Edu-Media Pitching: Class is in Session

Today, boys and girls, we are going to learn a little lesson.  Professor Eduflack is going to go back to his roots and discuss some issues of media outreach, knowing your audience, and maximizing the factors of the technology available to you.  Our teaching tool today is a case study.

Yesterday, a well-meaning and earnest PR consultant sent out an email on behalf of a client (and yes, for the purpose of this story, I see no reason to name the specific client caught up in this).  The email arrived under the subject line: “Urgent: Gainful Employment Rule.”  The sender tried to be a little self-deprecating, noting he was sending a “dreaded pitch email.”
The email went on to say:
In the next 10 days, the Department of Education will issue a rule on “Gainful Employment” – a rule that would cut off federal funding options for students attending for-profit colleges (for example, Kaplan Higher Education, American Career Institute, ITT Technical Institute, Stratford University, and New Horizons) unless the colleges could demonstrate certain graduation rates or levels of student debt.

These rules would be unique to these colleges (no public or private schools would be required to meet the same standards) and would significantly adversely affect students of color in particular, as these colleges educate a disproportionate percentage of minority students.

I know what you’re saying.  What’s the big deal?  Typical pitch from a typical PR firm.  The for-profit colleges (or another group, in this case) write a check to gin up some attention for this battle and to hopefully gain some sympathetic media coverage.  In this case, the flack notes that the rule is harmful to African-Americans, the U.S. Department of Education has miscalculated the issue, the law is being pushed by those dreaded “short sellers” on Wall Street, and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. himself is opposed to the proposed Gainful Employment regs.
But here is where the wheels came off.  The email pitch was sent to a veritable case of thousands, mainstream media reporters and bloggers alike.  Those bloggers included both “media” bloggers, those individuals representing legitimate media organizations and bloggers like Eduflack, who write about opinions far less than facts and preach rather than interview PR company clients to write thoughtful and balanced pieces.  And it meant including advocacy groups and the rest on the same pitch as the MSM.
How do I know?  That’s the real problem we’ll talk about this morning, class.  That entire list was included in the CC field of the email.  Instead of putting us all in the BCC field, where no one knows who was a recipient, we were all put on a list.  And that’s where this “failure to communicate” truly occurred.
The first shot across the bow came from Sherman Dorn, the Florida college professor who blogs under the same name.  He noted, for the entire group to read, that “I’m firmly in favor of the gainful-employment rule.  You’re ignoring the fact that our taxes are going to support loans that go into your client’s pockets, and often it’s students who have to pick up the tab after dropping out.”
Then we all heard from Craig Smith of the American Federation of Teachers.  Smith was a little less kind, starting with a sentence noting that the flack’s “email below contains several inaccurate statements and implications.”  He continues that “the most egregious is the statement that the gainful employment regulation applies only to for-profit colleges.  Not true.”  He then notes Congressman Jackson actually “voted AGAINST an amendment in the House to block the gainful employment regulation.”  And wraps up by writing, “In fact, to describe the minority community as split is a total misrepresentation.”
One of the most interesting exchanges, though, came from Whitney TIlson, the managing partner of T2 Partners LLC.  Tilson is presumably on the list because of the terrific email listserve he puts out on education reform issues (and really just on K-12 education issues, I might add).  Tilson begins by noting, “As one of the founders of Democrats for Education Reform, it’s not often that I agree with the AFT on something, but this is certainly the case here.  This industry exploits low income and minority citizens just like the subprime housing industry did (And, yes, I’m one of the nefarious short sellers…)”  Then he provides a nice little compendium of recent coverage and discussion in the MSM on this very topic.
Why is this important?  What started as a typical media pitch aimed primarily at the MSM (at least based on the distribution list) quickly became a street corner debate on the issue of gainful employment, with all the powerful personalities siding against the original pitch.  It devolved so much, because of the failure to hide recipients, that a member of the MSM finally asked to be removed from the exchanges, considering the back and forth “spam.”  And for those members of MSM thinking about covering, they heard some strong opinions why the original pitch carried no water.
So what are the lessons learned here, at least for those flacking for others?  A few come to mind:
* Learn about the media you are pitching — The majority of the reporters, both MSM and bloggers, are K-12 focused.  Most of them have never written about issues such as gainful employment.  This was probably not how you wanted to introduce it to them.  So take the time to tailor the pitch.  Show us how this debate links to K-12 accountability discussions … or high school graduation rates … or something.
* A cigar sometimes isn’t just a cigar — You need to pitch the MSM differently than you pitch bloggers.  As an independent blogger, I get pitched several times a day. I now have enormous empathy for those reporters I used to bug regularly with faxes (yes, faxes, I’m that old) and emails.  Show me you have actually read a post of mine, and not just pulled my name off a media database that IDs me as someone who writes about education.  Personalization goes much, much further than a mass email, particularly with some of us bloggers, who are even more cynical than your typical reporter.
* Tell a story — This pitch lacked a story.  It was a string of facts, many of which were disputed over the spam of six or so hours.  When one starts a pitch noting that the issue is “controversial, and urgent” it usually means it isn’t.  If you have to tell me a topic is important, because I don’t realize it myself, it says something.
* Don’t offer to guest blog — Please, don’t offer to provide a guest blog from your client.  Again, read the blogs you are targeting.  Do we even post guest blogs?  If not, don’t offer a list of more than a hundred a guest blog, particularly when those MSM blogs are written by the reporters themselves, and many of us “other bloggers” write with a distinct opinion and through our own voice.
* Use the BCC — Please, please, please use the BCC field when doing a media distribution.  I find it fascinating to know who was pitched as part of this little experiment.  But for the good of your client and for the good of the reputation of the firm you work for, please don’t turn a basic media p
itch into a faculty senate discussion.
Class dismissed. 

