The Importance of Information

The ETS study on NCLB relayed important data on public opinion of the federal government’s role in K-12 education.  As Eduflack relayed in its previous post, those findings should (and need to) be used as the cornerstone for a national public engagement campaign on the positive impact of NCLB.

But the ETS data raises an interesting question — Why is ETS’ data so different than the NCLB polls conducted by organizations such as PDK or Scripps?  The latter two organizations offered crystal-clear data that showed public support for NCLB was rapidly dwindling.  How can ETS paint such a different picture?

In a word, the difference is information.  To ETS’ credit, it defined NCLB in its questions.  It allowed those being surveyed to frame their answers around key lead-in information.  It characterized ETS as closing achievement gaps, setting standards, providing teacher funding, and dealing with failing schools.  Armed with that information, NCLB scored a very favorable or favorable ranking.

In the PDK and Scripps surveys, they simply ask those on the other end of the phone to render a verdict on NCLB, based on what they knew before the phone rang.  And for most, what they know is limited to what the media (or a community curmudgeon) has told them.  That never-ending loop of criticisms against the law is bound to stick with many.  After all, conventional wisdom says if you hear something seven times, by the eighth time you’ll believe it.

This is a great lesson for any individual or organization looking to foster education improvement at virtually any level.  We all know why our reforms are important and why we know they are effective.  We know they work, and we know others need them.  But we if don’t extol those virtues, if we don’t detail the positives, and if we don’t define the benefits, we’re simply the best kept secret on the reform playground.

Change requires self promotion.  Not only do you have to improve the status quo, but you have to make sure everyone and anyone knows what you did, why you did it, how you did it, and how they can model it.  Only then are you starting to make a difference.   

Getting to Know You …

Eduflack has been holding off on commenting on the ETS survey first reported by EdWeek last week (http://www.educationweek.org/ew/articles/2007/06/20/42polls.h26.html).  The reason for the delay was simple.  While the data has a lot to say, we wanted to see how it is framed in the media.

Surprisingly, ETS’ public opinion poll on No Child Left Behind did not get the coverage it deserved.  Over the past several years, NCLB has gotten pummeled in the media.  Unfunded mandates.  State lawsuits.  Multi-million-dollar political campaign waged by NEA.  And the ongoing drumbeats of concern about management, implementation, funding, accountability, and just about any other educational buzzword that can be thrown around.

With such publicity, its a wonder that NCLB hasn’t just been left for dead.  That’s what makes ETS’ findings so remarkable.  What ETS found was that the more people learned about NCLB — its intentions, its goals, and its successes — the more they liked it.  

Funny that.  When people hear about NCLB’s attributes, they like it.  They like focusing on student achievement.  They like holding our schools and decisionmakers accountable.  They like implementing strategies that are proven effective.  They like knowing that our schools are working.

What does this tell us, as Secretary Spellings continues to prepare for NCLB reauthorization?  It reiterates what Eduflack has said for years.  NCLB is in desperate need of a heavy duty PR campaign extolling the virtues of NCLB and the positive impact it is having on students, teachers, and communities across the nation.  It needs a pure marketing campaign that sells what Americans really, really want — school improvement.

ETS provides ED the mission statement for moving NCLB forward.  This is a pure public engagement campaign, requiring a single message, delivered to multiple audiences through multiple mediums.

The message — NCLB works, and we need more of it.

The audiences — parents, teachers, school administrators, community leaders, the business community, and policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels.

The mediums — print media, radio, television, the Internet, outreach to community groups, information dissemination through membership organizations, town hall meetings, conference presentations, and virtually any other way to spread information at the grassroots.  (Kudos, by the way, to Congressman Buck McKeon, who used the ETS numbers to educate his House colleagues on why NCLB needs to be reauthorized.  He took the message directly to a  key audience, not waiting for the media to do so.)

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again.  NCLB reauthorization depends on changing the debate and focusing on the benefits of NCLB and the positive impact it has had on real classrooms and real kids.  Few seem to understand that.  But that is the simple truth here.  We want our schools to be better.  We want our kids to do better.  And NCLB is the path to both. 

