Make ’em laugh

When you think of cutting edge humor on the topics of the day, the first two names you think of are Jon Stewart and … Margaret Spellings?  Greg Toppo of USA Today asks the important “why” question.

While yours truly is quoted in Toppo’s piece on Spellings’ appearance on the Daily Show, it forced me to think a little more about the question.  What exactly is the communications benefit of opening one up to Stewart? 

As always, we have three simple answers:

* First, Spellings is trying put the scandals behind her.  After IG investigations and new concerns on student loans, Spellings and her team have been playing defense for well over a year.  Opening oneself up to Stewart’s probing, laughing with the audience when he points to the failings of the U.S. Department of Education, and then offering a public “we’ll try harder next time” allows Spellings to declare these issues over with.  She’s talked them out with the national media.  She’s met with the trade media.  She’s convened the bloggers.  Now she’s doing the comedy shows.  It is time to move on to a new topic.  She’s exhausted the issue.  Nothing left to say, and no one left to say it to.

* Second, she needs to personalize the issue.  When Spellings first took office, she entered with press any public official would envy.  Glowing profiles in major publications.  Nonexistent criticisms in the media.  A general lovefest.  Today, no mention of Spellings or ED is complete without the terms “scandal” or “IG.”  Putting Spellings out in front reminds us of the person behind ED.  It no longer is the bureaucracy that has corrupted student loans or “the man” who has botched RF implementation.  Now, you are attacking a nice woman who reminds you of your next-door-neighbor or your kid’s teacher or that woman who sings at the church.  An appearance on the Daily Show reminds us of who is really behind the curtain.  And she comes with a fairly decent Q rating.

* Finally, it has reached the stage where any publicity is good publicity.  Consider this the policymaker’s 10 steps to media recovery.  She has listened to the criticism.  She has vowed to follow the IG’s reccs.  She has stood up before Congress and the media.  And tonight she is standing up to a top Bush critic, probably second only to the likes of Michael Moore and Al Franken.  This is win/win for her.  If Stewart makes her look foolish (which he likely won’t) then it was to be expected.  If she does well (which we should expect) then she stood in the lion’s den and survived.  She showed she was fearful of no issue and no man, and we credit her with suffering the slings and arrows.  She gets good pub for putting herself out there in the first place.

At the end of the day, we can only hope her public affairs team has properly trained her for the Daily Show, giving her talking points, writing some witty zingers and responses, and drilling her until she is comfortable with dry, wry, sarcastic humor.  She will survive, and she may even make them laugh.  


Open Our Borders, Open Our Schools?

When Eduflack was launched, I made clear the intent was to look at how effectively we are communicating education reform.  But from time to time, issues come up where I just have to throw out a thought or hurl out a question.  And this past week has been one of those times.  I ask the question, someone knowledgeable, please provide the answer.

“With the expected passage of President Bush’s new immigration reform bill, what impact will the new law have on ELL education in the United States?  And how does this fit in with the goals and expectations of NCLB, particularly as it faces reauthorization?”

I, for one, think ELL is one of those important issues that has gotten lost in current federal policy, particularly as it relates to Reading First.  But I open up my doors, and my pages, to anyone who would like a chance on the soapbox here.  I yield the floor.

Injecting the Education Continuum in the Campaigns

Kudos to Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik for today’s piece on how the 18 active 2008 presidential candidates are talking about education — primarily higher education.  If the early results are any indication, it seems that college access and student loans are THE message with regard to education platforms.

* It is easy to define.  Most Americans understand the value of a college education.  They know college is expensive.  They know student loans are available.  These are terms of issues the average voter understands and can relate to.
* It’s a hot PR topic.  The New York State Attorney General has made student loans (and student lender relationships) the scandal of the day.  It is in the news, it is the focus of congressional hearings.  From a communications standpoint, it is the current wave that most need to at least test out.
* It’s relatable.  The rich can afford to go to any college.  Funny thing is, most Americans perceive themselves as being in the middle class, even if demographically they are not.  When you start talking about fairness and ensuring the middle class have access and funding to attend the college of their choice.  When those swing voters in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada, Florida and the like here the argument that we need to make college more affordable for the average American, they think the candidates are talking to them.

What’s missing, though, is an equally passionate debate on the education continuum.  Postsecondary education is important for virtually every student in America.  But what will the candidates do to ensure that students are prepared for college?  How will they deal with the 1.1 million high school dropouts each year?  How about the 30-50% of college students who have to take remedial courses to get up to speed?  And how will they ensure that students are gaining knowledge and skills related to what they want to do with their lives?

The general silence on K-12 issues at this stage of the presidential campaigns can only mean one of two things.  Either all candidates agree that NCLB is essentially steering us in the right direction, and requires only the moderate tinkering Congress and its influencers are discussing or they simply don’t have answers (or even thoughts) on how to further improve primary and secondary education in the United States.

