Telling a Good Story

We’re all familiar with the phrase, “if it bleeds, it leads.”  The thought behind it is if something horrible happens (particularly something horrible with great art), then it is front-page worthy.  A tragedy makes great news.  Scandal makes great copy.  An official getting caught doing something wrong is a great news hook.

Over at This Week in Education, Alexander Russo has a list of the education-related news stories from the past month (  It should come as no surprise that this list is full of scandal, wrongdoing, and general negativity.  NCLB reauthorization and Capitol Hill hearings figure prominently, as do schools closing, programs being abandoned, and teachers being fired.  There are some exceptions, but pointing out the failings in our education system seems to be driving education coverage as a whole.  And Eduflack is just as guilty.

Are there no “good” stories out there on education reform?  I’ll be honest, I’ve been struggling for the last week to find some examples of reform done good anywhere.  Maybe it is the end of the school year.  Maybe folks have tired of education issues for now.  Maybe the current NCLB struggles have sucked all of the oxygen out of the room.  But I am desparate for a good story.

Why should we care?  Don’t we have an obligation to seek the truth?  With taxpayer dollars going into education reform, isn’t it a moral imperative that keep a watchful eye on the field and point out where we take a wrong step or where we may be headed down a rabbit hole we simply cannot emerge from?

At the end of the day, communications is good storytelling.  You need a protagonist.  You need a challenge he is trying to overcome.  You need obstables that may prevent him from succeeding.  And then you need SUCCESS.  Take a look at any good children’s book or Disney movie, and you’ll see those steps are the key to telling any good story.  Likewise, they are the key to effectively communicating education reform.

I’ll beat the dead horse.  Let’s take Reading First as our example.  The U.S. Department of Education can clamor about longitudinal research statistics and disagregated data until they are blue in the face.  The most successful RF story is one President Bush told several years ago at a town hall meeting at NIH.  He introduced a teacher from the South.  Her class was struggling.  Virtually no students were reading at grade level.  School district was poor.  Students weren’t necessarily getting the encouragement and support they needed from home.  But this teacher was determined they would read.  She implemented scientifically based reading instruction, knowing the research showed it would work with kids like hers.  She provided one-to-one interventions when necessary.  Over time, she started to see the results.  Soon, all of her kids were reading.  They had found a passion for learning.  They had an opportunity to succeed in both school and life.  The could achieve … thanks to Reading First and scientifically based reading.

Sure, it may be a little sappy. But personalization and storytelling make it compelling.  And it talks about complex policy in a way the average American can understand.  And it stays positive.  There may be challenges.  There may be obstacles.  But our protagonist perseveres.  That’s successful communication, and that’s a story many of us would want to read each morning with our coffee (or Diet Coke).


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