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.

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