“We Want NCLB” Cont.

We’ve talked about the ETS study, the Scripps Howard study, and the PDK study on public opinion of NCLB.  A mixed bag, yes.  Eduflack’s underlying takeaway remains that the more the general public knows about NCLB, the more supportive they are of the law.  (http://blog.eduflack.com/2007/06/25/getting-to-know-you-.aspx)

Today, we have a new study to underscore that notion.  Education Next magazine has released new findings from an NCLB study led by Harvard University’s JFK School and conducted by researchers at Harvard, University of Chicago, and Brown University.  http://www.hoover.org/publications/ednext/8806742.html  Special thanks to Alexander Russo and This Week in Education for throwing the spotlight on the study.

What does it tell us?  Sure, it demonstrates that the American people generally support NCLB and want to see it reauthorized, despite what some in the vocal minority may say.  Interestingly, folks seem to be more supportive of NCLB than they are of their own local schools.  This is a far cry from data in the early 1990s, where people said the public schools were in disarray, but their own local schools were doing great.

While that’s all well and good, the study’s most interesting data comes in the area of accountability.  If you read the popular media, you would think there was an Evita-like uprising against testing and the quantitative assessment of student achievement.  It is thought that most Americans are out there bemoaning teaching to the test, worried that we’re overtesting our kids, and raising their collective blood pressures about “high stakes” testing.

In reality, we want more accountability, more data, and national standards.  Quoting Education Next’s announcement:

  • Nearly three-quarters of survey respondents support having a single national proficiency standard in public education rather than letting every state set its own proficiency standards.
  • 81 percent support requiring students in certain grades to pass an exam before they proceed to the next grade; 85 percent support requiring students to pass an exam before graduating from high school.
  • 60 percent support the practice of publishing the average test performance of each school’s students.
Wow.  Imagine that.  We want national standards.  We want accountability.  We want to know how our schools and our students are performing.  It’s almost like the public expects that we are spending our education dollars effectively and are making sure that our schools are doing what works.  What a novel concept.

Kudos to Education Next and the Hoover Institution for injecting this needed public opinion data into the debate.  It only further supports what Eduflack has been writing until he is blue in the knuckles.  We all share the goals and mission of NCLB.  We want to see our students succeed, we want to measure that success, and we want to replicate those successes where schools and students are struggling.  And we want to ensure that our child can compete again one from a neighboring city or from one across the country. 

Hopefully, the U.S. Department of Education is listening to what the public wants.  We all can hear the footsteps of NCLB reauthorization approaching.  That plodding horse has to choose between two paths — weakening the law or strengthening it.  Looking at EdNext’s research, along with ETS, we should choose the latter without hesitation.  It’s what works.  It’s what is best for the future of our nation.  And it’s what the public (those footing the bill) want.

So let me pose a question from the NCLB 1.0 exit exam:

NCLB is up for reauthorization.  ED wants it reauthorized.  The American public supports reauthorization.  Data demonstrates that NCLB is working, and the more information about NCLB that is distributed, the more support the law gains (outside of Congress).  Should Secretary Spellings and ED:

A. Launch an aggressive marketing/PR campaign highlighting the goals of NCLB, its successes to date, and specific improvements focused on greater accountability and student success
B. Get defensive about NCLB attacks, trying to answer criticisms one by one, being sure to repeat the attack before they say it isn’t true
C. Do nothing, hoping all the controversies disappear and are replaced by lollipops and rainbows

Anyone who has been in the political trenches knows there is only one right answer to this question.  If you want an “A” for reauthorization efforts, you need to strongly answer A on the ole bubble sheet.  If we truly want to strengthen the law and provide all students an opportunity for success, the time has come, oh ED of mine, to start selling NCLB.

We’ve got a great product with strong customer support and strong proof it lives up to its claims.  Lay those puzzle pieces together, and the PR strategy almost writes itself. 

Deskilling Our Students?

