Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Disabling the Education-Bashing Bandwagon ...

NSPRA Counselor  June 2011

Setting the Stage for Why You Need to Act Now
by Richarad Bagin

Education bashing seems to be more “in” than ever. According to our critics, not only are our schools failing, but our teachers are also over-paid, have luxurious benefits, enjoy an envious pension program, and don’t really work that hard in the first place. (Makes you wonder why all these bashers never entered the teaching profession, doesn’t it? Gee, do you think they would have jumped at my starting teacher salary of $7,200 a year in the 1970’s?)

Education is at a vulnerable time. Hit hard by local and state economies, cuts are going deeper than ever before. We now have a direct connection with the 20% of our taxpayers who have children in our schools. And the “test and punish approach” of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) generates a negative feeling about our schools.

Education blogger Stan Karp, a Rethinking Schools editor, describes our current education times much better than I: (I urge you to read his entire article at www.rethinkingschools.org/index.shtml.

But the longer answer is that the bashing is coming from different places for different reasons. And to respond effectively to the very real attacks that our schools, our profession, and our communities face, it’s important to pay attention to these differences.

The parent who’s angry at the public school system because it’s not successfully educating his/her children is not the same as the billionaire with no education experience who couldn’t survive in a classroom for two days, but who has made privatizing education policy a hobby, and who has the resources to do so because the country’s financial and tax systems are broken.

The educators who start a community-based charter school so they can create a collaborative school culture are not the same as the hedge fund managers who invest in charter schools because they see an opportunity to turn a profit or because they want to privatize one of the last public institutions we have left.

The well-meaning college grad who joins a Teach for America program out of an altruistic impulse is not the same as the corporate managers who want to use market reforms to create a less expensive, less secure, and less experienced teaching force.

And the hard-pressed taxpayer who directs frustration at teachers struggling to hang on to their health insurance or pensions—which far too few people have at all—is not coming from the same place as those responsible for the obscene economic inequality that is squeezing both.

And the final introductory remark is that our current apathetic form of democracy seems to be failing as too few are driving the agenda without much opposition or discussion from the communities where action and discussion are needed. Again, Stan Karp points out that the corporate reformers’ larger goal is to “burst the dam” that has historically protected public education and its $600 billion annual expenditures from unchecked commercial exploitation and privatization.

He notes that this is not some secret conspiracy. It’s a multi-sided political campaign funded by wealthy financial interests. And it’s important to keep this big picture in mind – even as we talk about specifics like merit pay and charters – because these issues, in Karp’s words, are the dynamite charges being put in place to burst the dam.

Whether you believe that there is an organized, seemingly national assault on public education, or an aggressive measure for business opportunities, the results have been tarnishing the image of public education and educators.

So what can school leaders do about this surge of bashing public education?
It will take a proactive and sustained communication effort to move forward. The days of sitting back and taking it are over. Now is the time to provide communication leadership in your school communities to make them aware of your district’s accomplishments and needs and to engage them in deciding what the future of your schools and your children should be.
What follows are some observations and advice on combating just a few elements of the education bashing program:

Remember: When You Create a Communication Void, Your Critics Will Surely Fill It!
There’s a new gap in education. And the good news is that it should be easier to fill than the achievement gap we all have been working on. Our critics and others have taken the lead in telling their stories on school reform, teacher and school accountability, school funding, and even the very foundation of the role of public education in our democracy.

For years, many have sat back and assumed that the rhetoric of these critics would not stick as our everyday great work would ring true with decisionmakers at every level. But it’s time to ask the old Dr. Phil question, “How’s that working for you?”

Most will agree that our passive approach is not working. Critics, political leaders, major business leaders, recently formed foundations or “shell” organizations, business entrepreneurs, corporations, and our federal government are now communicating their particular solutions for public education. Most educators are not strategically fighting back against these accusations.

All of these solutions are coming at a time when public education is more vulnerable as traditional funding sources have been greatly diminished. Our political climate is also fractured and wedges are being driven into our education programs through privatization and other attempts that seem to forget that our country is built on an equitable and accessible education system for all.

We may soon be at a crossroads where we need to decide what public education really stands for. Is it for serving all children with the best we can offer and afford? Or is it for serving a more selected group with the best we can offer and leaving the others far behind with little hope of reaching their potential?

Dealing with Attacks on Tenure and Personnel Accountability
The popular buzz is that once you become a teacher and earn tenure, you have a job for life. We do little to communicate differently and, unfortunately, all of us have had a teacher who may not have measured up to our expectations for a great teacher – whether it be in our own student days or those who have taught our children.

Diane Ravitch in Ed Speak, a glossary of education terms, even adds fuel to this notion by defining the term, dance of lemons, in this way:

The administrative practice of repeatedly reassigning unsatisfactory teachers from one class or school to another, instead of going through a time-consuming effort to remove them through regular channels. Also known as the turkey trot.