No Excuses

No deep policy discussion today, folks.  But I do need to share an interesting (or disturbing, depending on your perspective) story that I heard earlier this week.

As the merriment of commencement commences, a parent went in for an end-of-the-year conference with her child’s teacher.  It was intended to be the typical check-in.  Is my child on track?  Anything to work on before the start of the new school year?  Tips for summer activities?  The usual drill.
In the discussion, the teacher began by focusing on math skills, talking about successes and areas that needed work.  As part of the conversation, the teacher made an off-handed comment.  In reflecting that the student did not enjoy doing a specific math assignment, she noted, “maybe he would do it in Spanish, though.”
Did I mention that the student in question is Hispanic?  No, he’s not ESOL.  He doesn’t work from an IEP.  Doesn’t come from a low-income household.  But his ancestors also did not come over on the Mayflower.  As a result, the teacher’s failure to connect with the student must be a cultural thing.  It must be a language thing.  It can’t be a breakdown in teaching or instruction, it must be a Spanish thing.
If this was the first time the teacher had made such a remark to the parent, it would likely have been dropped, and I wouldn’t be telling the tale here today.  Unfortunately, it seems this isn’t the first comment like this.  A month or so, when reflecting on the same student’s ELA abilities, the same teacher told the parent (albeit the father this time), that the male student’s reading wasn’t quite up to where some of the girls in class were.  So the teacher’s inquiry, “perhaps it is because of the Spanish language at home.”
I’m willing to write this off as an isolated incident from an ignorant teacher.  From my experiences with teachers in the classroom — be it the educators I deal with as part of my business day, those terrific ones I interact with through my school board service, and those who actually taught me — I never heard such comments, nor do I suspect they would even think it.
But I also realize that much of teaching is learned behavior.  The teacher in question asks such questions because she was either taught it, or she has learned it from colleagues or mentors.  She decided to diagnose students without the benefit of data, information, or common sense.  And in trying to justify her own struggles in connecting with a particular student (or class of students), she managed to even inject a little bit of racism into the student evaluation process.
I feel for both the student and the parents in question.  They deserve better, and can just look forward to a new teacher in a new classroom with a new approach and fewer stereotypes come September.  But I feel for those students who will be passing through said teacher’s classroom in the years to come.  Surely, with a rising Hispanic population, this won’t be the last “Spanish” issue in such a class.  And if she is so quick to make such comments with parents (typically protective, even downright helicopterish) who is to say she isn’t making similar comments in the classroom, comments that other students are picking up and using themselves to drive divisions between “us” and “them?”
We should have high expectations for all students … and all teachers.  We tell our students they can’t make excuses for not demonstrating proficiency or not passing the state exams.  We tell parents they can’t make excuses for their kids not attending school or not doing their homework.  And we certainly should tell our teachers that they can’t make excuses — particularly racially discrimenatory ones — when they fail to connect or properly educate a child.
Ningunas excusas.  Debemos esperar mas de nuestros estudiantes, de nuestras familias, y de nuestros maestros.