Are our high schools effectively preparing our students for life beyond the schoolhouse doors?  It is a question that groups like National Governors Association, Jobs for the Future, Alliance for Excellent Education, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and many others have lent their policy heft to.  And it is an issue where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has lent the heft of its coffers to.  In a few short years, high school improvement has become THE ed reform issue.

This week, Eduflack was down at the Education Industry Association conference, hearing tales of SES, charters, technology, and entrepreneurship.  There was one concept, though, that has stuck deep into the troubled mind of Eduflack.  Deskilling.

When we look at high schools, we recognize that most of our secondary schools are still built on an educational model that is now vastly out of date.  That’s why we are trying to restore rigor and relevance to the schools, demonstrating that high school is a necessary step to both college and career.

But how do we do it?  In districts throughout the nation, we still have high school students sitting in row after row of desks, reading from hard-cover textbooks, taking mimeographed quizzes, and generally using the learning tools and approaches that their parents once used.  Simply, we’re teaching 21st century students with 19th century approaches.

These students, of course, are coming to class equipped in a way their parents never envisioned.  Strong computer skills.  Communication skills derived from websites like MySpace and the like.  Organizational skills coming from sites like MeetUp.  Multimedia learning abilities from iPods and YouTube.  Instant messaging.  Blogs.  Students are equipped with an unending list of skills and abilities that most of our public schools still don’t have a handle on.  They utilize multiple ways of learning, without even knowing they are being taught.

And how do we approach such students, once they pass through the high school entryway?  Simply, we deskill them.  Instead of building on these abilities and providing instruction and learning opportunities through the mediums and vehicles that students know (and that future employers will benefit from) we are asking many of our students to leave their knowledgebase at the door, and pick up the textbook, sit at their one-piece desk, and be educated the way their forefathers were.

That’s a cryin’ shame.  If we look under the hood of high school reform, we’re seeing successes in early colleges, redesigned classrooms, one-to-one computing, and distance education.  We’re succeeding where our classrooms are evolving and meeting the learning, socialization, and communication skills of the students we’re serving.  If we expect more from our students, we need to work with them, and not against them.  We need to enhance their skills, not discourage them.  We need to equip them, not deskill them.

If we want a skilled workforce, we can’t send the message that such skills have no place in a traditional classroom.  In our multimedia world, we need a multimedia education.  Don’t know what that means?  Try asking one of the kids in your class.  I’m sure they’ll be happy to teach, if we’re ready to learn.  

Putting Our Time Where Our Priorities Are

Prioritization.  In today’s educational day and age, it’s all about prioritization.  We prioritize funding.  We prioritize teacher hiring.  We prioritize curriculum adoption.  We prioritize how we assess our students and how we measure our classrooms.  We decide what is most important to us, and make that the focus of our efforts. 

Without question, as a nation, we’ve prioritized the need to prepare all students for the rigors of both school and career.  That is the goal of public education in 2007.  We want rigorous instruction.  We want students graduating from high school.  We want students seeking (and demonstrating proficiency for) postsecondary education.  And we want students to qualify for well-paying jobs (while keeping such jobs in the United States).

How do we get there?  How do we meet such high expectations?  For the past five years, we’ve marketed school improvement on our success in both reading and math.  These skills are non-negotiable building blocks to academic and life success.  And they are needed in order to succeed in science, social studies, and other subjects beyond the elementary school years.  That’s why NCLB is focused on reading and math (with science soon turning the duo into a trio).  Put simply, reading and math skills are now king in terms of school improvement.

Earlier this week, CEP released its report on how elementary schools are spending their instructional time.  The findings?  Our schools are spending more time on math and reading since the passage of NCLB.  Obviously, then, other subjects are finding their time cut.

CEP’s findings has sent a ripple through the education community.  But why?  Don’t we expect our actions to match our rhetoric?  If we are prioritizing math and reading in elementary school, if we are assessing our schools based on student reading and math ability, isn’t that where we should focus our attention?

