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 (  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,  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).

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 ( 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, and more information can be had by emailing Gia at

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 (  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.

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.

Great Test-pectations

Much of this week’s education attention has been focused on the CEP’s findings that No Child Left Behind is indeed effective.  Though many have gone out of their way to mitigate the findings, offer up alternative explanations, discount the impact, or generally change the fact, one thing is certain.  NCLB does work.  In those states where CEP found student achievement gains, there is only one common denominator — all of those states have made NCLB-based reforms.  NCLB may not be the only reason for the successes, but it is undoubtedly a major driver behind the improvement.

More interesting, though, was Ledge King’s piece (with an assist from Greg Toppo) in USA Today, looking at the broad discrepancies of testing benchmarks across the states. 

At the very heart of NCLB was the commitment that every American student deserved the opportunity to succeed.  That was how the law was marketed.  Regardless of race or income or neighborhood, every student is afforded the opportunity to learn, to achieve, and to succeed, both in and beyond their K-12 experience.

But in the Gannett analysis, King finds that such an opportunity is still a goal, and not necessarily a reality.  The beauty of federal education reform is that measures of achievement and success are expected to be uniform.  Instead, as King reports, we see that reading achievement in Mississippi versus achievement in Massachusetts couldn’t be more different.  And those differences are going to be even more acute when it matters — in postsecondary education and in the workplace.

Perhaps that’s part of the problem.  Even for those in the know, NCLB is perceived as an elementary school law.  With its focus on elementary school reading and middle school assessments, it is seen as far more Click, Clack, Moo than The Sun Also Rises.  An unfair focus, sure, but public perception is the new reality.

The thousand-dollar question is how do we take what we know from CEP and others and use it to address the problems that King has identified.  The answer is an easy one.  It may not be one that Secretary Spellings is particularly fond of, but the single greatest way to truly level the playing field and fulfill NCLB’s mission of providing all students an opportunity for success is found in two simple words — national standards.

At the end of the day, student proficiency is student proficiency.  Achievement should not have a geographic accent.  It shouldn’t be mitigated by per-pupil spending ratios.  It shouldn’t be defined by the lowest common denominator.  And it surely shouldn’t be disaggregated away.  Achievement is achievement.  Success is success.  It doesn’t matter if it the MCAS, the SOL, NAEP, or any other single assessment tool.  Student proficiency needs to be a common, universal measure.  It is the only way we can ensure every American student is reading at a proficient level in the fourth grade, prepared for the rigors of our changing high schools, and ready for the opportunities available in either postsecondary education or career.  If education is the great equalizer, its measures of that education need to be equal.

That’s how one effectively sells national standards to the teachers and parents who are skeptical of the federal government’s ability to effectively implement and manage meaningful education reforms.  We don’t want to hear about statistical analyses, variations, and experimental models.  We want to know that if our kid is deemed proficient in reading, that means he is able to read at the same level as an average fourth grader in Oregon, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Mississippi.  When she gets a B in Algebra II, we expect that a B in our school equals a B in LAUSD, Chicago, Dallas ISD, or DC Public Schools.  We might not say it, but we assume our children meet a common standard when their academic abilities are assessed.  And we depend on it, believing those assessments mean our children are able to keep up with any student in college or compete with any graduate for a job.

So how do we talk about it?  At the end of the day, national standards are borne out of national policy.  NCLB is that policy.  Thanks to CEP, EdTrust, and a number of other education organizations, we have our messaging.  It works.  NCLB works.  National education reform works.  Reading First works.  Scientifically based education works.  Results-based teacher training and instruction works. 

It works because it is effective.  It works because it generates results.  It works because it established a national standard for teaching and learning.  And we can now see it working in states, districts, schools, and classrooms just like those in our neighborhood.  No getting around it — NCLB works.

And that’s the marketing slogan.  That’s the soundbite.  That’s the bumper sticker.  NCLB works.  Data proves it.  Teachers and administrators and parents and students have embraced it.  Curriculum and professional development has been built around it.  Critics have tried to tear it down for five years, to little avail.  And you know what, NCLB still works.

