

The school system Klein heads is unlike any other, in size, politics, and the intensity of media scrutiny. Still, his insight that the leader of a school district has to render district change as a compelling story for parents and the community is one that other school leaders should heed.

The news media also have a responsibility—to pay attention. In many communities, that is no longer a given.

Another important voice in telling the story of reform to the public must be the local news media, of course. Good stories are what get journalists out of bed each morning. One story they should consider covering is the one told by a school leader attempting to bring about significant changes.

To make this happen, district leaders must proactively connect with reporters. But a new national survey of 116 leaders in districts large and small, conducted by the not-for-profit educational consulting organization Learning Point Associates, suggests that education leaders don’t put much effort into doing that.

Only about half the superintendents surveyed said they had tried to move an initiative forward by engaging the media. Two-thirds said they normally spend less than 15 minutes explaining a complex education issue to journalists. So it’s not surprising that only about 60 percent of the leaders thought that the media had adequately explained how they were trying to address their districts’ major challenges. A third or more said the press was “somewhat informative” on most issues, and another 20 percent to 30 percent said the press was “moderately informative” about education.

The news media also have a responsibility—to pay attention. In many communities, that is no longer a given. The newspapers in many cities—Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, and others—have downsized their newsrooms and so have fewer reporters to send out on stories. At a meeting of suburban school superintendents this past summer, several said no reporters were assigned to regularly cover news in their districts. One said that each time a new reporter from the local suburban daily called him for a comment, he would invite him or her to his office for a fuller explanation of the issues. The reporters rarely took him up on his offer.

An online survey of 280 journalists conducted by the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media earlier this year found, not surprisingly, that the reporters who do remain are being asked to do more and more. Many have education as only one of their responsibilities and are required to write more than one story per day. In addition, many are now making videos for their news organizations’ Web sites, recording audio interviews for posting online, and also contributing to blogs. Even if journalists do make the time to understand what a superintendent is attempting to do, they may not consider it newsworthy.

District leaders must proactively connect with reporters. But a new national survey suggests that they don't put much effort into doing that.

In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein are strong backers of charter schools, and so Klein cited the performance of those schools’ students on this year’s required math and language arts tests: Eighty-five percent of charter school students met or exceeded grade-level math standards this year, compared with 74 percent citywide and 80 percent statewide, and they also outpaced their peers citywide in language arts. “I would have thought this would be a huge story,” the chancellor said. But it passed by virtually unnoticed.

Similarly, education only became prominent in the presidential campaign in September, when Sen. Barack Obama laid out an expansive plan for greater investment in early-childhood education, performance pay for teachers, a doubling of federal support for charter schools, and other initiatives. The response from Sen. John McCain assumes that competition will help improve public schools and calls for bonuses for teachers assigned to high-need schools. Both candidates talk about how education will help keep the nation globally competitive.

In evaluating the candidates’ positions, what do Americans need to know about the current system and the steps being taken to improve it? Listening to politicians’ sweeping proposals, it is easy to forget that many teachers, principals, and superintendents are working hard on improving schools and have been for a long time. Those efforts are characterized by an intense focus on student achievement and the adoption of smart ways of keeping track of progress. These seem like common-sense management strategies. They certainly are not sensational. But they are making a difference worthy of note.

Yet, instead of talking about this side of their work with the media, more and more superintendents are going around reporters to tell their stories directly to the public, via school district Web sites, e-mail blasts, newsletters (electronic or hard-copy), and communications directly from principals and teachers to parents. It is important to get information out, but these modes of communication do not help parents and community leaders understand how various initiatives fit into a reform strategy. That is the work of journalists. They must explain education reform in compelling, clear ways so that their audiences can judge for themselves whether the progress being made is adequate.

Another critical reason that school leaders must tell their stories is to get credit when they are making progress. It’s not about feeding leaders’ egos: It’s about gaining the momentum needed to accomplish even more. Joel Klein noted, for example, that a survey of New York City parents, teachers, and students conducted earlier this year found that more than 80 percent of parents thought their child’s school deserved an A or B grade, and 88 percent said they were satisfied with the quality of education their child received last year. But, he said, the survey respondents did not necessarily connect their positive evaluations to the citywide reform effort or to Klein and Bloomberg. With Mayor Bloomberg maneuvering for a third term, that may not be a problem. But should he lose that bid, the question of whether the next mayor will commit to continuing the reforms if they are not popular or well understood will become important.

An effective education system is the foundation for a strong and productive society. A community will support school reforms if residents can see the connection between documented school improvement and a stronger local economy, a better-prepared workforce, and greater competitiveness globally. School leaders need to be systematic and relentless in getting that story out. And the media have to be open to telling those stories to help their audiences understand what is being attempted and how well it is succeeding. That would require a redefinition of news, but it would be a welcome change that would demonstrate that journalists are anything but irrelevant, no matter which form of communication technology they use.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2008 edition of Education Week as Telling The Story Of School Reform


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