Of course it is.  We need to put our instructional time where our instructional priorities lie.  Instead of grousing about lost minutes in art or music or phys-ed instruction, shouldn’t we be asking if those 37 additional math/reading instructional minutes have resulted in measurable student improvement?  After all, isn’t that our goal?   

Finding Models of Reform Excellence

If we’ve learned anything from the education investments of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it is that one of the keys to effective education reform is replicability.  We all seek to improve our schools.  But when it comes to enacting reform, we want some guarantees.  We’d like to know its worked somewhere.  It makes it easier to sell the reform to key constituencies, and it makes it easier to anticipate the improvement you seek.  We want to learn from those who have succeeded.  That’s how we replicate.

Yesterday, we heard Mayor Bloomberg at the National Urban League calling on other cities to emulate the education reforms enacted in New York City.  Under the tenure of Gotham’s Mayor and Chancellor Klein, NYC has a lot to be proud of.  Reform has generated results.  And the kids in NYC’s public schools are benefiting, at least according to the latest round of student assessments.

Bloomberg deserves credit for marketing NYC’s education reforms as the model to emulate.  With most reforms, educators are quick to say that results take time, we need to be patient, and we don’t fully know the extend or the long-term implications.  We caveat the reforms, lower expectations, and generally de-emphasize the results out of fear that the improvement won’t hold.  But not Bloomberg.  His bold declaration was the sort we expect from a business mogul or a seasoned politician.  Bloomberg must be both.  He’s now got the NUL thinking, and he already has mayors like DC Mayor Fenty signing up to adopt the Bloomberg education model.

For those who aren’t willing to invest in the Bloomberg model, the Baltimore Sun offers a second education reform marketing effort, and an unlikely one at that — The Baltimore Schools.  http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/education/k12/bal-te.md.scores22jul22%2C0%2C546385.story

IDing how schools of all shapes, sizes, and such can succeed, Baltimore this week is offering up its formula for success.  The components are simple.  Experienced, veteran teachers.  Extra-curricular activities.  Involved parents.  And a focus on student achievement.  Sounds good to me.  Now we just need to move such lessons beyond the walls of George Washington Elementary.


Bloomberg and Baltimore provide us two sides to the same coin.  And they tell us a clear story.  There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to education reform.  But there are lessons to be learned in all corners of public education.  Cobble together enough of those lessons, and you may just have a comprehensive education reform model that will make a meaningful, long-term difference when it comes to student achievement.

As we are learning these lessons, though, we need to look for opportunities to teach.  Those schools that have reformed and improved.  Those who have implemented NCLB and succeeded.  Those who have IDed a problem and taken a bold step to solve it.  Now is the time for you to step forward.  Now is the time to promote your reforms and talk up your improvements.  The future of our schools depends on it.

Leave This to the Professionals

A little information and familiarity with buzz words can be a dangerous thing.  Case in point — the comments found in Steven Dennis’ July 18 Roll Call article about the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.  Sure, we can all think of some areas of the law that should be strengthened or improved (Eduflack has his own wish list for enhancements).  I just never thought I’d see a new name for the law leading the concerns of distinguished members of Congress.

In his piece, Dennis quotes House Majority Whip James Clyburn, who states, “No Child Left Behind has lost so much credibility that it needs to be rebranded.”  Others joined the chorus that a new name helps solve many of the perceived problems.

Unfortunately, it seems its been quite a while since Clyburn was in a marketing class or a brand management workshop.  NCLB’s problem is not its brand.  For the most part, the NCLB brand is widely recognized by most key stakeholder audiences.  And ask most folks on the street.  They may not know ESEA, but they likely will recognize NCLB.  Good or bad, NCLB is a known entity, a recognized brand.

Congressman Dale Kildee, in the same piece, says we need to change the name to demonstrate that Congress is listening to critics and making substantive changes.  If we get to the core of this issue, though, it isn’t about making substantive changes … it should be about making substantive improvements.  But I digress.

