How do we move from one-way communication to two-way dialogue? And more importantly, do we need such dialogue if we are to make lasting education improvements? Those are the questions that Eduflack asked this afternoon to attendees of the National Governors Association’s STEM Policy Academy here in Washington.
The NGA STEM Policy Academy is a fascinating gathering of stakeholders and influencers in statewide STEM policy. A year and a half ago, NGA provided six states (Colorado, Hawaii, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) with two-year, Gates Foundation-funded grants to implement long-term STEM solutions in their communities. This week, each state brought approximately 10 of their STEM leaders — representing the governors office, state departments of education, state departments of economic or workforce development, the business community, higher education, and K-12 — to share their lessons learned to date and help encourage and invigorate the states as they near their two-year reporting deadline. (For more on NGA’s STEM efforts, check out www.nga.org/portal/site/nga/menuitem.1f41d49be2d3d33eacdcbeeb501010a0/?vgnextoid=b1da18bd4bae0110VgnVCM1000001a01010aRCRD)
The energy among the group is fantastic, particularly since so many of them are focused on the long-term (think 10 years) versus just the two years in the grant. Yes, folks are conducting sustainability discussions, even in this economy.
It was heartening that the NGA STEM states are asking the right communications questions. How does the governor use the bully pulpit to advocate for STEM when he or she is equally passionate about pursuing additional education and workforce development issues? What is the overarching message? Who do they need to communicate to? Who does the communicating? How much communication is needed to succeed?
As Eduflack has written here many times before, one of the great misperceptions about effective communications is that it is simply one-way public relations. Send out a press release, issue a report, distribute a brochure, and declare mission accomplished. In reality, the mission is just beginning. Such one-way communications are simply tools for informing, ways to raise awareness of a specific issue. The real communications effort comes after the informing phase, as we look to build networks to effectively engage the community and then to mobilize those networks to bring about real change.
For these STEM states, and countless other states seeking education improvements, effective communications becomes a game of multiples. Multiple stakeholders reaching multiple audiences with multiple messages and multiple tactics achieving multiple objectives and reaching multiple goals. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. There is no silver bullet. It requires real, ongoing, integrated work.
Why is this game of multiples so important? For a number of reasons.
1) Education reforms no longer happen in vacuums. There are multiple players involved in the process. For STEM to succeed, policymakers must join together with K-12 and higher education and the business community, among others.
2) Education improvement is rapidly becoming a state-level game. Don’t let the increased federal investment in education, as reflected in the economic stimulus package, fool you. Much of that money is being distributed through block grants. It falls to the states (the governors and the state departments of education, in particular) to put those funds to good use. That means collaboration at the state level, both in government and through public/private partnerships.
3) It also means collaboration at the local level. The majority of NGA STEM states are pursuing regional networks to implement policy. These regional networks are taking state goals and state objectives, and implementing them through the lens of local realities. With STEM, in particular, how are we using changes at the K-12 and postsecondary levels to meet the specific needs of local employers? That’s the million-dollar (or more) question.
4) Effective STEM communications requires simplifying the complex. STEM is a complicated issue, culminating in the intersection of K-12, higher education, workforce development, and community engagement. Despite popular belief, all students benefit from STEM education, not just the future rocket scientists and brain surgeons. And STEM literacy has an effect on the economy, the justice system, healthcare, and the environment, to name just a few. Taking all of that and putting it on a bumper sticker is no easy task. We need to keep it simple if it is to touch the lives of all it can and should reach.
5) Successful communication requires multiple touches. The brain is a funny thing. We need to hear the same message seven or eight times before it registers in our memory banks. That means hearing about the impact of STEM from our employer, our kids’ teacher, our church, our neighbors, and our volunteer groups. it means hearing why it is important from the student, the teacher, and the workforce perspective. And it means hearing it in person, in print, online, and through public events. Once we are sick of hearing the STEM message, it means it is finally sinking in and success is within reach.
The STEM states are making real progress in developing the policies necessary to move STEM into the core of our education and our economy. Minnesota’s STEM website, Colorado’s STEM-apolooza, and Pennsylvania’s upcoming podcasts are strong tactics to move us toward successful communication. The challenge now is wrapping it all together with long-term strategic communications.
STEM efforts, like other education improvements, are only true successes when others know what we’ve done, why we’ve done it, and the impact it has on the stakeholders involved. We need to know our return on investment. it may be a bit crass, but if we don’t effectively “sell” our education improvements, they will never achieve their full purpose nor will the maximize their true opportunities.
NGA has long made communications a non-negotiable as part of its grant programs. Strategic communications should be a non-negotiable in any school improvement effort. it’s the only way to share best practice and to build upon the promise of our forward progress. The STEM states are learning that. And there is likely much they can teach others in the long term.