PR People, Education Style

This week, PR News magazine recognized its PR People of the Year.  One of the leading communications publications in the nation, PR News seeks to honor the best of the best in the field, everything from community relations to media relations, social media to agency leader, top agency to top PR team.

It also recognizes the top 30 communications professionals under the age of 30, naming them as the “ones to watch” in the field.  (And, gulp, it was 13 years ago now that Eduflack was named to that list, back when his professional focus was on defending not-for-profit hospitals from corporate takeovers.)
As part of its PR People Awards, PR News also names the Public Affairs Professional of the Year, a recognition given annually to “a leader in political and public affairs who has successfully spearheaded advocacy initiatives and influenced policy and public opinion.”  I am honored and humbled that I am the recipient of the 2013 award.
The judges awarded me the honor, noting that “In one year as CEO of the education reform group ConnCAN, Patrick Riccards propelled the organization further than its previous seven years put together, became the voice of education reform in Connecticut and was instrumental in the passage of the most comprehensive education reform package in the state’s history.”
While I don’t know who to thank for putting me up for the award in the first place, this is definitely a shared recognition with all of those who have helped advocate for school improvement in Connecticut and all of those individuals and organizations who helped us pass such a significant reform bill in 2012.  I’m deeply proud of my work at ConnCAN, the eight years of progress the group has made since its founding, and the terrific team of which I was but a part (and equally proud of my team at Collaborative Communications Group, where we are having real impact, every day, improving learning opportunities in communities across the nation). I also remain hopeful for the impact those reforms can and should have on students across the state.
Thank you, PR News, and thank you to all of those committed to improving public education.  We are fortunate to have so many well-meaning and committed individuals and organizations focused on influencing public affairs and public opinion in the education space.  Whether one is a “reformer” or a “status quoer,” there is much good work happening, and much one can learn from colleagues, partners, and opponents.

“A Day of Action”

Yesterday, educators across the country participated in “A Day of Action,” a series of events across the country that, according to Valerie Strauss at The Washington Post, “sponsors hope will draw national attention to the problems of corporate-influenced school reform and to build a national movement to change the public education conversation and to increase funding for schools.”

We can set aside the fact that organizers were hoping to accomplish an incredible number of goals from a series of public demonstrations.  And we will forget what Eduflack has written here previously, that too many people are fighting a false battle against the “privatization” of our public schools, when no one is actually looking to flip public schools private.
And I’m even willing to save for another day the important discussion on school funding.  Yes, I agree wholeheartedly that we need to look at our funding models for our public schools, ensuring that all schools are equitably funded.  But we also must look at how we are spending those dollars, and admit that our priorities are off when some of our lowest-performing schools are also those with some of the highest per-pupil expenditures in the nation.
Instead, today Eduflack turns your attention to the guiding “principles” behind “A Day of Action.”  Organizers are absolutely right in needing a call to action, a basis that all participants can latch on to and believe in.  So for this week’s festivities, seven principles were offered in an effort to “reclaim the promise of public education.”
They include:
* Public schools are public institutions.
* Our voices matter.
* Strong public schools create strong communities.
* Assessments should be used to improve instruction.
* Quality teaching must be delivered by committed, respected and supported educators.
* Schools must be welcoming and respectful places for all.
* Our schools must be fully funded for success and equity.
All noble goals.  All well meaning.  And all principles that EVERYONE should be able to get behind.  I recognize the importance of trying to win over hearts and minds.  But these same principles (maybe with an edit to the final one) are principles that any education reformer worth his or her salt could get behind.  
Just think of the following:
* Public schools, including our public charter schools, are public institutions.
* Our voices (not just those of the unions or veteran educators) matter.
* Strong public schools create strong communities.  Just ask those whose lives and neighborhoods have been transformed by an institution like Democracy Prep.
* Assessments should be used to improve instruction, with test scores utilized to ensure our schools, our teachers, and our students are achieving. 
* Quality teaching must be delivered by committed, respected and supported educators. It isn’t what ed school you attended or that you received the proper pedagogy in your prep, it is about what you do in the classroom.
* Schools must be welcoming and respectful places for all.  That includes parents and community members who seek improvement or choice.
* Our schools must be fully funded for success and equity.  That begins by ensuring all public schools, including charters, in the same city are spending the same per pupil.
There is no question we are in need of a day, a week, a month, a year of action to improve our public schools.  And while I still maintain that sides agree on far more than they disagree when it comes to school improvement, can’t we have a real, respectful conversation about the areas of disagreement instead of trying to “own” some basic platitudes on which we all should agree?