As we’ve seen in recent public opinion surveys, the more people learn about NCLB and its focus on student achievement, effective teaching, and proven instruction, the more they embrace it.  Remind us of the law’s finer points, and we grow more hopeful and more accepting of it.  We all want high-quality education.  We all want assurances that we are using what we know works when it comes to teaching our kids.  And we all want to know how to measure that effectiveness and hold all involved accountable.  We want to give every student, in every school district the tools to succeed.

We’ve already seen ED change the NCLB logo in an attempt to recapture the hearts and minds of the education community.  And the jagged red stripes have failed to do the job.  Does anyone honestly think that a new neon road sign, as Kildee and Clyburn suggest, is the missing piece to getting effective, proven education reform into our classrooms?

Of course not.  The issue here boils down to marketing communications 101.  Secretary Spellings, Congress, and just about everyone else needs to educate stakeholders on 1) what NCLB is; 2) why it is important; and 3) the successes of NCLB to date.  The more people know, the stronger their embrace of the law.  Build on that.  Educate them.  Build on their positive feelings.  Turn lukewarm feelings positive.  And dispel the negatives.  Do that, and you have stakeholders prepared and eager to implement the law, enforce the law, and improve the law.

Sure, you can rebrand NCLB.  But doing so means giving in and admitting that we are incapable of leaving no child behind.  If anything NCLB 2.0 should embrace its birth name, and remind teachers, parents, administrators, the business community, and, yes, policymakers, that we can, and should, help all children succeed.  But to do it, we need to be stronger, we need to be more resolute, and we need to be more committed to research-based instruction, effective teaching, and meaningful assessments.  That doesn’t come from a new name on the top of a piece of legislation.  That comes from demonstrating long-term gains in student achievement.  We know NCLB works.  Now’s the time to teach that lesson to the whole class.

An Effective Teacher in Every Classroom

When it comes to education reform, it is often easy to focus on the tree, but miss the forest.  This has been particularly true with No Child Left Behind, where many have lent a keen eye to a particular stumbling block, failing to see how it fits into the greater improvement.

No where is this more true than in NCLB’s Highly Qualified Teacher provisions.  HQT has been a lightning rod for the past five years.  The provision seems pretty simple.  That the teachers leading our classrooms should have background in the subject or subjects they are teaching.  Seems common sense, no, that students should be taught by educators who have documented knowledge in the subject matter?

Of course, many NCLB opponents saw this as an affront to the classroom teacher.  It was an attack on the thousands of teachers gather the strength to pick up the chalk and stand in front of the classroom day after day.

While many of us are bursting with anticipation regarding the potential reauthorization of NCLB this year, a diverse group of policymakers have stepped forward to add a little strength to the HQT provisions.  Their message — effectiveness.

Yesterday, Senators Lieberman (CT), Landrieu (LA), and Coleman (MN) unveiled the All Students Can Achieve Act of 2007.  Imagine, an Independent, a Democrat, and a Republican all joining together to advocate for education reform and improvement.  It’s enough to bring a tear to the eye of a cynic like Eduflack.

All hold my tongue on the introduction of another acronym (ASCA), but the messaging behind this announcement is brilliant in its simplicity.  To borrow from Lieberman’s press release (thanks This Week in Education), the law is designed to “achieve student growth by focusing on what’s most important: achieving results in the classroom and ensuring effective teachers,” “encourage high standards throughout the country and better align the curriculum of schools across America,” and “focuses on closing the achievement gap by holding schools accountable for the performance of all students and providing resources to address this gap.”

Three noble goals.  All achievable.  All necessary to improve our nation’s public schools.  And all common sense to the average taxpayer.  Who is going to stand up and say we shouldn’t focus on achieving results in the classroom?  Who’s opposed to high standards and aligned curriculum?  And can anyone say that closing the achievement gap is a waste of our time?

Building off of the recommendations of Aspen’s NCLB Commission, this trio of senators are proposing legislation that will both strengthen NCLB as a whole and finally return the volleys from those critical of HQT.  How?  Instead of setting the bar at certification, teachers are now going to be measured on their effectiveness.  What a novel concept.

