Families & the Community Opinion

Toss Out the PR Playbook

By Deborah Wadsworth — October 24, 2006 7 min read
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—Susan Sanford


As a senior adviser and former president of Public Agenda, I’m often asked to interpret public-opinion research in relation to the priorities of major education groups. These groups are seeking information that can help them refine their “messaging” strategies to promote a particular agenda.

“Messaging,” when it assumes that the solution is a given, merely in need of better packaging, is the last thing education reform needs more of. What is undeniably needed in its stead is authentic public engagement, and lots more of it.

The American public education system is facing multiple challenges that are unique in its history, and its ability to respond will depend on greater public involvement and understanding than has been evident to date.

One significant challenge arises from increased competition from abroad. Public leaders—ranging from President Bush to Bill Gates, and including corporate CEOs and college presidents—have pointed to the need for American schools to ramp up achievement and learning, especially in math, science, foreign languages, and international studies. Unless we do, we risk undermining our own nation and falling behind countries like China and India, which are racing forward in the global competition for high-tech and creative industry.

The second challenge grows out of our promise to deliver education fairly, or to live with the grave consequences of persistent gaps in student achievement. Our nation has made a half-hearted commitment to equal educational opportunity for all, and very troubling achievement gaps between whites and minorities continue as a result. Our education pipeline is leaking badly, with dropout rates for Hispanics and African-Americans at both the high school and college levels unacceptably high. Research from Public Agenda shows that minority students are more likely than white students to report very serious problems in their schools on a whole range of academic and social issues.

A third challenge to public education is maintaining the momentum behind the improvements that have been made so far. Whatever one’s take on the standards movement—whether the changes are generated by local and state policy or the federal No Child Left Behind legislation—it is important to keep in mind that virtually no one we have surveyed believes that we should return to the pre-standards-and-testing past, the status quo ante. This includes teachers, parents, administrators, and students. Maintaining momentum, examining what’s working and what’s not, fine-tuning, and making the right midcourse corrections—those are the primary challenges now. The question is, how do we solidify progress?

I believe it is the human factor that will make a real difference going forward. Very few education leaders—very few Americans, in fact—reject these challenges out of hand. Yet there are strong differences of opinion about how to address them. Focusing on the human ingredient in reform, which has received far too little attention, is going to be indispensable to making further progress on education. At the moment, however, some significant obstacles with very human dimensions are getting in the way of success. We’ve identified them in our research, and, in each instance, at the heart of the matter is the need for greatly improved, many-layered communication.

Top-down campaigns, in which the mission is to persuade people to adopt a preconceived agenda without genuine input, cannot build the relationships required to address the kinds of problems we’re facing.

A major obstacle grows out of the crosstalk that public leaders, educators, communities, and families engage in so frequently. These groups—often on completely different wavelengths—are unable to communicate, making very different assumptions about how well schools work now, and how much change schools need.

Employers and professors, for example, give young people very low marks on a long list of skills and attitudes essential to succeeding in either higher education or the workplace. Yet few principals and superintendents say low standards are a problem for their districts, and parents say schools are better and harder than they were when they went to school. Top business and leadership groups are calling for the country to drastically upgrade its math and science education. But while majorities of parents support stronger math and science education in general, seven in 10 parents of high school students say their children’s math education is just fine as it is. In fact, parents’ concerns about improving math and science education in local schools have actually declined since 1998.

Does it matter if parents and students don’t grasp the challenge as long as education leaders recognize the problem and set policies that require more math and science? The answer is yes, it matters a lot. Even with the No Child Left Behind law, education remains quintessentially a local issue—curriculum requirements; hiring good math, science, and foreign-language teachers; and providing new resources that may be required to make these things happen all boil down to decisions made in communities. Furthermore, simply requiring more of these classes won’t necessarily produce more-motivated students. We need to bridge these gaps in perception and build the “demand” side, the desire among parents for students to excel in these areas, and among students to pursue the challenges and excitement of advanced studies in mathematics, science, and technology.

Another obstacle that calls for better engagement is low teacher morale and the growing evidence that too many schools, especially those serving minority and at-risk students, simply don’t provide the orderly, safe, and respectful environment needed for teachers to teach and kids to learn. Public Agenda surveys repeatedly have shown that teachers are the group most troubled by the environment in which education reform is proceeding, and that they sense their concerns and perspectives are not taken seriously by reformers, or even their own administrators.

Teaching conditions and morale are a major problem. Does it matter? Let’s put it this way: Would a coach want to take the field with demoralized and frustrated players? There is little doubt that teachers’ sense of confidence and purposefulness can affect progress. There is an urgent need to bring classroom teachers into the discussions about how to improve education, to treat their concerns about school climate and student motivation with respect and seriousness. And there is a need to open new channels of communication between teachers and parents on how they can work together on shared goals.

A third obstacle facing education reform is complacency. Problems like truancy, lack of parental involvement, disruptive classroom behavior, and dropping out can’t be solved by schools alone. They require action from the community as a whole. Parents, grandparents, mentors, community and religious groups, businesses, and local agencies need to address these problems and make the case for adequate resources of all kinds to effectively educate the most diverse generation in the nation’s history.

These challenges and obstacles cry out for fundamental shifts in the way teachers, principals, superintendents, students, and parents communicate among themselves and with each other in their day-to-day activities. Improving learning for all kids at high levels requires confidence and purposefulness in the classroom and authentic support in the community. Building real support is not easy, and it is certainly not business as usual. And, quite frankly, “messaging” isn’t going to cut it.

Top-down campaigns, in which the mission is to persuade people to adopt a preconceived agenda without genuine input, cannot build the relationships required to address the kinds of problems we’re facing. Addressing these deeply human issues requires genuine give-and-take among people inside and outside schools. Education leaders and policymakers need to engage with a broad cross section of the community, including regular folks who are not already strongly involved in school activities, to set overall goals and establish priorities for change. Giving people alternatives to consider helps them learn about trade-offs that must be faced and helps reduce simplistic thinking and the tendency to reach for easy answers. Most importantly, a carefully thought-out engagement process allows people with very different starting points to talk effectively and productively about issues.

Public Agenda’s experience in different kinds of districts and diverse communities persuades us that genuine engagement with the public and other stakeholders can help build a broader base for change and help avoid the miscommunication that sometimes stalls progress. Conversation that includes real give-and-take can strengthen relationships and create the channels of communication upon which lasting change can be built. Will people back your agenda? Maybe not on every point and detail, but they will be responsive and thoughtful if invited into broader discussions and given a stake in deciding how to improve student learning.

My advice is to say no to messagingwhen it means spending inordinate amounts of time and money to come up with silver bullets, the language and images needed to persuade folks to buy your point of view. Instead, reconsider what it means to win the game. Engage the public—parents, teachers, education leaders, students, and whole communities alike. Develop relationships that can solve problems, help make solutions stick, and will take root for the long haul. This is not a game to be won through public relations, but with public engagement it is a season that can end successfully.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as Toss Out the PR Playbook

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