PISA and CCSS

On the latest installment of BAM Education Radio’s Common Core radio program, we take a look at last week’s PISA scores release and their implications for CCSS implementation across the country.

Joining us for this important discussion are the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Bob Wise and Achieve’s Doug Sovde.  Be prepared for an interesting dialogue, with a little heat from one parent who believes the PISA scores are great and CCSS is the problem.
This is the second episode of this new program, that yours truly is thrilled to be hosting with educator Darren Burris.  Be sure to give it a listen!

“Take Me or Leave Me”

It looks like we won’t “Light My Candle” in Trumbull, Connecticut.  Last week, the principal at Trumbull High School canceled the school’s Thespian Society’s plans to perform the musical Rent.  Principal Marc Guarino has the final say in such decisions, so spiked the students’ decision to put on the award-winning musical.

The reason was content.  Guess some see the topics of AIDS and drug use as being controversial.  And it is, if this were the 1990s.  Let’s not forget that the students were performing the “school edition” of the musical, one that has been done at high schools across the country.
Trumbull High’s students put together a peaceful resistance to the decision.  They organized.  They collected a petition with more than 1,500 signatures on it.  They took it to the board of education.  Ultimately, the board backed the principal’s decision, saying it was on him.
It made its way to Trumbull’s “first selectman,” the Connecticut equivalent of a mayor.  The selectmen punted as well.  But they offered that this kids could look to do it as part of a youth community theater effort in the summer.  Since the schools had no control over such productions, it seemed like a “safe” option in the face of growing community concern for the censorship.  Unfortunately, no one checked with the youth group, who now says it won’t quite work for them either (and would have excluded a number of the intended castmates).
Why is all this important?  First, we should all see the importance of the arts in high school, particularly if it engenders the interest and support that this intended production has generated.  Second, we should applaud these kids for looking to take on such a challenging musical, and for recognizing the significance of such a performance.  Third, we should be proud that these kids refused to roll over and fought for what they believed in and what was important to them.  And finally, we should again be disappointed in the reaction of the adults in the process.
As someone who did high school theater many moons ago, I can say it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my K-12 career.  I thoroughly enjoyed being on stage, being part of a cast that was really a family, and putting all the hard work into the process.
As a school board member, one of my proudest moments was seeing our high school put on a performance of Les Miserables.  It was a terrific show, a favorite of mine, and the quality rivaled a professional production.
We should be doing more to encourage students to pursue their interests and get involved.  Again, this was the school version of Rent.  And this was Connecticut, hardly an area that lacks some progressive thinking.
Kudos to the kids for sticking to their objectives and having their voices heard.  But sorry that we have to face this sort of censorship and objections at the end of 2013.

Mandela

In 1990, I had the honor and privilege to be at Spelman College as the nation’s historically black colleges and universities came together to honor Nelson Mandela.  Mandela had just been released from prison.  HBCU after HBCU presented him with honorary degrees, both in recognition for his sacrifice and for the hope and promise he was now to bring to his country and to the world.

For this high school senior from a little town in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, it was an experience I simply can’t express in words.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something that has stayed with me for nearly 25 years, and something I will never quite experience again.
So many great words have been written in the past 24 hours about Mandela and his legacy.  And they are far greater words than I can write here.  Knowing how I was impacted just seeing him that day, and seeing the way American higher education embraced him, I can only imagine the impact he had on his own nation and those who were privileged to know him, work beside him, and carry on his legacy.
Eduflack is a big fan of quotes.  So it only seems appropriate to offer up a few of my favorites from Mandela:
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
“Lead from the back – and let others believe they are in front.”
“Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.”