Unfortunately, it is probably the latter, and not the former.  So I’ve got three pieces of advice for the candidates, Democrat and Republican, to remember when crafting their messages:
* As in generations past, we all want to see our kids do better than us.  The key to that is education.  Making sure they are achieving at grade level by fourth grade.  Instilling independent thinking in the middle grades.  And advocating for both rigor and relevance in high school.  Success requires an education continuum, not just a college degree.
* K-12 education touches every U.S. citizen.  We all went to school.  We all pay taxes to support our schools.  We all have or know of children in the schools.  Promise us you will ensure that those kids are getting the best and that our taxes are being well spent.  And tell us how you will measure it and hold policymakers and schools and teachers accountable.
* Education is not just a learning issue, it is a work issue.  Too many people put school in one bucket, career in the other.  A strong K-12 education is necessary to a strong, effective workforce.  Whether you be wearing a blue or a white collar, you need core reading, math, problem solving, and teamwork skills to succeed.  Want a good job, you need a good education.  And it is up to the President, the Congress, the Governors, the Mayors, and the Superintendents to ensure that our schools are delivering such an education.  It is the only way to truly keep our economy, and our nation, strong.

Now is the stage of the campaign where candidates start telling us what they stand for and what they believe in.  And their are few issues that define character and a campaign than education and education improvement.  Here’s wishing these ideas start making their way into stump speeches and campaign commercials.

Training a Better Teacher

America’s teachers colleges are failing at effectively training a complete cadre of successful educators.  That is news coming from a new study from the Education Schools Project, a effort headed by Art Levine.  You can see a good write-up of the study in Education Week this week  —

These are important conclusions, indeed.  But are they news?  For more than a decade, education researchers and education reformers alike have raised serious concerns about the quality and effectiveness of teacher training.  That’s one of the reasons NCLB’s architects including HQT provisions in the law.  And that’s why so many are clamoring for a “Flexner-style” study of our nation’s teachers colleges.  (Kudos to Nancy Grasmick for actually attempting to do it in Maryland).

In fact, it is the same message that Reid Lyon has preached for more than a decade now.  You can see in in the congressional record with testimony Lyon presented as early as 1997, well before NCLB was even a flicker in the eye of the greatest minds in Texas education.

So why the attention now?  The answer is simple.  Concerns about teacher preparation (as delivered in this study) are getting the attention they justly deserve because of the messenger.  We’ve talked about this before.  Successful communication requires a good message, an understanding of the audiences you are talking to, AND a credible messenger.

Art Levine is such a messenger.  As a former teacher educator at Columbia, he is a member of the club.  He understands the challenges and obstacles that face many a teachers college.  He has credibility with the establishment.  But while at Teachers College, he was also a reformer.  He wasn’t afraid to throw rocks at that same establishment, pushing his colleagues to do it differently and do it better.  As a result, he possesses the respect and gravitas that allows him to call on his former colleagues to change their ways.

When Lyon has said the same things, he is attacked for seeking to destroy our system of higher education and accused of showing no respect for teachers and teacher educators alike.  Unfair?  Unjust? Inaccurate?  Absolutely.  But if the audiences you are seeking to reach believe it, it sometimes doesn’t matter what the truth is.  The legend, whispers, and sense of political correctness take center stage and become the new reality.

Regardless of the personalities, what remains solely important is the message here.  We need more qualified, effective teachers in the classrooms.  And with so many veteran teachers preparing for retirement in the coming years, that need is growing more acute daily.  If the Education Schools Project study can get teachers colleges to strengthen their preservice training and build a better cadre of classroom teachers, then the message has been delivered effectively. 

And if that happens, there will be many, including both Levine and Lyon, who deserve the credit. 

Winning the Hearts and Minds of Youth

Recently, I was asked to write an opinion piece, entitled “Winning the Hearts and Minds of Youth,” for O’Dwyer’s PR Report (  The goal was to detail how to effectively market to youth.  But the lessons move beyond simple youth marketing.  They also have relevant application to education reform, where an increased focus on high school reform and transitions to college requires effective communication with the very students we are looking to educate and prepare for productive futures.

I won’t bore you with the full piece (if you’re interested, just email me).  But my three recommendations are important for marketing to youth, adults, and any and all interested in improving our educational offerings.  It comes down to three simple words — respect, preparedness, and diversity.

First, respect your audience.  Nothing is more frustrating than warmed over rhetoric or materials that were clearly created for someone else.  It shows a lack of respect and an absence of understanding.  Understand the audience and communicate directly with them, on their terms.  Can you imagine selling charter schools by using the same messages or brochures for teachers, school administrators, parents, and the business community?  Of course not.  We respect the actors in education reform too much for that.  Or we should.