David Hoff at EdWeek summed it up best — “The more Americans learn about the No Child Left Behind Act, they more they like it.”  It’s a shame that all of those media outlets who have ravaged NCLB for years have yet to give the ETS study its due.
   

How to Get Kids Reading

Successful communications requires an integrated approach.  There’s research, messaging, media relations, community relations, etc., etc., etc.  There is no magic bullet, one-easy-step solution when it comes to communicating education reform.  You need multiple approaches, firing at multiple times, hitting multiple audiences with multiple messages.  When executed properly, that reform engine can really hum.

No where is that more true than in improving reading skills in our schools.  We know what to do.  We’ve done the research.  We’ve assessed effectiveness.  And we’ve seen it work in states, districts, schools, and classrooms across the nation.  Yes, scientifically based reading research, or SBRR, works.  No ifs, ands, or buts.

Eduflack is often asked if it is even possible to take meaningful, proven research and put it to use in the real world.  Heck, this week’s Education Week has an opinion column on the general failings of moving education research into practice.  The battle to get SBRR into our schools shows it is not only possible, it can be successful.  We know it works.  We know how to successfully move it into practice.  And we know how to communicate what to do, how to do it, and what to expect if you do it right to those audiences who need it the most.

Don’t believe me?  Check out the book “Why Kids Can’t Read: Challenging the Status Quo in Education” and its companion website, www.whykidscantread.com.  Full disclosure, Eduflack is a contributing author to the book.  But even if you don’t want to read my chapter on successfully working with the media, it is still chock full of personal stories and real-life experiences on diagnosing the problem, finding the right allies and advocates, and effectively communicating for change until the system is improved.

Reform is hard.  Finding a blueprint that helps build understanding for the key levers for education reform and school improvement makes it just a little easier.

Putting Our Money on Achievement

For years, discussions about the successes and failures of NCLB have focused on what is happening behind the schoolhouse doors during school hours.  This is the way it should be.  The goal of true education reform is to improve the quality of instruction, measured by improved student achievement for all.  Simple.  To the point.  Reform = improvement.

But what about those kids who are still left behind, those in failing schools that, for one reason or another, have been unable to improve their instruction and their student achievement?  For those students, we have supplemental education services.

USA Today has a good he said-she said on the issue (assuming the he is Richard Whitmire and knowing the she is Margaret Spellings).  http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2007/06/our_view_on_no_.html#more


Eduflack often preaches the virtues of finding areas of common ground.  It is the easiest way to build support for an issue and to mitigate the power of the dedicated opposition.  Articulate the points where you agree, and the attacks against you seem more like paper cuts than death blows.

We agree that a half-million students are taking advantage of NCLB’s tutoring provisions.  We agree that five times that many students are eligible.  And we agree that such services are necessary to ensure that all students — regardless of AYP status of their neighborhood schools — have access to the learning tools necessary to achieve.

Where do we go from this island of agreement?  USA Today offers two key requirements for moving forward.  We need to hold tutoring programs accountable and we need to make sure they are proven effective.  And that’s where the nation’s newspaper wins the rhetorical day.

For the past six years, we have caged NCLB discussions around two key tenets — accountability and research base.  Adopt programs that work.  Show they work.  Measure they effectiveness.  Repeat, repeat, repeat.  Anyone in the NCLB trenches knows that accountability and proven effective are the keys to success.  And it has been  promoted — rightfully so — in virtually every speech, brochure, website, and piece of paper to come out of ED since 2002.

USA Today reminds us of that, keeping it simple and to the point.  NCLB’s SES program works, but there are too many ineffective programs, too many fly-by-night operators that are trying to take advantage of the NCLB trough.  Just as we expect classroom curriculum to proven to work and assessed, so too should we expect it of federally funded after-school providers.  And those are basic principles — and core messaging — that Spellings and all at ED have and should embrace. 

Unfortunately, Spellings missed a golden opportunity to promote those foundations of NCLB and remind us all of the lasting positive impact of the law.  Instead, she couldn’t let go of the premise that many of our tutoring dollars are currently spent on programs that just don’t work.  She couldn’t ignore the criticism and stay on message.  USA Today served up an easy pitch, and simply fouled it off.    