Start communicating that in your district in the past 5 years, xx teachers and other employees were not renewed, and they no longer work in your district. Prove that your standards are set and those who are not reaching them after a natural period of coaching are told not to return. Think about making it a part of your annual report to the community.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is attacking tenure. The New Jersey Education Association recently released that 4 out of 10 teachers in New Jersey never receive tenure. That’s 40% and most people are not aware that these actions have been taken. And that’s because no one has been sending this message.
And, while you are at it, also talk about how tenured teachers are being held accountable. Work with your current staff to develop an evaluation system that is much more than test scores, but a collaborative approach led by principals, lead teachers, and students. All this can be done without releasing the collective test scores of individual teachers. Tell your public about the standards you have in place and demonstrate that your system is working. Perhaps they will start noticing that in your school community, things are better than they have heard.

Take a Hard Look at Ourselves:
Are We Driving Our Publics Away?

This approach may be hard to swallow, but sometimes we can be our own worst enemies.
Jamie Vollmer, a former business person and education critic has transformed himself into one of our nation’s best education advocates by making the time to learn about education from the inside out. His new book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone, (available through NSPRA at http://www.nspra.org/schools-cannot-do-it-alone), offers scenario after scenario on how we may be losing the “public” in our public schools. He is urging us to have a “Great Conversation” about our schools, reaching both our key internal and external audiences, and getting to the core of what we all believe about public education and how to build more support for it.

While running one of his numerous workshops, this time with staff in an Ohio district, he asked them to brainstorm about how the people who work inside our schools may be doing things to push the public away. The room erupted with responses that fall into a global category of “How Some Educators Shoot Themselves in the Foot.” A sampling of responses included:

“We’re defensive.” 
“We’re arrogant.” 
“We blame everyone else for our problems.” 
“We don’t listen very well.” 
“We are not transparent.” 
“We give lip service to parental involvement.” 
“We don’t care what the community thinks.” 
“We resist change.” 
“We distrust each other.” 
“The professional staff talks down to the support staff.” 
“We are reactive not proactive.” 
“We wrap ourselves in tenure.” 
“We are too bureaucratic.” 
“We all don’t vote.” 
“We act like martyrs.” 
“We have a siege mentality.” 
“We are isolated, inbred, and out of touch.” 
“We think in terms of us versus them.”

Had enough? Jamie’s list actually goes on with more quotes from staff members. (Jamie’s website for additional resources is http://www.jamievollmer.com.)

Now, many of us probably don’t see ourselves this way. But the work that my colleague Karen Kleinz, APR, and I do when conducting communication audits throughout the U.S. and Canada confirms these descriptions. We hear these exact phrases from parents, other community leaders, and some levels of staff when we talk about improving communication in their local schools.

To get us through this barrier to effective communication at a time when we need it most, we must take stock of our own culture of communication in our districts.

Do we authentically engage and listen to our various publics? Or do we give the impression that we are just patting the public on the head, and saying, something that comes across as, “Now, now, that idea is nice, but we know better”? The take-away is that these concerned parents and citizens have just wasted their time, become disgruntled, and started working against your system in ways that lead to the bandwagon approach of bashing public education.

We all need to listen, react to suggestions, and close the communication loop when possible. Most importantly, we need to respond to and respect those who have shown enough interest to begin the communication process with us. Public education is in a fragile spot these days. Make friends, not enemies.

Earning Communication Trust Is the Deal Maker or Breaker
The days of counting on professional gate-keepers is over. Media outlets are understaffed and too often want to be “first” rather than correct. Any member of your community with a computer and online access can become a publisher and start spreading misinformation that is often accepted as the truth.
Times have indeed changed. In the past, one of NSPRA’s most powerful sessions at our Seminar was a session, Bypassing the Gate Keepers, led by the late Pat Jackson, APR, a nationally respected PR guru. He promoted, as we still do, that you should not depend on others outside of your system to communicate for you. You need to take charge of your own communication effort.

The trust issue still rests with principles taught by our profession for years. Face-to-face communication is still the foundation of building trust in our community. Nothing does it better. Of course, superintendents and Board presidents must behave in a trustworthy fashion. Stephen M.R. Covey, in the Speed of Trust reminds us that behavior is the key ingredient in developing trust with employees and, in our case, taxpayers as well.

Even seemingly small items make a difference. One community leader at a meeting last week was talking about her superintendent who always reads his Blackberry when she is trying to make a point at an advisory meeting. I can assume he was multi-tasking, but that type of behavior symbolically communicates that his e-messages are far more important than the person in front of him. Every day, leaders have these trust-maker or breaker moments with staff, board members, parents, and others. Authentic listening at all levels will make the difference.