Second, do your homework.  It’s Media Relations 101.  Find the right media, and apply the right messages.  It may mean moving out of your comfort zone, but it about reaching your audience.  If you are asking them to change their behaviors, you have to be prepared to do the same to convince them.  Instead of seeking coverage from NPR or The New York Times, you may have to look to YouTube or Flickr or MySpace. 

Finally, integrate and diversify.  There is no one-stop shopping in education communications.  We have too many stakeholders.  Too many demographic differences.  Too many histories to expect one-size-fits-all solutions.  Success comes from multiple activities hitting multiple audiences multiple times.  It is the only way we move from informing folks to changing the way they teach, learn, and behave.  Education conferences.  Radio coverage.  WOMA.  Blogs.  They all play a role in convincing a community (either geographic or demographic) to embrace a change.

Simplistic?  Of course.  Good communications usually is.  More importantly, though it works.  Such communications approaches should be non-negotiables for any education reform initiative.

Vote for Ed

Every election year, we seeing polling numbers that show education is usually one of the top three “issues” for the average American.  Yet when it comes time to pull the ole lever in the voting booth, few Americans seem to cast their votes on education policy stances.  Such a disconnect demonstrates the chasm between public awareness of an issue and public action on the same issue.

Along comes Ed.  Or rather the Ed in ’08 ( campaign launched last week (and this week) by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation.  As part of their Strong American Schools initiative, Ed in ’08 seeks to make education reform the primary domestic policy issue in the 2008 presidential elections.

Many critics have been quick to discount the effort, believing that such issue campaigns have been unsuccessful in the past.  But none have been envisioned at the size and scale that Ed in ’08 is intending.  Others continue to believe 2008 will remain a one-issue race (begins with “I” and ends with “Q”), and everything else will get lost in the fringes.  But I have greater faith than that.

Without question, Strong American Schools has some potential obstacles to face.  The largest is voter apathy.  The key to success for Ed in ’08 is driving new audiences into the political process, getting them to take a stand, demand attention on their issues, and casting their votes based on the attention those issues receive.  That means engaging individuals who have either disengaged from the process or who have never wanted to play in the first place. 

The second is the NIMBY factor.  Reform is all about getting people to stand up and say the current system is failing ME, and I deserve better.  But if you talk to the average parent, or even the average teacher, about eduction reform, you usually get the same response.  “The nation and/or the state is in real trouble and needs fixing.  But my own school is doing just fine.”  We don’t want to believe we are teaching in or sending our children to a school that just isn’t up to par.

What does all this mean for Governor Romer and the folks at Strong American Schools?  The mountain before them is not an easy one.  They need to overcome cynicism, apathy, and the defenders of the status quo.  But it is possible to reach that apex.  By employing successful public engagement activities, by taking the message to the disengaged, and by establishing a new paradigm for using a singular policy issue to define a complex political process, they can achieve the bold goals they have set out to reach.  We aren’t talking about a plank in a party platform here.  We are talking about a shift in public thinking and public action.  “We want to strengthen our schools, AND we vote!”

How do we do it?  

1. Demand More — Too often, such issue advocacy efforts are about the “no.”  Don’t change Medicare.  Don’t recalibrate Social Security.  Don’t vote for Candidate X because he did Y or Z.  Strong American Schools needs to be about the “yes.”  What do we need to do to make our schools better?  How do we improve NCLB?  How do we better prepare and empower our teachers?  That means real answers to some difficult questions.  For instance, each of the presidential candidates should be asked to complete a survey of hard-hitting questions about K-16 education.  And we’re not looking for simple answers to questions like “Do you support teachers unions?” or “Do you support student loans?”  By requiring real answers that demand more than a 22-year-old research assistant culling responses from old campaign literature or voting records, the public can get substantive answers to “how” we strengthen our schools.  And that information can be used to to engage and empower a new generation of activists and advocates.  We aren’t looking for soundbites; we need substantive thinking that demonstrates and understanding for what is happening in my state, in my city, and in my school.

2. Change the Dynamic — Armed with the hard information on what the 18 (gulp) presidential candidates would do to strengthen our schools, we need to use new communications tools to engage those new audiences.  2004 taught us a great deal about new media.  Traditional television ads and leafleting remain an important component of any information campaign.  But they no longer can get the job done by themselves.  The changes advocated by Ed in ’08 require bringing new audiences into the fold — individuals and groups that have not been involved in the presidential process in the past.  That means effectively utilizing new media (web sites, blogs, chat rooms, meetups, etc.) and employing time-tested social networking efforts.  The goal is to raise the sense of urgency with stakeholders.  That means constant access to information and unwaivering calls to action.