Racin’ on Preschool Legs

In an announcement far less anticipated than previous rounds, EdSec Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education today announced the parameters for Round Three of Race to the Top.  After Congress agreed to throw another $700 million in the RttT kitty as part of the FY2011 CR budget deal, most expected they knew how the current round would be distributed.

Original word around town was that ED would simply move down the list of Round Two finalists, making dreams come true.  So New Jersey, which finished less than three points (on a 500-point scale) behind the final Round Two winner, Ohio, was seen as a shoo-in (and a potential recipient of hundreds of millions of federal dollars).  Then came Arizona, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Illinois.  Presumably, the $700 million wouldn’t even last long enough for Illinois to line up for its check, leaving the full boat to be distributed among four states (and four states run by Republican governors, coincidentally).
But a funny thing happened on the way to today’s announcement.  Instead of funding, or nearly funding, the remaining plans that scored the highest, ED determined it best to share the wealth across all of the Phase Two finalist states.  So now we can add California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky to the list.  Nine states sharing RttT dollars, with all likely getting just a fraction of their ask, yet all of the red tape, bureaucracy, and expectation to go with it.
Why?  Because Duncan threw the education community a curve ball.  Of the $700 million going to RttT Round Three, only $200 million of it will go to these nine states.  The remainder, a whopping $500 million, will now go to fund a new Race competition for early childhood education.
If you’ll recall, last month Eduflack wrote about a key change to the RttT law — the addition of early childhood education as a new priority to Race.  At the time, I wondered whether this was finally a real commitment on behalf of the Administration to invest in ECE, or whether this was more rhetoric, without the teeth of real dollars to back it up.
That question was answered loudly and clearly today by Duncan.  Five hundred million dollars to go to a competitive grant program to fund the improvement of early childhood care and education, and it will now carry the Early Learning Challenge moniker.  Half a billion dollars to support preK programs.  Some of the specs released today include:
* State-based award focused on comprehensive plans for early learning
* Emphasis on coordination (presumably with K-12), clearer learning standards, and “meaningful workforce development”
The statement from ED is unclear on some of the larger issues, though.  It notes that just 40 percent of four-year-olds are in preK.  So is the intent to improve preK programs or boost enrollment in existing programs?  At a time when states are reducing their own investments in preK (just look at the Pew numbers), is $500 million spread across the nation enough to jumpstart a universal preK movement?  And when we again challenge the innovation community, this time to get involved in ECE, what role do we see for the private sector and the edu-prenuers to be playing in early childhood education?
On the K-12 side, we see a few other issues.  So now those nine RttT finalist states can recompete for $10-$50 million grants, needing to develop new applications (with ED’s help, of course).  One only needs to do the math, though, to realize we are looking a lot more like a number of $10 million grants than a handful of $50 million ones.  Is $50 million even enough to enact real improvement in a state like California, Illinois, or Pennsylvania?
Most importantly, though, is this an indication that we’ve already given up on RttT?  When it was originally announced, we heard all about how it was most effective when a few states were given big dollars to enact real changes (Former Duncan advisor Mike Smith originally hypothesized there should only be two or three total RttT winners for the original $4 billion prize).  Now that we move to Round Three, we are shifting to small checks for a large number of states, now for targeted activities.  When Delaware and Tennessee received more that they were originally slated to gain in Round One, do we really expect the nine expected to benefit here to be able to do real work and enact real improvements with a fraction of what they asked for (and presumably need)?  Time will tell …
UPDATE: Make that eight.  South Carolina has already pulled out of the RttT3 competition, according to Education Week’s Politics K-12 blog, with its State Superintendent, Mick Zais stating RttT is “offering pieces of silver in exchange for strings attached to Washington.”