Kudos to ASCA’s parents for offering up real ideas on how to improve NCLB.  And a round of applause for those willing to acknowledge that the ultimate measure of ed reform effectiveness is improved student achievement, including Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee for lending their support to the initiative.  Results matter.  Kids don’t succeed in school and in life because of well-meaning intentions.  They succeed because effective teachers taught them, assessed them, and ensured that they achieved.  

Don’t believe me?  Just try and find one good teacher who doesn’t measure themselves by the success of their students.     

If a Tree Falls in The Ed Forest …

If a press release is issued — one that is pithy and interesting and chock full of new ideas and meaningful policies — but is not reported on by the media, was it ever really released?  Does such an announcement make its way into the public space if its intended audience (the media) choose to ignore it?

Over at www.eduwonk.com, Mike Goldstein asks the question, reflecting on the relatively lackluster announcements that have come from the Democratic candidates for president, both at the NEA Convention and in general.

Anyone who expected real news to come out of an NEA Convention clearly has never attended one.  Between all of the “brother this” and “sister thats,” there is rarely a moment to talk about true reforms and improvement.  The Democratic candidates who paid homage before the House of Reg did so with one main object in mind — do no harm.  They went in and threw red meat to the lions — teachers deserve more pay, testing is unfair, etc., etc.  Hardly the action items deserving coverage in a weekly reader, yet alone a national newspaper. 

The rare exceptions — Obama and Huckabee.  Obama followed a pattern he has adopted in previous union visits, speaking truth to power and discussing issues that don’t make the top five approved texts with the membership.  At NEA, he spoke of equity pay, a topic NEA has fought for decades, and a topic that virtually every parent, community leader, and taxpayer believes in.  The same sort of merit pay systems that almost every other white collar job is governed by.  Obama got the headlines because he spoke on a taboo topic (or taboo for the audience) and he did so with strength and passion.  The challenge will be what he does with it next.  Was it rhetoric for the day, or was it policy?

As for Huckabee, he get the “A” just for showing up.  No one expects Republicans to come to the House of Reg.  After all, the NEA always endorses Democrats.  They lend all of their organizational might, fundraising, phonebanks, GOTV activities, et al to the Democratic candidate.  But that didn’t deter Huckabee for attending, and for speaking his mind.  In doing so, he established that education is an important issue for him, and he is willing to work with all parties to bring real reform forward.  Republican or Democrat, every governor works with teachers unions.  Huckabee reminded the NEA of that, and reminded them that he was fair to them all those years in Arkansas.

But back to Eduwonk’s question at hand — when do press releases get the play they deserve?  Goldstein hypothesizes they must be edgy and quotable.  Let me tell you, Eduflack has written thousands of press releases over the years.  Most have made their way into the news coverage; some have fallen flat.  And of those that have fallen flat, most have been quotable.  And some have even been edgy (or as edgy as the topic may allow).  So what was the missing ingredient?

If our presidential candidates, our education organizations, our influencers, and just about anyone else hoping to find a voice in the education reform forest wants to be heard via press release, they need to remember a few things:
* Keep it short.  Nothing that can be said in a page is any better in three or four pages.
* Keep it timely.  Relate it to news of the day or issues that you know the media is reporting on.
* Know your target.  Be sure you are sending it to the right person, and you understand the issues and topics that reporter has written or broadcast on in the past.
* Grab attention.  A great quote, a new statistic, or even a new spin on an old issue is likely to gain a second look from the recipient.
* Follow up.  Simply hitting send on the email program does not result in effective dissemination.  You need to follow up with the reporters you are hoping to entice with the story.
* Say something.  Press releases are not the vehicles for “me too.”  If you want a reporter to take the time to skim your announcement, you better be saying something original and interesting.
* Don’t waste time.  Reporters are getting hundreds of releases a day.  Most end up in the deleted bins of their emails.  If you aren’t saying something important, don’t say it.  You don’t want a reputation for sending non-news or for wasting the time of reporters by recycling the same releases, again and again, with a new headline.  Your issue may be important to you, but if you don’t entice the reporter with the new meal, do you really expect them to get excited with leftovers?
* Know your end game.  Is the purpose coverage in the local media?  Are you softening the ground for a harder announcement in a few weeks?  Sending a trial balloon on a controversial issue?  Or just reminding the media you exist?  Any release needs to help you reach the ultimate policy or political goal.