3. Turn to New Audiences — As I’ve said earlier, success comes when we tap the concerns and the uneasiness of those previously avoiding the process.  For those who are regular voters, it is safe to say 45% vote Democrat, 45% vote Republican, and the fight is for that final 10%, regardless of who the specific candidates are.  That’s what pollsters and party activists depend on.  You change the game when you introduce new voters into the process.  MTV tried that in 1992, seeking to spur Generation X into the voting process. Ed in ’08 has a similar opportunity.  Let’s look at Generation X and Generation Y.  They are the closest to the issue.  Their views of high school, for instance, are still fresh of mind.  They know the shortcomings of our schools.  They feel, day in and day out, the impact an irrelevant courseload is now having on their ability to win a good job.  And they are still optimistic enough that want to fix the problem for their little brothers and sisters and their communities.  Let’s get those audiences involved.  When we add voices to the debate, we completely shift the playing field.  And that shift requires a new look at issues and a new respect of those issues from candidates.

Education reform should be our central domestic policy issue.  There is no single issue more important, and no single issue that touches more people in more ways.  Education is a health issue.  It is a jobs issue.  It is an economic development issue.  It is a crime issue.  And it is an environmental issue.  Education touches and influences them all.

What candidate or interest group is going to stand up to oppose strengthening our schools or improving the quality of education in our communities?  Some will surely try.  There are too many who fight to protect the status quo.  And there are some that want to take a huge step backward, undoing the progress we have made in school improvement over the past five years.  But by focusing on the end goal, and building a comprehensive, integrated communications effort that both informs and changes public action, Ed in ’08 can succeed.

Strong American Schools has raised the flag.  Now is the time to salute and acknowledge that we can settle for nothing less that complete victory.  The future of our nation depends on it.

Applying Social Networking to Public Education

Earlier this week, Eduflack was involved in a discussion with Geoff Livingston, principal of Livingston Communications and author of a terrific business PR blog, Buzz Bin.  The conversation quickly turned to how effective corporations are at using social networking tools, like blogs, in getting their message out to key audiences.

I’ll leave my opinions on the effectiveness of corporate blogging for another day.  But it begs the question — just how effective is new media in general, and blogging in particular, in rallying key stakeholders and triggering meaningful reforms in our schools?  Are they making a difference, or are we just contributing to the white noise.

Without question, the number of education-focused blogs seems to grow by the day.  Some, like Eduwonk ( and This Week in Education ( are must-reads and go-tos for anyone involved in education or education reform.  But what about the rest of us?

The concept behind blogs are really nothing new.  You can even equate them with Saint Paul’s PR activities on behalf of the start-up Catholic Church or our founding fathers’ leafleting the countryside in an attempt to start a new democracy.  Citizen publishers hold a long-standing position in the history of social and political change.

Such efforts worked because they recognized successful communication has two sides to it.  First, we must inform — disseminate information and make sure that key audiences receive it and understand it.  Second, and more importantly, we must use that dissemination to drive audiences to action.  Armed with that information, we must have individuals and groups stand up to demand reform, to push for change, and to ensure improvement.  Only by changing public behavior is reform communications truly successful.

And what does all that mean for education reform?  We have seen it work successfully in the past, and there is no education issue more relevant to it than special education reform.  During the passage of the original IDEA, advocates were expert at gathering supporters and advocates, disseminating information, and using key audiences to push for change.  They were blogging before the Internet, getting information out to key communities, embracing social networks to learn from the successes of others, and joining together to bring about change on one of the largest stages available — the U.S. Congress.  Since then, special education advocates have clearly shown that social networking works.  And now that they are equipped with tools such as blogs, chatrooms, and email blasts, who knows the effect they can have on future IDEA and NCLB authorizations.

It is that sort of lesson that NCLB advocates are still struggling to learn, six years later.  While the law runs from the federal to the state to the locality, successful communication on the law should and must run in reverse.  Using the social networking principles developed and strengthened by special education advocates, NCLB supporters could begin to build a real web of citizen supporters — teachers, parents, business leaders, and the rest — whose voices must be heard during reauthorization.  Those are the voices now embraced by NCLB opponents.  Now is the time to hear from those who are benefiting from the law.

How do we do it?  Three simple steps:
* Online networking — Let’s use the successes of online resources like and and others to bring together those audiences who have benefited from research-based instruction, better assessments of learning, or improved teacher quality in the classroom.
* Give audiences a voice — Cultivate a network of blogs, listserves, and other communication tools for the parents and teachers who are working hard to ensure NCLB succeeds.  Those voices can inspire and can provide valuable lessons for others working through the same issues or looking for solutions to similar problems.
* Think outside the 20th century box — NCLB advocates remain mostly passive and reactive.  That just doesn’t work in the 21st century media.  Supporters need to take back the message, and redefine the law on their terms.  They need to discuss the improvements.  And they need to confront the dangers of returning to that same old status quo.