Some Kudos for the Home Team

Please pardon the personal indulgence here, but Eduf’lack can’t help himself.  About a year ago, I made a general pledge not to write about my work on my local school board on these electronic pages.  It just didn’t seem fair to the teachers, administrators, educators, and parents in my local community on a daily basis to dissect and analyze our issues for all my readers to read.  So school board has been a relative topic non grata (with a few exceptions) over the last year.

Today is one of those exceptions.  Over the weekend, The Washington Post released its latest edition of the High School Challenge Index.  Based on the Index, Virginia’s Falls Church City Public Schools was ranked the top public school district in the greater Washington, DC area.  Our George Mason High School has named the fifth best high school in the region.  And GM also took home the honor of being the 70th best high school in the United States.  
The rankings are a reflection of the enormous investment Falls Church has placed in both International Baccalaureate (IB ) and Advanced Placement (AP).  And the results are showing themselves in other ways.  Earlier this academic year, the Commonwealth of Virginia honored GM for having one of the highest high school graduation rates in the state — 97 percent.  And our average SAT scores were 1795, nearly 300 points higher than both the Virginia (1521) and national (1509) averages.
And we do it all as our sports teams won six state titles during the last school year, our teachers receive national and international recognition, and our students demonstrate the highest levels of excellence in everything from robotics to the theater.
All this doesn’t happen by accident.  We reap the value of IB in our high schools because we invest in the IB program in our elementary and middle schools.  We promise a world-class education for all students, and back that up by committing to pre-school programs that target our ESOL populations to begin equipping them with the skills they will need to succeed in elementary school and beyond.  And we continue to support a school district that is both student- and educator-centric, where parents and our employees have the opportunity to participate in the decisionmaking process and help shape our budget and our policies.
This past budget cycle, we were faced with many of same issues most school districts are facing these days.  How do we effectively invest in e-learning and other instructional opportunities for all our students?  How do we fairly compensate all our educators, particularly after recent years of frozen salaries?  How do we address our physical plant, particularly our needs to expand our school buildings in the face of growing student populations?  And how do we do it all in a way that is respectful to both our educational mission and the local taxpayers who need to fund it?
Somehow, we’ve done it.  Public-private partnerships to fund e-learning.  Step increase for our teachers.  Groundbreaking next month for expansion on one of our elementary schools.  And all done without asking taxpayers for a dime more than we asked for last budget year.
The DC area has some terrific schools, particularly in Northern Virginia.  Falls Church’s rankings in the annual Challenge Index are a testament to the terrific job our educators, our parents, our students, and our community does, day in and day out.  Education is priority number one (or at least 1-A) in Falls Church.  The true reward is virtually all of our students graduate from high school, and they graduate with a top-notch public education, an education that prepares them for college, the military, or work.  Kudos from Jay Mathews and WaPo are just the icing on the cake.
Congratulations to the entire Falls Church City Public Schools team!  You do a terrific job, and it shows in both the data points and the students themselves.  We have much to be proud of in Falls Church.  I, for one, am honored to serve as an elected official in a community that recognizes the importance of a strong K-12 education system, that invests in its schools and its kids, and that regularly demonstrates true return on investment.
Go Mustangs!  Go Huskies!  Go Tigers!  Go Hippos!  Eduflack is proud to be part of the FCCPS family, today and every day.

At the Movies!

Pop the corn, fill the barrel of soda, and get ready for the next round of the “great education movie.”  Last fall, we were all about Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere.  And while Superman is trying to figure out ways to re-inject itself into the discussion, there are a few new motion pictures that add some real context to the discussion of the 21st century classroom.