USA Today’s point was crystal clear — “If a program can’t be proven effective, it should lose the money.”  Eduflack can’t say it any better.  Doesn’t matter if it is tutoring, reading instruction, teacher training, high school improvement, or any of a myriad of education reforms out there.  Success is king.  Prove it works, and you have an effective message.

Now It’s Personal

Over the last few months, Eduflack has been hard on Margaret Spellings.  For the past year, the U.S. Department of Education has been a communications fetal position on most reforms.  Given the opportunity to be out in front, defining measures of success with regard to NCLB, Reading First, teacher proficiency, and accountability, ED has generally retreated, leaving it to critics to set the terms and measures of success, and leaving advocates and supporters in the field desperate and hungry for any form of communications support and PR blocking as they work to successfully implement changes that ultimately will improve student performance.

Perhaps Spellings has heard the growing calls for communications support in the field.  Perhaps ED has finally determined that the old plan of putting your head down on the desk until the NCLB criticisms stop just wasn’t going to work.  At a time when folks are wondering if there is the muscle to push NCLB reauthorization through, or if it will be left to another Secretary and another Administration in 2009, Spellings has shown the moxie and communications savoir faire she demonstrated when she first took the helm of the U.S. Department of Education.

If you’ll recall, a few weeks ago the House of Representatives sent a shot across the bow with regard to RF.  (Playing Politics with Reading First)  A bold communications tactic, House appropriators moved to slash $600 million from Reading First to send a message to Spellings on student lending, IG investigations, and concerns of conflicts of interest.  The message was heard around the reading world, with the likes of IRA, SFA, and others joining with Spellings to defend a program that is proven effective in teaching our children to read and provides virtually every student the skills necessary to achieve in school.  We waited with baited breath for Spellings’ response.

Spellings responded, and responded rhetorically strong.  She has finally gotten personal.  And it is just the communications approach she needed in such a situation.  When you make the story relevant to the listener, and relate it in direct terms that they understand and that they know affects them or the people they know, you communicate more effectively than just throwing out facts and figures.  Yes, we know that RF works.  We know SBRR works.  We know that more children know how to read today because of NCLB.  But how do you get Chairman Obey to see that through all of the rhetoric, hyperbole, and vitriol.

Answer — make it personal.  Spellings retort to Obey was a simple one.  If the mis-directed cuts to RF become law, Obey’s home state of Wisconsin loses $8.5 million in RF grants.  That’s less money for books.  Less money for teacher training.  Less money for professional development.  Less money for interventions.  And it is less money for the schools, the classrooms, and the teachers in his state who need it most.

Finally, Spellings has shifted the debate.  The threat isn’t about hurting her or the RF office.  Obey is threatening to take hundreds of millions of dollars from elementary school classrooms, teachers, and kids throughout the nation. 

I’m all for political gamesmanship.  Its a necessary piece of education reform.  But no one should lose sight of the end game — improving education quality and opportunity for all.  Spellings remembered that.  And she reminded Obey of it in the most personal of communications ways, by pasting the cuts smack in the center of his Wisconsin district.

A Clear Ask from the Big Easy

It’s a rare day when Eduflack is surprised by a proposed marketing tactic in education reform.  Too often, we hear a soft sell, where folks are just unwilling or unable to say what they are looking for.  And without delivering that specific ask, many of those soft sellers are unsuccessful in reaching their goals.

Ed Reform PR and Marketing 101 is easy.  Know what you want.  Know who to ask.  Know what to ask them to get it.  It takes a moment to learn the lesson, and a lifetime for many to get comfortable enough to offer a clear, compelling ask.

That’s why it was so refreshing to hear from New Schools for New Orleans (www.nsno.org) this evening.  The goal is clear.  NSNO is looking to help incoming Supe Paul Vallas rebuild New Orleans’ schools.  NSNO is trying to help build school capacity in the Big Easy.  To do that, they are looking to offer grants to teachers and school leaders to support the rebirth of New Orleans public education.

