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.

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 (  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?