NSPRA has well documented that key communicator/opinion leader networks can make a big difference as they start out in face-to-face mode and then develop into frequent e-communication opportunities to keep the trust pipeline alive. To learn more about starting an effective opinion- leader program, NSPRA offers a quick handbook entitled A Guidebook for Opinion Leader/Key Communicator Programs that can be purchased at www.nspra.org/store.

Once you have established trust and credibility in your leadership and your communication efforts, people will begin believing “your side” of the story even after the e-misinformation factories begin spewing their “facts” throughout your community. We all need to make more time to have more opportunities for face-to-face communication.

Authentic Engagement Adds Sustainability to Your Trust-Building Efforts
Authentic engagement means that you work with parents, staff, community leaders, and other residents to focus on key issues or tasks. You must be open to diverse views, transparent in all decisionmaking, and refrain from “selling” pre-conceived solutions for the issues being studied. Too often school leaders give lip service to engagement. Our best advice is not to proceed in the engagement process unless you are committed to practicing authentic engagement as described above.

We have seen authentic engagement efforts build trust and enhance relationships among key groups with school officials for many years. We have also seen them blow up, harm relationships, and take years and a new leader to regain trust in these communities. Through our work with the Kettering Foundation, NSPRA offers some guiding questions for school leaders before embarking on the engagement process.

It’s Time to Make Democracy Work, One School District at a Time
By now the U.S. has spent billions on “spreading democracy” throughout the world, and we have seen billions of dollars and lives lost to our cause of democracy and a free world. Although we have seen some positive results worldwide, we must also pay more attention to our local communities and our local schools.
As noted earlier, some powerful and well-funded forces have come together to possibly drive a wedge into the foundation of public education. They can only succeed if we remain apathetic and ignore their rhetoric and the legislative actions they are pursuing.

Taking the lead from Jamie Vollmer and his call for a Great Conversation, we must begin to establish a series of locally led summits or forums about looking at the future of education in every school community we serve. These forums require courage and lots of planning to be successful, and they must be representative of every local government body and agency, the business community, the elected political leaders, staff, parents, private school and charter advocates, and every other community advocate group organized in your community. In other words, make these gatherings as representative of your local democracy as they can be.

One of the goals of this type of project is to help define your community’s priority for education and just how important education is to the viability and well-being of all your community’s residents. This project also serves as a key face-to-face component of communication, as many residents will learn for the first time the facts about your schools, and how different they are from the rhetoric of misinformation and half-truths that others spread.

These forums take a great deal of work to organize and even more work to sustain for a period of time. But where they work, they have begun making differences for education programs and their communities. Trust is built as the school community works together, rather than working on separate projects that benefit just a few.
I have said for years, that communities should be known by the schools they keep. A strong sense of community in our democracy will lead to more support for school and better education for all.

Nine Additional Tips to Combat Education Bashing
1. Stop Playing Catch-up; Become Proactive.
Most educators are always reacting to what others say about us. You need to get out front on your key issues so we can keep our “collective volume” high on these critical issues. You must develop a comprehensive communication plan for these issues and the plan must be ongoing and strategic to reach key influential targets with your main messages on each issue. If we do not become more proactive, we lose the influential positioning of being first and naming and owning the issue. Once again, we will fall behind in the court of public opinion.

2. RealizeThat Defending the Status QuoIs Not Very Sexy to the Media.
Many school people say that if we have more “good press” we would not have the image problems we have today. They continue to note that the press just covers the bad and not the great job educators are doing every day. First, we must realize that public schools are supposed to perform well. That is our job. Good performance is the status quo and the media rarely reports on the status quo in education. So, when we don’t perform as expected, or hopefully when we perform extremely well above the expected, the media is at our door.

If you depend on the media to tell your story, you will fail. You must be proactive.
As I ask school leaders in workshops, “If we don’t communicate, who will tell our story to our community? Remember, when you create a communication void, your critics will happily fill it with their story.”

3. See for Yourself Campaigns Bring Substance to Your Messages.
To add credibility to your messages and to poke holes in what your critics may be saying, consider initiating a See for Yourself campaign in your local district. When people see first-hand the good work that staff and students are accomplishing, they begin to realize that the negative rhetoric is wrong.

Over the years, many systems have used this technique to bring in groups from all corners of their communities to see stellar programs in action. They also used this technique when explaining facility needs, crowded classrooms, and other items related to an upcoming finance referendum. Using video technology can also capture some of the elements of a See for Yourself Campaign and you can “push” it out to your community through your website, YouTube, and Twitter.

It’s one thing to listen to numbers that critics give and it’s another to see for yourself what is really happening.

4. Become a Steady Stream of Positive News About Your School.
Once again, a steady stream of positive news cannot happen unless you do it. Some consultants in our profession call this the “fire hose” approach to drowning critics with positive news and stories about your schools. It can work as long as you also balance what you say with some of the needs you are experiencing and what your plan is to meet those needs.

