Getting Lost in the NCLB Wilderness

Is it possible to say all of the right things, but still fail in effectively communicating?  It may sound hard, but it is quite easy.  Don’t believe Eduflack?  Just check out President Bush’s remarks to the 2007 Presidential Scholars yesterday.

The President picked a good venue for his remarks — a room full of high-achieving high school students.  He brought with him ED Secretary Spellings, along with Republican members of Congress key to NCLB reauthorization.  And he had a clear messaging platform — NCLB’s goals, what NCLB has achieved to date, and vision for NCLB 2.0.

And that messaging was strong. 
* NCLB is bipartisan. 
* “The federal government should expect results  in return for the money it spends.”
* “The only way to determine whether a child is reading at grade level is to have accountability in our school systems.”
* “We’re making good progress.”
* “Our ability to compete in the 21st century depends upon educating children”
* “If a child needs extra help, there’s going to be money available to help that child.”
* “Strengthen math and science”
* “Extra funding for under-performing schools.”
* “We believe in local control of schools, you reform them, you fix them.”

Bush addressed his remarks to the students, their parents, and their teachers.  He spoke of believing in students, supporting teachers, and improving our schools.  The President was passionate about an issue he cared about (particularly when talking about the impact of SBRR on reading scores).  And that’s where he should have stopped. 

A broad audience.  A relatively light and easy event.  The President should have called it a day, and walked off the mound leaving the crowd with the broad rhetorical strokes that define the benefits of NCLB.  Had he done so, it would have been a win.  A strong “A” from the teachers in the crowd.

Instead, he kept speaking.  Using his bully pulpit, he decided to further define NCLB in terms of school choice and vouchers.  Important issues, yes.  Volatile components of NCLB, for sure.  But completely inappropriate for the audience, the venue, or the ultimate end game.  Yes, it is important for the President to appease a key audience (his conservative base), particularly as Republicans are quickly jumping off the NCLB ship.  But you need to address such concerns directly with the audience that holds them.  By spending a third of his time focused on issues that appeal to a small, but vocal, segment of the education universe, he muddled his message and chipped away at his clear framing of the value of NCLB.

And the result of the tip of the hat to his conservative base?  Nil.  The criticisms of big government and the federalization of education still rang out in The Washington Post’s coverage of it.  A golden opportunity to focus on the positive impact and long-term gains as a result of NCLB, yet the President still only scores the gentleman’s “C” for execution.

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