Finding One’s Voice

Messaging.  Framing.  Talking Points.  Guiding Questions.  Bridging.  It doesn’t matter what you call it.  Communicators and strategists spend a lot of time thinking through what is said, whether it be about education reform, healthcare, or the latest widget.  We often spend so much time focused on the “what” that we forget all about the “who.”  This is particularly true as we talk about reforms surrounding NCLB.

It took a visit with an old friend from my NRP days to remind just how important the “who” is in communicating education reform.  For a reform effort to take hold and be successful, the right person (or persons) need to be saying the right things.  The right message but the wrong messenger, you fall flat.  Likewise, the right messenger with the wrong message loses all credibility.

And just who is that right voice?  The effective messenger carries some distinctive characteristics:

* Credibility — A simple truth.  One needs to be believable.  One needs to be knowledgeable.  One needs to be trustworthy.  If you are advocating change, you can’t afford to have audiences question your statements before they message has taken hold.  My first mentor on Capitol Hill had a simple instruction for me, “Don’t ever lie … ever.”  While it offered as advice for dealing with the media, it holds for any advocacy effort, working with any audience.  One just has to be credible.  Hands down, with NCLB our most credible voices are the teachers and parents on the frontlines of learning.

* Likeability — One can be credible and trustworthy, and still disliked.  It is unfortunate, but all too real.  A good messenger needs to be liked by those she is talking to.  In a previous life, I used to do a great deal of crisis communications for hospitals and healthsystems.  I would always ask for a nurse as a messenger.  We trust doctors.  We know they are credible.  But we LIKE nurses.  They are empathetic.  They understand us.  They have a likeability factor that is unmatched.  Same is true for most teachers and parents.  We may respect a superintendent, but we generally like our child’s teacher. 

Relatability — This is probably the hardest to quantify.  I’ve conducted scores of focus groups with teachers and parents around the country, and the effect of education reform comes down to a few simple questions.  “Will it work in a school like mine?  In a class like mine?  With kids like mine?”  Stakeholders want to see themselves in those who are advocating change.  Parents need to hear from other parents.  The Latino community needs to hear from the Latino community.  And, yes, business leaders need to hear from other business leaders.  If I am being asked to change my thinking and my behavior, I want to hear from someone who has walked in my shoes, shared my thoughts, and understands my hesitations.

A wide chorus of voices is important to any debate.  But with all of the discourse on NCLB, Reading First, research data, accountability, and the like, we need to hear from the right voices, not just from those contributing to the white noise of the day.  Researchers and government officials all play an important role in improving our education system.  There is no question about that.  But for real reforms to take lasting root in schools and communities across the nation, we need to hear from those most affected by the reforms.

Advocating for Early Reading First?  Let’s hear from the mother in Arizona whose child has gained the developmental learning skills to succeed when he hits elementary school.  School choice?  Let’s hear from the reverend in Atlanta whose has seen more and more parents asking the right questions to ensure their kids are getting an effective education.  Testing?  Let’s hear from the second grade teacher in Pennsylvania who now has the data to key in on the learning skills many in her class seem to be missing.

We need to hear from those in the game, those teachers, parents, administrators, and such who are swinging for the fences and doing whatever is necessary to boost student achievement in the classrooms.  Those are the voices that launch successful reform.  Those are the voices that move us to improve.  Those are the voices we need most.

At the end of the day, the success of NCLB will not be heard from those at the U.S. Department of Education or at one of the national education organizations.  NCLB success will be heard in the words and actions of those in our local communities and our neighborhood schools.  When they are trumpeting the benefits and impact of scientifically based education research and a renewed commitment to accountability, then the law has truly succeeded.

Teach Your Children Well

I recognize teaching is one of the hardest jobs out there.  My mother is a retired high school English teacher.  She taught in rural, suburban, and urban high schools.  She taught in charters, magnets, and run-of-the-mill traditional high schools.  She walked the picket line for weeks with the NEA in West Virginia in 1990.  And she was often the only thing that kept many a student from dropping out or giving up.  It was just incredible to see the difference she made with kids at a DC charter high school, showing kids that everyone else had given up on that they should demand more of themselves.