Every district is full of success stories. Some lend themselves to features, others can be blasted in brief format like Twitter. Most parents always look for something to brag about concerning their children and their schools. Once you establish a positive opinion of your schools, people will most likely give you the benefit of the doubt when they hear something negative in your district.

Dan Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) notes that we should start a 95-5 campaign, where 95% of our schools are performing well and that we need to continue focusing on the 5% who need the extra work for improvement. It seems to many of us that the 5% get the majority of the press, when 95% are doing well. The 95% may fall into the “status quo” category for some, but school districts really do need to tell the positive stories they see blossoming every day.

5. Reframe the Big-Picture Issues.
Earlier this year we saw the entire Wisconsin confrontational battle between union groups and the governor’s office. All of a sudden, the issue of the state’s financial need was repositioned to say that it was the union’s fault in the first place. The governor’s leaders and the people working with him refocused the financial blame on education and other government workers rather than looking at the cause of the financial failure — the banking industry and the related housing foreclosures and more. Some people are always looking for someone to blame rather than looking at the source of the problem and fixing it.

6. To Compete with the Best in the World, We Must Become More World-like.
The lesson is to combat this outlandish framing of issues by exposing them for what they are.
Many critics are quick to point out that our international standings are not that impressive. In some instances, we do have to get much better, but in some findings when doing more of an apple-versus- apple comparison, we do better. However, we still must improve.

Recently, through the leadership of the Learning First Alliance, we learned from a review of the international comparisons that most of the leading countries do not use a “test and punish” approach to their evaluation system, but use it to pinpoint weaknesses in instructional programs and then offer professional development solutions to correct deficiencies. We also learned that the teaching profession is held in very high regard. The best professionals possible are sought to enter teaching, a great amount of peer and teacher-leader coaching is provided, and they pay these professionals as other professionals are paid in their country. Right now, it seems that the U.S. blames teachers for our budget woes, and teachers are catching the wrath of some for their salaries, benefits, and working hours. We have a lot of catching up to do if we want to compete with the best worldwide.

7. Are You Still Waiting for Superman?
Charter schools have done some wonderful things for thousands of children. And just like regular public schools, many are terrific, while many others are not. Some do not perform as well as their public schools. Recent research by Stanford and others can bring you the facts on their performance.
A wise superintendent I worked with a few years ago told me, “Rich, you have to remember that they are all our children.” His advice rings true for me when I look at the rhetoric of opposing views on the issue of charter schools. Diane Ravitch in The Myth of Charter Schools calls the film, Waiting for Superman, the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far. She notes that the message of the movie is clear: public schools are bad; privately managed charter schools are good.

One note is the wonderful passion and commitment demonstrated by the parents in the number of movies about charter schools this past year. We must find ways to fire up all parents to demonstrate that passion for their child’s education. Hundreds of parents, maybe more, in many school districts never show the commitment that these parents make to their child’s school. Ignite and continue that parental passion and you will begin seeing improvement in all your schools.

We must stop bashing one another. Right now, because of the financial problems in public schools, with teacher layoffs and increasing class size as realities, it is difficult to take even more taxpayer money to pay for private schools. Saying bad things about one another reminds me of the quote from the late Al Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) who noted that in negotiations when the school board says bad things about the teachers, and the teachers say bad things about the school board, “the public believes both of us.” We must find some common ground and learn from one another. After all, “They are all our children.”

8. Create a Rumor Checkpoint.
Some school districts create a section on their websites to check the latest rumor floating around their school community. Some have named this section Grapevine, where residents post their questions or rumors and then receive a posted response with 48 hours. Others have had their communication professional address items of misinformation from various sources and then post the “facts” directly next to the misinformation. It gives you the opportunity to set the record straight, and also clearly points out that some critics may continue their rhetoric after “the truth” has been told.

It takes more than just one effort to respond to bashing. Your response must be continuous to begin building a culture of communication in your school district. You also need a professional who can craft a communication plan and a pro who, through research, recognizes your perceived “enemies” as one of your key target audiences. Communication at this level is a management function that needs the ear and authority of the Superintendent of Schools.

Critics have spent millions of dollars on communication and influential tactics to begin selling their messages. But they do not have what you have. That’s the critical component of local credibility so your community can better understand just what is needed to keep your schools on track.

9. Credible, OngoingCommunication Is Essential to Quell the Bashing.
If you are truly committed to building a foundation of continued support for your schools, you must become proactive and you need to do it with the professional guidance of a seasoned school communicator.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director
NSPRA Counselor © 2011 by the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), 15948 Derwood Road, Rockville, MD 20855. (301) 519-0496. http://nspra.org/ All rights reserved.
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