Engaging the Public on Math Reform

When the National Reading Panel released its landmark “Teaching Children to Read” report in April 2000, the obvious question to follow was, “what’s next?”  The federal government releases studies like “Teaching Children to Read” all the time.  The report comes out, copies are distributed, and they usually end up in someone’s closet, on someone’s bookcase to get dusty, or as a doorstop in a state department of education.

As loyal readers know, NRP was a passion project for Eduflack.  I was involved from the very beginning serving as a senior advisor to the panel and helping with everything from qualitative research to editorial.  For two years, NRP was my life, and I wouldn’t change a day of it.
During the NRP process, the we recognized that we needed to do more than just traditionally “disseminate” the findings.  Informing key stakeholders on reading research was an important step, yes.  But if the NRP was going to have the lasting effect it intended (and the lasting effect, I argue, it has) we needed to reach far deeper.  We needed to move beyond simply informing to engaging.  And we needed to move from engaging to changing behavior.  
Ultimately, we needed to change the way the education world dealt with reading instruction.  We needed to change how teachers taught kids to read.  We needed to change what parents asked about reading in the classroom.  We needed to change how school administrators made decisions on the programs they purchased.  We needed to change how local, state, and federal elected officials prioritized funding for reading instruction.  And we needed to change how the community at large, particularly the business community, addressed the issue and focused on reading.  Most importantly, we needed to change student reading ability, ensuring that virtually every student gained the research-based instruction needed to be reading proficient by fourth grade.
Such change is no small undertaking.  Following the release of the NRP report in 2000, we spent two years engaging in a range of communications and public engagement activities.  Conference presentations.  Interviews with the media.  Interactions with key stakeholder groups and influential individuals.  Armed with just the massive Report of the Subgroups, the Summary Report, and the NRP Video Report, we began the process of informing, engaging, and changing thinking.
After the tenets of NRP were included in No Child Left Behind (Reading First in particular), a new phase of engagement began.  The U.S. Department of Education created the Partnership for Reading, a joint effort led by all federal agencies involved in one way or another with reading.  This included ED, HHS, Labor, and NIH.  Together, these agencies pledged a shared support to promote a unified commitment to scientifically based reading instruction.
Through the Partnership (another project Eduflack played a leading role in), we were able to launch a national public engagement campaign to ensure that all audiences 1) understood scientifically based reading instruction; 2) knew why it was important; and 3) began implementing it in their schools, classes, and communities.  Originally, the work focused on a broad range of stakeholder audiences, including policymakers, the business community, school administrators, researchers, teacher educators, teachers, and parents.  During the two-year process, we winnowed down our audiences, seeing the key actors in getting SBRR into the classroom as both the teacher and the parent.
To accomplish this effort, we engaged in a wide range of communications activities, far more than those used following the NRP release.  Development of strong, audience-specific messages.  Creation of specific materials designed for specific stakeholders.  Media relations.  Public service announcement campaign (both print and radio, in both English and Spanish).  Conference presentations and exhibitions.  A speakers bureau.  Partnership development.  And any and all marketing and communications activities designed to spread the word about the need for and the impact of SBRR.
At the end of the day, I am proud of the results we accomplished.  Yes, we secured significant media coverage (millions of impressions worth millions and millions of ad-equivalent dollars).  But we also built a strong network of supporters and advocates.  Through a working partners group, we brought together organizations like NEA, AFT, AASA, and IRA (organizations not exactly friendly with ED or NCLB at the time) and joined them with NGA, NAESP, BRT, and the Chamber as a sign of shared commitment to scientifically based reading.  How?  At the end of the day, all of these organizations, regardless of their political leanings, shared a common belief that every child needed to learn to read and we needed to use instructional approaches that worked to get all children reading.
I don’t take this walk down memory lane to toot any particular horn or wait for an applause line for the hard work of all of the people at NICHD and ED who helped move this forward, from 2000 through 2005.  Instead, I reflect on this experience because of an article in this week’s Education Week.  In it, Sean Cavanagh reports on the current efforts underway to promote the recently released report from the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. The full story can be found here — <a href="http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/10/10/08mathpanel.h28.html
The Math Panel is to be commended for its work, and it is especially noteworthy that they were able to pull together a conference earlier this month for policy folks and practitioners to focus on how to move the Panel’s findings into U.S. classrooms.  The NRP shared a similar goal, but those conferences quickly evolved into RF conferences after the passage of NCLB.
Cavanagh also focuses on efforts to print more than 160,000 pamphlets for parents on elementary and middle school math.  Again, a needed step.  For change to occur in our schools, parents must be effectively used as a lever for action.  Lasting change does not come without real, sustained action from the parents.
EdWeek also notes the work of the ED’s Doing What Works website (http://dww.ed.gov) to move the Math Panel’s findings into teachable moments for educators and professional developers.  (Full disclosure, Eduwife is managing DWW for ED).
But I also hope the Math Panel is thinking bigger, thinking bolder, and thinking more audaciously.  Yes, it is unfortunate that ED will soon change hands, and a new EdSec will have new priorities.  And yes, it is unfortunate that the Math Wars make the Reading Wars seem like Cub Scout jamborees.  But the findings of the Math Panel are too important to fall by the wayside come January 2009.  The need to equip all students with real math skills is too important for our schools, our community, our economy, and our nation for the Math Panel’s report to hit a dusty shelf come next year, forgotten for the “next big thing.”
Someone needs to launch a massive public engagement campaign to reform math instruction.  Building from the work, infrastructure, and results of the Partnership for Reading, someone needs to work with parents, teachers, and policymakers to focus on getting what works when it comes to math into the classroom.  And, ideally, someone outside of the federal government needs to make this their national priority, allowing such a campaign to move swifter and more nimbly than a government effort.
Interested?  I’m happy to give you my cent-and-a-half to get it off the ground.

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