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
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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.

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