Speaking Ed Reform Truth … Who’s Listening?

Terrific piece in today’s Politico from Andy Rotherham and Richard Whitmire on helping 2008 presidential candidates craft an education agenda.  As you’ll recall, about a month ago, Eduflack offered his own thoughts on how the candidates should be talking about education reform.

At any rate, it is well worth the read —

This oped, along with some discussions I have had earlier this week, got me thinking.  Who are we reaching with such agendas and manifestos?  A few weeks ago, I talked about employing the right spokespeople to move reform forward.  But it begs the question — to whom are we speaking?

Too often, education reform becomes a complicated game of inside baseball.  Researchers talking to researchers, and the like.  Then we wonder why long-term, wholesale reform doesn’t take hold.  The recent GOP revolts against NCLB demonstrate one clear fact — we just aren’t talking to the right people.  We aren’t necessarily talking to those whose behaviors we are seeking to change.  We aren’t necessarily talking to those who ultimately embody the reform we are seeking.  And if we aren’t talking to those on the front lines of ed reform, like teachers and families, we are simply contributing to the white noise.  We aren’t making a difference.

Who should we communicate with?  Who are our target audiences when it comes to education reform?  Who is truly listening, hoping to hear how reform will impact them, benefiting their families or improving their schools or communities?

When it comes to target audiences, one must be both broad and deep.  By talking to multiple stakeholders simultaneously, you get all key parties involved in the reform.  And that is needed today.

Communicating education reform seems to grow more and more complicated each day.  Following the passage of NCLB, virtually everyone in the educational marketplace began making claims about improved student performance and school success.  As a result, teachers, administrators, and parents have grown more and more weary of hearing about the latest and greatest, if they are hearing about it at all.

At the same time, after decades of being beaten up on student achievement and measures of success, many districts have convinced their educators and community leaders they are doing the best they can with the resources available, and nothing more can be done to improve our schools.  The result — many educators are incredibly wary of those offering fixes, improvements, or reforms.  That is why it is essential to understand all of the key players and communicate directly with them.

The growing chain in institutional decision making and implementation is clear.  Policymakers and district administrators turn to principals and teacher leaders for input.  Those principals rely on their teachers and specialists to provide feedback on implementation and effectiveness.  And teachers receive ongoing input from parents and the local community (including CBOs, church leaders, and the like) on their success … or failure.  Add to the mix the growing concerns regularly raised by the local business community, and you have an ever-widening circle of voices in the process.

What does that mean for those seeking to improve our schools?  Effective communication means including a wide range of audiences in the discussion, the decision, the implementation, and the measurement.  This includes:

* School administrators, those superintendents, deputy superintendents, district-level administrators, and principals who must balance the demands of parents with the abilities of teachers and the resources of the schools

* Policymakers, particularly those local school board members, state boards of education officials, state departments of education leaders, and local and state elected officials who want to see top student performance for minimum cost and want schools and teachers to be held accountable for meeting standards

* Teachers, the primary audience on the front lines when it comes to the success of our schools

* Parents, one of the most important audiences in moving change in education, but often the least informed of stakeholder groups 

* Business community, those who know that their future success depends on a workforce that is effectively educated

Yes, we need the right spokespeople.  But we also need to make sure they are talking to the right audiences.  If we are to truly improve public education in the United States, as Rotherham and Whitmire outline in their oped, we need to broaden our reach and raise our voice.  Candidates, take note. 

There is a role for virtually everyone when it comes to improving education and boosting student achievement, making change relevant to virtually everyone.  By communicating that, we can empower all audiences and all communities to assume their responsibilities, contribute to the solution, and raise student achievement.  

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