The general communications mantra is to keep it simple, and it just doesn’t get any simpler than that.  The law is effective, and there is the data and the emotional connection in classrooms around the country to prove it.  Now ED just needs an effective messenger to deliver it.  How hard can that be?    

Beating a (Near) Dead Horse

It’s been a heckuva week for No Child Left Behind.  Exhibit One is Alfie Kohn’s Opposing View in the May 31 USA Today ( calling for the immediate demolition of NCLB.  His reasoning — an emphasis on testing and a flawed study by the Teacher Network that Eduflack had some real issues with the first time around (

This sort of attack has been waged on NCLB since its inception, and this is hardly Kohn’s first foray into the debate.  Perhaps one of the most prominent opponents of testing, he has railed the law for the past five years in his crusade against strict accountability, perpetuating the myth that NCLB was created as some sort of conspiracy to privatize our nation’s public schools.  While he spins a gripping tale, Kohn is hardly an impartial observer in this fight. 

Exhibit Two is the recent survey from Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University earlier this week stating that a majority of Americans want to either revise or eliminate NCLB. (

This should be no surprise to anyone.  Do what our friends at This Week in Education did and take a look at media coverage of NCLB.  It is virtually all negative.  States suing the federal government.  Scandals and congressional hearings on potential conflicts of interest.  State and local officials bemoaning AYP and student achievement goals.  Urban legends of teachers being fired en masse because they fail to meet NCLB standards.  If that’s all you see, even the most ardent of NCLB supporters would grow sour on the law.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  The largest problem that NCLB reauthorization faces is one of PR and marketing.  Secretary Spellings and President Bush have let the opponents of NCLB dictate the terms of the debate for far too long.  As a result, NCLB is tagged with all negatives — anti-teacher, unfunded mandate, conflicts of interest, too strictly enforced, and requiring too much from our teachers, schools, and kids.  I can probably count on one hand the number of news articles from the past few months that focused on some of the positives — increased student performance, quality teachers in the classroom, effective instruction, and a level educational playing field.

NCLB is not going to win by playing defense.  Opposition to the law is growing because we are giving supporters nothing to hold onto.  We are failing to provide a rock-solid foundation of mission and results on which to stand.  We simply aren’t giving NCLB supporters the results they need to be proud of the law and its results.

What is there to be proud of?  What should advocates be talking about?
* Decision-making is now supposed to be based on the research.  Only proven-effective methods of instruction should be used in our classrooms.  We do what works.  No exceptions.
* Our teachers are set up for success.  We now make sure that teachers have the background knowledge, pedagogy, and skill to lead a classroom.  Those that don’t have access to huge pools of professional development funding.  As a result, teachers are both qualified and effective.
* Student achievement is on the rise.  We are just now starting to see the effects of Reading First and SBRR.  And in those schools and districts where it has been implemented with fidelity, we can see gains in student reading scores.  Students can learn to read with effective, proven instruction.
* Data collection is a priority.  We can’t improve without good numbers highlighting our strengths and weaknesses.  NCLB has ensured that schools, districts, and states are now collecting the data we need to effectively assess instruction.  We’re effectively disaggregating that data.  And we’re now able to apply the proper interventions to further improve instruction in our schools.
* We simply expect more.  For decades, we have taught to the lowest common denominator, worried that we were asking or expecting too much from our teachers and our students.  Today, we have raised expectations.  We talk about rigor and achievement.  And as a result, we give virtually every student an opportunity to succeed in both school and in life.

If we really want to shift the debate on NCLB, and begin talking about the issues that are truly important to the success of our schools and our nation, we should focus on the 800-pound gorilla in the room — national standards.  Yes, it will raise the ire of those on both the left and the right.  But at the end of the day, state growth models state-by-state negotiations of standards simply aren’t going to cut it.  If the United States is to truly compete — both educationally and academically — with the likes of China, India, and rising countries in the Middle East — we need to adopt serious national standards or benchmarks.  It is the only way we can ensure that the brand — American education — means the same in rural Alabama, South Central LA, Washington, DC, and the North Shore of Massachusetts.

Let’s see a presidential candidate, any presidential candidate, take that issue on.  Break from the educational norms and expectations and start speaking on a bold idea that could make a real difference.  Go on, I dare ya!