That being said, what can today’s presidential candidates say to gain attention from the media?  Clearly, they haven’t figured out what that is yet.  Other than an early ed policy here from Hillary, and a phys-ed policy there from Richardson, a number of “me toos” on the need for more student loans, the current chattering on presidential education reform has been weighed and measured, and, quite frankly, it has been found lacking.

If Eduflack were writing for one of these presidential candidates, he would follow the Obama mantra of being bold and audacious and really take the time to leave a rhetorical mark in the education forest.  How?

Go into the NEA conference and applaud NCLB for leveling the playing field, boosting student achievement, and finally giving every student the opportunity to succeed.  Sure, more must be done to strengthen the law.  But the law is good, and the law works.  Worried about getting attacked?  Senator Kennedy’s got your back.

Call on ACE to ensure that college credits are universally transferable, and that a postsecondary credit earned at an accredited community college should be taken at value at an state or private institution.  Need some help articulating?  Just take a look at the policy Ohio has been working on.

Acknowledge that public education has changed a great deal in recent decades, and that a system that incorporates traditional public schools, charter schools, and vouchers can work, and work well, when it has the full support of the community and the school system.  The goal is a high-quality education for all students.  It shouldn’t matter who is delivering the education, as long as all of our children are getting it.  Only then will it be taxpayer money well spent.

Listen to the NCLB Commission and demand that HQT provisions be changed to include a measure of effectiveness.  A good teacher gets her students learning and prepares them for success, both in school and in life.  HQET need to recognize that.

Speak out on the need for instructionally based preK, where students learn more than just social adjustment skills.  Recognize that ELL education is a necessary component of any urban education program, and if incorporated effectively, can boost student achievement.  Demand that SES funds be used on proven methods that directly correlate to increased performance. 

And finally, plant a big ole sloppy wet kiss right on Reading First.  We know it works.  Its been proven effective.  Even RF opponents are calling for full funding of the program.  Demand that Congress stop playing politics, restore full funding for RF, and work with Congress and ED to ensure that the money is being effectively spent and that any classroom receiving even one RF dollar is implementing SBRR with fidelity.&n

While Eduflack is unlikely to get out of a Democratic primary with an education platform like that, it is one that works, it is one that will resonate with the media and with the public, and, most importantly, it is one that will make a real difference in terms of improving student achievement.  For those 17 individuals still mixing it up for their parties’ nominations, please feel free to crib even one of these policy planks for your campaign.  I guarantee you, if positioned the right way, it can be rhetorical gold.  And it may even improve the quality of public education in the process.

Yes, Virginia, Reading First is a Success

Reading First works.  I don’t know how many times I can say it, or how many different ways to say it.  You’ve heard it from Eduflack over and over again.  When implemented effectively and with fidelity, scientifically based reading boosts reading skills in virtually every student.  It prepares them to succeed throughout their academic careers.  And it empowers students for the rest of their lives.

For the past year, virtually all talk about Reading First has veered away from that basic, but critical, fact.  Flaws in RF implementation, coupled with the growing jockeying for the RF dollar, created a hornet’s nest in public education.  As a result, Congress is talking about slashing the funding for Reading First.  Forget the evidence.  Forget the proofs.  Forget the real-life impact it has had on classrooms and kids across the country.  The program is controversial, so some are looking to dump it — despite the very real fact that RF works.  At a time when we so desperately need to improve reading skills and student performance in our schools, should we really be abandoning a program that has no equal when it comes to effectiveness and impact?