They know what they want — to amplify the call for true educational leaders and visionaries to contribute to the rebirth.  They know how to sell it — caging their call with the on-the-ground efforts of KIPP, Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, New Leaders for New Schools, among them.  And they managed to sell their call to arms to a cynic like Eduflack. 

So we’ll break from our regular analysis and critique to just share the information and let it sell itself.  The NSNO Incubation Grant offers $10,000 a month to a founding school leader, as well as significant network and technical assistance and exposure to great school models.  The grant app is available at www.nsno.org, and more information can be had by emailing Gia at gia@nsno.org.

It’s easy for all of us to talk about what’s wrong with the schools or even to comment on how to improve the schools.  It’s far more difficult to let our actions match our rhetoric.  So for all of those dedicated educators, those reformers looking to build a better mousetrap, or those who are just looking to offer a little hope where there was none previously, go give the NSNO and the efforts to rebuild the schools in New Orleans a second look. 


 

Playing Politics with Reading First

For years, Eduflack worked for members of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees.  Having seen the annual appropriations process unfold year after year, I had come to the belief that, for the most part, politics had to sit outside the Appropriations Committee’s door.

That is, until this afternoon.  David Hoff has a good synopsis on educationweek.org (http://www.educationweek.org/ew/articles/2007/06/08/41budget.h26.html).  The root of Eduflack’s ire.  The U.S. House of Representatives is calling for a 60% cut in Reading First funding for FY2008.

We won’t get into the politics of all this, other than to say that one should be careful with the political symbolism they seek to use, as it may actually become reality.  But the spending games raise an important communication issue — the need to be proactive and define the game.

You’ve heard it here before.  For years now, critics have defined Reading First.  At first, they attacked the personalities behind the law and preached fear about introducing proven instructional approaches to our classrooms.  Over the last year, they have attacked (and rightfully so) the problems with RF implementation, implying that such issues demonstrate that the law doesn’t work.

To the contrary, we have begun seeing significant evidence that Reading First and scientifically based reading research work, and works well.  You can see it in the data released by Spellings before her visit to Capitol Hill.  you can see it in this week’s CEP report.  And you can see it in countless school districts across the nation that have implemented the program with fidelity and have reaped the benefit in terms of student performance.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the message getting out there.  And that’s a cryin’ shame.  To all but the die-hard true believers, RF is a program of conflicts of interest, decrees from on high, and IG reports.  Those exceptions to good work have now become the rule.

Don’t believe it?  Just look at how House Appropriations Chairman David Obey couches the massive cut to a program that works — “This [Reading First] cut will not be restored until we have a full appreciation of the shenanigans that have been going on.”

Doesn’t matter if the program works.  Doesn’t matter if we see student achievement gains, improved teaching, enthusiastic learners, and kids who are reading.  RF is now defined by “shenanigans,” and that’s about as far off message as one can get.

So what can Spellings and her crew do about it?  I refer you back to a previous posting.  Let’s make it positive.  Let’s make it results-based.  Let’s make it personal.  http://blog.eduflack.com/2007/04/11/talking-research.aspx

As an aside, the one positive result, though, of today’s Hill hearing may be its ability to bring parties who have previously been at war with each other together for a common good.  We’ve long talked about the need to build a team of advocates, names that will resonate with key audiences and expand support and enthusiasm for the message and the desired action.  And the larger the tent of advocates, the more effective the communication and the reform.

Those advocates speaking out against the proposed RF cuts demonstrate the program (and scientifically based education in general) has to be working.  In just a few short hours, we have seen individuals who ordinarily wouldn’t share an elevator sharing a common desire to protect RF.  Margaret Spellings (through a spokesperson).  The International Reading Association.  Bob Slavin.  They may have different goals, different views, and different intentions, but they share the view that you don’t cancel the game because you’ve had problems with the turnstiles.  “Shenanigans” around the fringes simply isn’t a reason to deny millions of American students the resources and funding they need to learn to read and to succeed. 

While SFA and IRA and ED and everyone in between may be coming from different perspectives, they all seem to share in the goal that research-proven reading is necessary if our students and schools are to succeed.

I may have just seen a razorback fly by my window, but if RF is able to be bring those disparate, yet passionate, education advocates together, it must be doing something right.