The first is “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System.”  From the same folks who brought us Two Million Minutes, Finland Phenomenon tries to look at why we are so fascinated with the educating happening in Northern Europe.  If we look at the most recent PISA scores (released at the end of 2010), Finland places third in the world, overall, when looking at reading, math, and science scores.  Only Shanghai-China and Korea do better.  Through interviews with students, teachers, parents, and government officials, Finland Phenomenon provides some interesting insight into the educational system for a country that most Americans could never find on a map.  While it may not be as clear to see how the lessons learned in Finland can be applied here in the United States (that is a common concern, when we talk about how great nations like Korea, Finland, Singapore, and the like are; after all Singapore is basically the size of Kentucky), it does demonstrate what a national commitment to excellence in the classroom can look like.
The second is American Teacher, a new movie produced by The Teacher Salary Project.  Narrated by Matt Damon, American Teacher made its West Coast preview earlier this month, and hits Washington, DC next week and New York City right after that.  The movie provides an interesting look at the teaching profession, particularly with regard to working conditions and salaries.  Looking through the eyes of real teachers and their real lives, American Teacher is almost the “other side” of Superman; for each of those parents wanting good schools for their kids there are good teachers wanting the same for all kids.  And The Teacher Salary Project has definitely learned from the Superman phenomenon, building outreach activities, advocacy, and community engagement around the film and its future screenings.
No, they are not Thor, the new Pirates of the Caribbean, or even the sequel to The Hangover.  But movies like The Finland Phenomenon and American Teacher are designed to force us to think a little more, a little deeper, and a little differently about education in the United States.  Ultimately, it isn’t just about reform, it is about improvement.  These two movies show two lines of thinking that need to be factored into the discussion.

Pencils, Bubble Sheets, and Erasures

After yet another investigation into alleged cheating on DC Public Schools’ student achievement tests, DCPS officials yesterday announced that they were tossing out the standardized test scores for three classrooms.  If one reads between the lines, it appears that the current action was based on allegations that someone altered the beloved bubble tests after the students took the exam.

This follows on the heels of similar allegations in Atlanta last year, which forced the resignation of long-time Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall.  And, of course, this isn’t the first time that DCPS has investigated alleged altering of the bubble sheets on its exams.  The same charges were levied just a few years ago.
For the past few years, we have heard EdSec Arne Duncan rail against the dreaded “bubble test.”  And while the good EdSec may be taking issue with such exams for a very different reason, he is correct.  The days of No.2 pencils and scanned bubble sheets should be over. 
With a growing chorus of opposition to bubble tests, with allegations of cheating on said tests on the rise, and with those pencil-and-scan sheet exams viewed as a general enemy to the educational process, it begs some essential questions.  Why aren’t we testing through other means?  In our 21st century learning environment, why do we still use 19th century testing approaches?  Can we build a better testing mousetrap?
Those first two questions are typically answered with the usual responses.  Change is more difficult than the status quo.  We fear the new.  If it isn’t truly broken, why try to fix it?  It costs too much, either in dollars or in stakeholder chits.  We don’t know enough yet (maybe we can form a committee to explore).  It just isn’t a high enough priority.
As for the last question, though, we have already built a better mousetrap.  A few states have begun using online adaptive testing, demonstrating promising practice (on its way to best practice).  The gold standard, at this point, is Oregon’s OAKS Online, or the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.  Following on its heels are similar online adaptive assessment systems in Hawaii and Delaware.  And with a $176 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (led by the State of Washington) is looking to develop a similar assessment framework to measure the K-12 Common Core State Standards.
Why these new systems?  To the point, they seem to assess student achievement and learning faster and better than ye olde bubble sheets, at a lower cost to the states.  From a practical point of view, they hopefully bring testing up to speed with instruction and learning.  If we are serious about a 21st century education for all, it only makes sense that we would couple that with 21st century assessment.  And that just isn’t done with a stick of wood and some graphite.
So in looking at alleged issues in DC, Atlanta, and elsewhere, the last questions we should be asking is how to avoid erasures on tests or the best way to detect systematic changes on bubble sheets.  Instead, we should be asking why we aren’t using a more effective testing system in the first place, a system that better aligns with both where we are headed on instruction and how today’s — and tomorrow’s — students actually learn?
* Full disclosure — Eduflack does work related to the assessment efforts in Oregon, Hawaii, and Delaware.         