We often lose sight of what works because of the rhetorical and political clouds that swirl.  And RF is the perfect example of this.  Kudos, then to the Weekly Standard for Charlotte Allen’s piece on the impact of SBRR in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  http://www.weeklystandard.com/Utilities/printer_preview.asp?idArticle=13850&R=1143716CE7

Yes, Eduflack is unapologetic in his support for, belief in, and defense of SBRR.  And sometimes that passion gets in the way of effective communication.  For the life of me, I just can’t understand why anyone would oppose a program that ensures that only effective, proven instruction be used in our classrooms.  If we expect all students to succeed, we need to provide all students with proven-effective programs.  We need to give all students instruction that works.  Plain and simple.

Allen’s piece is a great example of successful communication, and shows how to talk about SBRR in a way that would touch virtually any audience.  First, she is able to personalize the issue.  Reading research is a tough subject to wrap one’s hands around.  Allen is able to take this complex story, and break it down to the simplest of terms — how SBRR has impacted a real school and real students that many had already written off.  Second, she confronted the opposition.  By including some of RF’s strongest critics, and refuting their criticism, she demonstrates that RF can stand up to both scrutiny and attack.

In doing so, Allen has provided the U.S. Department of Education with a terrific example of how RF needs to be sold to gain reauthorization.  Examples like Ginter Park Elementary School can be found in the districts of virtually every congressman and in the states of every senator.  Tell, those stories, and let our elected officials explain why they won’t continue to support those schools, those teachers, and those kids.

Hopefully Spellings and her crew will see that Allen gave NCLB and RF the bumper sticker it has been looking for.  Reading First: The Most Successful Federal Education Program in History. 

Or for you Simpsons fans, “RF: Best Education Program Ever.”

Pay for Play

In marketing communications, there is no more important (and often misunderstood) term than ROI, or return on investment.  We all want to know our money is being wisely spent, that we have results to show for our communications activities, and that such results are meeting the overall organizational goals.

In PR, a common mistake is thinking that media coverage is success.  But if you can’t translate that coverage into increased sales, increased enrollment, increased membership, or increased donations, has the communications really met the organizational goal?

This is particularly true in education.  Companies pay big money to advertise in education trade publications, exhibit at conferences and events, and just to get its organizational name or product associated with the big education story or education reform trend out there.  While it may result in media coverage, such coverage is often gained at the expense of the brand and the value proposition.

That’s what makes today’s NY Times article on the Sustainable Operations Summit all the more interesting (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/10/education/10summit.html?_r=1&oref=slogin).  The story is simple to tell.  Sign up as a sponsor of the Summit, and organizers (CraigMichaels Inc. is the brainchild here) will guarantee 15 one-on-one meetings with decisionmakers from school districts or IHEs across the country.

At first blush, some may find the approach a little unseemly.  But if you get under the hood, you see the effectiveness of the communications vehicle.  You ensure that you are delivering your message directly to those who can make a decision.  You are positioned to directly address their concerns and solve the problems that are keeping them up at night.  And you have the ability to tailor your discussion directly to their demographics, needs, and expected outcomes.  That, boys and girls, is almost the textbook definition of effective communications.

We all know it is harder and harder to get one’s message through to those we need to reach.  There are too many filters, too many barriers, and too much white noise to be eternally effective.  As long as the audience knows what it is signing up for (such as committing to attend such one-on-one marketing pitches), where’s the harm?  It is far more transparent than off-site conference events or the junkets that have plagued the medical industry for years.

No matter what tactic or approach one uses to deliver the message, at the end of the day, success only comes when you have a strong message, strong proof, and a compelling story.  For education reform organizations and companies, change doesn’t come from a one-on-one meeting.  Yes, such meetings may open the door.  But you can only keep it open if you can deliver and demonstrate, with consistency, that you are improving learning and student performance.  And ain’t that a great conversation starter for those one-on-ones?