Sometimes, I don’t know what pushed my mother to show up for another day of teaching, after getting bombarded by administrators and parents and all other sorts of external forces the previous day.  But she did.  Because she was, and always will be, a teacher.  And she is an effective one, regardless of whatever new state test or requirement was thrown at her (and there were a lot of them over the years).

That’s why I almost fell out of my chair this afternoon when a press release from the Teachers Network landed in my inbox.  The Cliff Notes version — Point 1: NCLB is forcing almost seven in 10 teachers to quit the profession,
Point 2: 1 percent of teachers think NCLB can effectively measure a school; and, even more startling, 
Point 3: Only 3 percent of teachers surveyed said NCLB encouraged them to improve their effectiveness. 

Most disturbing is that last point.  With a law created to ensure every child has access to a high-quality education, and a time when a third of all students will drop out of high school, 97 percent of surveyed teachers felt no need to improve their effectiveness.  Where are these teachers teaching?  I can tell you none of those teachers ever served in one of my mom’s schools.  Just about every effective teacher I know consistently pushes to improve, both for themselves and for their students.  Put simply, effective teachers feel pressure to improve, have well before NCLB, and will long after we’ve forgotten the acronym.

What do we learn from all this?  It is easy for folks to tell you what they are against, but far harder for people to stand up and declare what they stand for.  And at the end of the day, we are measured based on what we believe in, what we stand for, what we advocate for, and how passionately we advocate it.  That’s at the root of any successful communications effort.

No, it is no big surprise that Teachers Network is opposed to NCLB.  Such a position is all the rage.  But in its zeal to oppose NCLB, the Network failed to tell us what they advocate.  Effective PR 101 — Stand for something.  If NCLB doesn’t effectively measure a school, tell us what will.  Solve the problem, don’t just point to it more emphatically than the guy next to you.

The real truth here is that Teachers Network (and many others, I shouldn’t make them stand alone) isn’t looking to solve the problem.  Its accusation is based on a question it doesn’t want to answer — How do we effectively measure a school?  Effective PR 201 — Don’t ask a question if you don’t know the answer … or if you don’t want to hear it. 

I can’t fault the Network.  They were going for the easy headline, and stating that 99 out of 100 teachers think NCLB doesn’t effectively measure a school is a quick way to do it.  But the short-term gain of a headline isn’t worth the long-term consequence of credibility.  Such numbers simply don’t jive with the data you see from NCLB un-lovers like PDK, and they certainly don’t match what I’ve heard from countless teachers around the country.  If I read between the lines, though, I fear we are just using NCLB as shorthand to describe any program of reform or diversion from the status quo. 

Effective teachers want to succeed.  They want their students to succeed.  They want to use instructional practices that will get them there.  And they want to be able to document and measure that success.  NCLB was designed to help them get there.  If it does, then the law fulfilled its goals.  If it doesn’t, then propose a better solution.  How about national standards?  Expanded school choice?  A common data set for comparing schools or school districts?  Or even just agreement that the status quo isn’t working?

Anyone?  Anyone?


Putting Reading First?

When the history books are closed, we will find that Reading First improved the reading skills of U.S. students.  It is based on solid research.  It is proven success in schools and classrooms across the nation.  And there is clear data a scientifically based approach to reading skill acquisition rooted in phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension is the most effective way — without question — to teach kids to read.

So how can a program with so many successful attributes be in danger of failing?  When it is unable to translate that effectiveness into a public perception of support.  Recent reports from the IG and GAO have pointed to potential implementation problems and concerns about the perceptions of possible conflicts of interest.  Such worries put RF under a real microscope.  It calls for greater scrutiny and adhering to a higher bar of both achievement and standards of quality.  So what comes next?

The Associated Press provides the facts:

Full disclosure, I am one of the individuals quoted in this article.  And I feel strongly about the public perception of this revelation.  At the end of the day, few people care that RMC Research secured a small portion of the RF assessment contract.  Even fewer choose to understand the process by which contractors and subcontractors (such as RMC) secure such contracts from the federal government.  But for an organization, like RMC, committed to seeing Reading First succeed, this sends the WRONG message, arming RF and scientifically based reading critics with the ammo they need to continue to question the program as a whole.