A Few Good State Ed Chiefs

On Tuesday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal announced that Paul Pastorek would be stepping down as the Pelican State’s education commissioner, taking a corporate job with EADS North America.  The announcement was a big blow for Louisiana, which has done some interesting things under Pastorek, and could be an even bigger blow for the start-up Chiefs for Change, which has now lost two of its founding members.  Guess they needed to be clearer that the “change” wasn’t from the education chief job itself.

The other departing chief, of course, is Eric Smith, who will vacate the top position in Florida in a month.  And as the St. Petersburg Times details, there doesn’t seem to be a wish list of candidates for the Sunshine State yet.  Some are so desperate for names, that the Times even asked dear ol’ Eduflack to opine on who could make Florida Gov. Scott’s short list.
Undoubtedly, other states may soon be adding their names to the search list.  Louisiana or Florida could fill their jobs with a sitting state supe in another jurisdiction.  The new crop of governors, approaching six months in office, may have new ideas about where they want to go in education.  And some state supes may look to jump for a corporate job, a potential federal job, or even to get mixed up in a presidential campaign or two.
The challenge in identifying a good state education chief is knowing what to look for.  There is no textbook model to follow.  Some states go the practitioner route.  Some go the political route.  Some go the policy route.  And some others may look for that darkhorse business/lawyer/attack dog type.  It all depends on the governor’s style, the governor’s interest in the issue, and the role of education in a given state.
So after much reflection and careful consideration (essentially a few moments on a too-long redeye flight back from Los Angeles), I have humbly decided to make myself available for governors in need.  Why not Eduflack for state superintendent?  I offer the following:
* Political acumen — Having served as a senior aide to members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House, and as an advisor to multiple presidential administrations and countless governors, I know how the game is played.  I know how to build relationships with the legislature and with the governor’s office.  I know how to bring value to the administration and avoid “stepping in it.”  And, most importantly, I know how to give the governor the credit, while I do the dirty work.  I even pledge to join both CCSSO and Chiefs for Change.  Added bonus, I’m already an elected official in a state with hundreds of years experience turning out terrific public servants.  And you already get to call me “the Honorable.”
* Experience with multiple camps — I’ve successfully worked with both the “status quo” and the “ed reform” crowds.  I have friends on both teams.  I can play well with the unions, while advocating for meaningful reforms.  I can focus on innovations, without turning over the keys to both sides.  I can be an honest broker, one who understands all the players in the game and maximizes their involvement in future state education activities.  Depending on how you look at it, I can either get buy-in from all, or have the trust of none.
* Content knowledge — While I have never personally been a classroom teacher, I do know a thing or two about content.  Reading instruction.  STEM.  Ed tech.  Educator quality.  High school reform.  I have real experience working in all those areas, with specific experience in developing and delivering state-level K-12 education programs.  And for those concerned with the teacher thing, I have worked as an elementary basketball coach.  That has to be worth something, right?
* The power nexus — Perhaps most importantly, I naturally work from that all important education power nexus, where research, policy, and communications meet.  I know more about education research than the average bear.  I certainly know how to translate that research and related practice into meaningful policies (and to know the difference when squishy or meaningless policies are offered in its stead).  And if I don’t know how to successfully communicate it all to key stakeholders, I certainly have a lot of explaining to do regarding the past dozen or so years of my life. 
There you have it.  Eduflack as your next chief state school officer.  Think about it, is it really any worse than some of the other names that may be floated around?  I look good on paper and give a great press conference.  I’m new and fresh (I’ll try to watch the language, though), without too much of a track record (save for this troublesome blog).  I’m not afraid to speak my mind, but I can also toe the company line.  I just might be on to something …