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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

Some Unsolicited Advice for ED’s Communication Gurus

By Rick Hess — April 01, 2010 4 min read
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I’ve been hard on Secretary Duncan and the administration, especially on the subject of Race to the Top (RTT). No two ways about it. This has prompted some in the administration to ask whether I’m just a reflexive contrarian.

I don’t intend to be. As I’ve said before, I like and respect many in the administration, count many as friends, and think they’ve been trying to push in the right direction. That I’ve been semi-scathing is in no small part a reaction to how ED has communicated its efforts and the coverage they’ve received. There’s not much that ED can do about the coverage, but there is stuff it can control.

When Kevin Jennings told Phi Delta Kappan that common core standards would eventually be stretched to include “safe environments,” or when concerns emerged last fall about sycophantic ED-issued materials to complement the President’s back-to-school speech, I would have been far more sympathetic if anyone at ED had ever conceded, “Whoops, this was a mistake,” or granted that there were legitimate concerns and that they were being addressed. Instead, the Jennings declaration was quietly declared inoperative and the back-to-school materials were quietly altered. Asked last fall about the Secretary’s promises that the $100 billion in non-RTT stimulus dollars would fund reform as well as jobs, the Department simply bragged about jobs protected. Asked to point out where the Secretary has come down on wasteful stimulus spending, as promised, or where they had “scrubbed” the ED budget per the President’s request, no answers have been forthcoming. Even simply conceding that “here and here we’ve come up a bit short so far” could do wonders.

Those of us inclined to push back against spin are likely to respond with more nuance and generosity when officials communicate in a fashion that invites and addresses fair-minded criticisms. However, this Department, like its predecessor, has not made much of an effort to engage the skeptics.

There are a number of simple steps that could help temper their concerns. Much of what prompted me to lock in on RTT, for instance, was a disquieting sense that the coverage and the Department’s messaging have been far too rah-rah, and disinclined to acknowledge potential pitfalls or concede missteps.

When releasing the ESEA blueprint, instead of doing a Friday afternoon dump, the Department might have held for a Monday release and then--perhaps a day or two later--held a call with assistant secretary Carmel Martin during which skeptics were invited to air concerns so that Martin could forthrightly acknowledge and respond to them. With RTT, when concerns were bubbling up in January about the design of the program and the review process, instead of merely bleating the party line of “unprecedented transparency,” ED might have held a conference call or allowed press availability in which they had Joanne Weiss directly respond to skeptics. She could have acknowledged some of the concerns, made her own case, and explained the Department’s decisions with more context.

Given the predictable concern that naming Tennessee and Delaware as round one RTT winners would raise questions as to whether stakeholder buy-in amounts to a union veto on state plans (the Van Roekel “happy dance” thesis), the Department might have done more to sit down with a couple heavy-hitting journos (such as the two-headed McNeil-Klein Ed Week team, Sam Dillon of the New York Times, or Greg Toppo of USA Today) and/or an influential skeptic like Andy Smarick to explain its thinking and directly confront such questions. That could have helped frame the coverage.

Arguably, President Obama’s two most successful moves to shift public opinion to date were his televised visit with the House Republicans in Baltimore and the televised health care “summit.” Most who follow such things think his willingness to confront skeptics in those forums did more for him than any number of spin-tastic Robert Gibbs White House press briefings. Whatever one thought of the substance of the conversations, both appearances were notable for the President’s willingness to engage critics directly. A little more of that might go a long way. After all, Secretary Duncan and the administration’s education efforts have received mostly fawning coverage to date, but that kind of ride can invite its own correction--just recall the plight of Don Rumsfeld or Colin Powell from the last administration. Rather than count on three more years of softballs, it’d be worth finding firmer footing.

A couple of weeks ago, David Coleman (the hand behind the Common Core push) gave a clinic on how to do this right. Knowing that skeptics might be dubious of grandiose plans and that adoring press might be inviting pushback, he took the time to walk me through the standards, explain the strategy, and discuss the challenges and pitfalls. By being straight about limits and unknowns, he blunted my impulse to provide a ballast-laden dissent intended to counter some of the grand claims and excessive enthusiasm. The result, I think, was a more nuanced piece than I might have otherwise penned. Now, it’s fair to note that David doesn’t have to juggle all the balls that the Department’s communication shop has to keep in the air, but he also doesn’t have their resources or support. If the White House could eventually get this right, and Coleman can, there’s no reason the savvy communications pros at the Department can’t do better.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.