Federal contracting is best explained by the federal government.  But what lessons can we learn from the facts uncovered by the AP?:

* Independent third party means independent third party.  No one is questioning RMC’s ability to assess a federal education program.  But independent third party assessment means just that.  Contractors involved in the planning, implementation, training, and technical assistance of a program should not assume a role to evaluate the success of that same program.  How can we trust the impartiality of a contractor who was previously paid to help build what they are now evaluating?
* Scientists have forgotten the science.  NCLB was passed on the presumption that education research needs to undergo the same protocols and be held to the same standards as that which passes through NIH.  Can anyone point to an NIH grant program where the same contractor was paid to develop a clinical study, then paid again to evaluate their own work?
* Size doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter if the contract was for $1.5 million, $15 million, or $15.  When a program is as scrutinized as RF is, third-party assessment needs to be as clean as the newborn snow.  Such a relationship just makes it too easy to feel like the wolf is guarding the RF henhouse.
* Set high expectations … and exceed them.  There is an axiom in business that you want to underpromise and overdeliver.  When it comes to RF, we now need to both overpromise and overdeliver.  If implemented effectively and with fidelity, RF will improve reading skills for virtually every student in the country.  That is now the expectation, and it can’t get any higher.  Now we need to exceed that.  That happens by demonstrating measurable results, being able to replicate those results, and having decisionmakers embrace them and put them into place in other schools and other districts.  That is the only way RF will truly change the fabric of our nation’s education system.  That only happens if we all trust the data and those delivering it to us.

For years, we have said the success of RF lies in the hands of those school administrators, teachers, and parents who were putting it to use on the front lines.  The focus was on communicating with those audiences.  How do we get them to embrace RF?  How do we get them to recognize the need?  And, most importantly, how do we get them to put it into practice?  

Today, though, the success of RF lies squarely on the shoulders of Margaret Spellings.  The IG, the GAO, and the media have given educators plenty of reasons to question Reading First.  We don’t trust our decisionmakers, and without trust, we aren’t willing to put our own necks on the line to change.  For the average educator, it is now easier to protect the status quo, and believe that RF will go with the way of the dodo, replaced by the next latest and greatest.

So it is up to Spellings and her team to change that public perception — a tall order to say the least.  But it is achievable through three key steps:
* Take responsibility for the past. President Truman had the buck stopping with him. Spellings must do the same.  She should accept personal responsibility for all the mistakes and misperceptions of the past six years.  With that responsibility, she has learned a great deal, and is taking all steps possible to improve the law and help our nation’s teachers and students.
* Speak … and act with authority.  This is more than apologizing or discussing the issue at a conference.  For years now, Spellings and her team have acted out of a defensive posture.  It is almost as if they hope any mention of RF will just go away.  Instead, they need to embrace the law.  In those schools where it is implemented with fidelity, we are seeing demonstrable improvements.  Now is the time to be bold.  Embrace RF and its original goals.  Demand expansion.  Demand greater accountability.  Show that the U.S. Department of Education is a partner in this effort, not simply the wielder of the stick.
* Move the discussion out of DC and into our schools.  Goodbye, SW DC, hello Main Street USA.  Get into the field and learn (and promote) how it is working, where it is working, and who is responsible.  Success is because of educators in the field.  Share the credit with those on the ground.  Doing so is like throwing a pebble into a lake.  The impact will ripple out, ultimately hitting all shores.  That is how RF, and NCLB, can have a lasting impact on our schools and really establish a legacy for this Administration.

Conflicts of interest, debates on contractors and subcontractors, and technical assistance instructions are the insidest of inside baseball.  It is time for Reading First to move onto a different field, and play the game that was meant to be played.  The law was written because of a national commitment to ensure every child learns to read, and every student had access to proven-effective instruction.  Let’s remember that.  Reading First is a simple message — its about students, and its about results.