Campaign Seeks Buy-In for High School Reforms

April 18, 2006 7 min read
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Kicked off last week with a big plug on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” a new campaign spearheaded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is aiming to drum up public action to address what its organizers see as a crisis in America’s public high schools.

The Stand Up campaign comes as high schools have emerged as a focus of public-policy discussions. Many governors have recently outlined plans for improving secondary education, and President Bush—with little success so far—has advanced a high school agenda tied to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The initiative is highlighting the need to reduce the dropout rate. Key goals include building parental support for higher academic expectations of students and intensifying political pressure on the U.S. public education system to better prepare young people for college and work.

The campaign cites data that suggest as many as one-third of students drop out of high school.

“My job, and the job of this campaign, is to get America to start talking about this crisis,” said Kevin Johnson, a former professional basketball player who now runs charter schools in his hometown of Sacramento, Calif., and is serving as the campaign’s national spokesman. Speaking during an April 12 conference call with reporters, he said a second goal was to “inform the solutions.”

While welcoming attention to high schools and the dropout issue, Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, disputes the dropout data being used in the campaign.

“The fact that they exaggerate the crisis is unfortunate,” said Mr. Mishel, whose recent research finds a dropout rate of about 18 percent. “But there’s still too many kids, particularly in large cities, who are not graduating.”

The effort, spearheaded by the Gates Foundation, is billed as a campaign involving more than 50 organizations, from the National Council of La Raza and the Chicago public school system to the San Diego-based High Tech High Foundation. Virtually all of the organizations listed have received financial support from the Gates Foundation.

Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week, has also helped the campaign and has received grant money from the Seattle-based foundation, mainly for research and reporting on issues surrounding high school graduation.

The Stand Up campaign, first publicly announced April 11 on Ms. Winfrey’s syndicated daytime TV show, seeks to take public awareness of the need for better schools—and political pressure to achieve that goal—to a new level.

The Gates Foundation so far has committed $850,000 to the effort, said Marie Groark, a Gates spokeswoman. The Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation is also expected to pitch in.

Work Called Hard

But veterans of education advocacy efforts said it’s not easy to keep the American public interested in education, and to translate that interest into action.

“Once you move toward solutions, outrage isn’t good enough,” said Robert F. Sexton, an EPE board member and the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Lexington, Ky.-based group that has spent years on public-engagement work in that state. “It requires endless conversations, bringing people along, not lecturing, but letting them work through the evidence.”

Stand Up

The Stand Up campaign, announced April 11 on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” aims to enlist the support of the American public to expect more from U.S. teenagers and from an education system that organizers say does a poor job of serving students.

Campaign Elements:

• Billboards, ads for print media, TV public-service announcements, and a movie “trailer”
• Web-based informational materials for parents and others on education improvement efforts
• Online toolkits for parents and those pursuing community action
• Wearable medallions sold to support a new college-scholarship fund
• A series of public events around the country

SOURCE: Stand Up organizers

Stand Up organizers describe it as a multiyear effort with a range of activities, from posting billboards and placing ads in major newspapers to local campaign events and providing an interactive Web site.

“It cannot just be a one-time flash,” Mr. Johnson said.

The Gates Foundation, established with the money and active involvement of the Microsoft Corp. chairman and his wife, has been a powerful driver in directing attention to high schools since it entered the education-policy arena in 2000. The philanthropy, with an endowment of $29.1 billion, has devoted more than $1 billion to its high school agenda, with a focus on starting small high schools or restructuring large ones into smaller units.

More recently, it’s adjusted its strategy to focus also on district and state efforts to build stronger curriculum and instruction and greater supports for nontraditional schools.

“It’s become clear to our grantees and us that part of their long-term success is rallying public will for improved public education,” Tom Vander Ark, the executive director of education initiatives for the Gates Foundation, said in an interview last week. “So it’s been something that we’ve been increasingly trying to address in our local partnerships, and that’s becoming an increasing part of our national agenda.”

Bob Wise, a former Democratic governor of West Virginia and now the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based research and public education advocacy group that targets secondary school issues, welcomed the campaign and predicted it would “stiffen the spines” of the nation’s governors.

“What this does is to put the theme of high school reform front and center,” he said.

Users of the campaign Web site, Standup.org, can download a “community action” toolkit with information on how to mobilize to improve schools, as well as a similar toolkit specifically for parents. They can buy medallions whose sale will support a new college-scholarship fund and put their name on e-mail letters urging the governors of their states to focus on the “dropout crisis,” create an “accurate public graduation rate report,” and “set state goals for graduation rates that include rewards for performance and consequences for failure.”

Ms. Winfrey devoted two, hourlong segments of her popular show last week to an “Oprah Special Report: Schools in Crisis.” The special was heralded with promotional ads saying she would talk with Bill and Melinda Gates to find out why they’re “terrified.”

Beyond those interview segments, the programs took a closer look at some of the problems in high schools and visited schools that are succeeding with low-income and minority students.

“Most Americans have no idea how bad things really are,” Ms. Winfrey said on the April 11 segment. “This show is all about getting you … to stand up.”

“That’s a home run,” Gemma R. Puglisi, an assistant professor at American University’s school of communications, said of Ms. Winfrey’s plugs for the campaign. “Everybody aspires to get on Oprah.”

“People know that if she has that person on the show, then it’s credible, it’s important, and it’s something we should all be aware of,” she said.

“The Oprah Winfrey Show” has a daily audience of about 8 million viewers, based on data for a recent week provided by Nielsen Media Research.

Simplicity and Its Risks

Ms. Winfrey also teamed up with Time magazine on a public-opinion poll, which the national newsmagazine featured in a cover story titled “Dropout Nation” in its April 17 issue.

In one finding, the survey suggested the public has different ideas about the main cause of students’ dropping out of high school. Twenty-seven percent cited students’ lack of motivation, 25 percent pointed to students’ problems at home, and 15 percent said schools and teachers “aren’t very good,” for instance.

Michael Franzini, the president and creative director of Public Interest, a nonprofit public relations agency in New York City that designed the campaign, said Stand Up would try to boil down complicated issues. “The key is simplifying what is a pretty complex subject to something everyone gets,” he said.

But some observers cautioned that simplicity has risks.

“It’s not, ‘Don’t drive while drunk,’ ” said Frederick M. Hess, the education policy director at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. “This kind of stuff is always in danger of getting hijacked, intentionally or unintentionally. … You end up hitting the notes that are least divisive and most broadly palatable.”

Wendy D. Puriefoy, the president of the Public Education Network, a Washington-based association that represents local education funds, said she believes the campaign could have a powerful effect, especially when taken in the context of other efforts by the Gates Foundation.

“The first thing you have to do is what they’ve done quite dramatically, and that is to draw people’s attention to the issue,” she said.

Mr. Vander Ark acknowledged that simplifying the issues at hand in a public-awareness campaign was “a huge challenge.”

Meanwhile, a Gates-funded College Readiness Roundtable was to be publicly launched this week. Among other purposes, it will provide a forum to discuss issues and publish papers to inform policy debates about how to improve high schools.

The 14 participants include former Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, Kristin Conklin, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based National Governors Association, and Stefanie Sanford, a senior policy officer at the Gates Foundation, with more expected to join.

“The [roundtable] is aimed at policymakers,” Mr. Vander Ark said. “It’s an effort to try to synthesize the best thinking of the day around these college-readiness policies.”


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