Some CCSS Civility?

Just about everywhere, it seems discussions on the Common Core State Standards (particularly their implementation and assessment) are fairly nasty.  No, CCSS isn’t going anywhere (despite the wishes of some).  But instead of focusing on the implementation and how we do a better job, it seems to be all about fights and absolutes and final lines in the sand.

This week, the folks at BAM Radio Network are launching a new regular program, #CommonCore Radio. The intent is to have a civil discussion about CCSS implementation, while ensuring that both sides of the debate are included and heard.
Dear ol’ Eduflack is hosting the program, along with educator Darren Burris.  The first segment is now officially available and can be found on the BAM site.  We start the series speaking with Professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige and AFT President Randi Weingarten.  The topic?  CCSS impact on early childhood education (meaning kindergarten, first and second grades).
Weingarten and Carlsson-Paige recently penned a piece voicing opposition to CCSS assessment in the early grades.  As you can imagine, Eduflack had a bit of a different take, believing that if the issue is with the tests, rather than a moratorium, let’s just build better tests.  I also voice some concern about reopening CCSS to “adjust” how it addresses the early grades, fearing that doing so just opens the door for others to push for changes and to delay, delay, delay.
Give it a listen.  And if you have any thoughts for a future segment, shoot ’em my way.
Happy listening!

Correcting the Teacher

As my daughter was enjoying her kindergarten year, I used to cringe whenever I spent time in her classroom.  She had a caring teacher, walls full of books and other learning materials, and a relatively small class.  So why my reaction?  Each time I was in the room, my eyes were drawn to a large handwritten sign that was the focal point of the wall.  And in the middle of that sign was a significant grammatical error.

So each visit to the K classroom, I wanted to take a red pen and mark up the wall.  The eduwife’s better judgment always won out.  I left the sign alone.  And I never said anything to the teacher, not wanting to embarrass her or create an issue where one doesn’t need to be.
We all make mistakes.  I make them quite frequently (particularly on this blog, where I never read or edit anything I throw up there).  But it begs the question.  What should a parent do when he or she sees a mistake in need of correcting?  Do you call your child’s teacher on it, or do you just let it go?
Over the weekend, a high school friend shared a note that had come home in her child’s class.  The (unedited) note reads:
“We are no longer completing book essays.  Instead, we are completing weekly reader responses.  This is handed out on Mondays and are not due to the following Monday.  I have required that three entries be completed by Friday as a way to monitor their time.  All directions are located on their response log!”
The note went home to all families in the class.  It came from an English teacher.  How many errors can you spot?
So what’s a parent to do?  Do you reach out to the teacher?  Do you keep quiet?  Do you go to the principal? 
Most parents seem to opt for silence.  I’ve heard from some who worry that if they raise the issue, the teacher will take it out on the child (and while I find this hard to believe, it has been known to happen).  But is that the right thing to do, nothing?
If parents are going to work with educators, and do so in a productive and positive way, we need to find a way to have such discussions.  Or we need to be prepared to live with the consequences.

Girls, Science, and Awesomeness

For decades, we have collectively wrung our hands about how to get women (as well as minorities and low-income students) interested in science and math.  In the late 1990s, when I was first starting to work in the education space, I remember the controversy over a new Barbie doll that proclaimed “math is hard,” a sentiment that many felt would set progress back another generation.

In 2008 and 2009, I was fortunate enough to help lead the Pennsylvania STEM Initiative.  More than a decade later, one of our major charges was how to better engage women (both K-12 and higher ed) in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics areas.  We were always looking for that one big idea that would completely change the way folks thought about STEM and STEM skills.  But it was never discovered.
And now that I am a father, I look at my daughter, a precocious first grader, and wonder what I can do to make sure she gets the math and science background that virtually all students will need to succeed once she graduates from college and prepares to take on the world. 
So I was particularly tickled to see a piece on Slate today that features a new commercial for a product from a company called GoldieBlox.  Typically, I don’t like to write about companies and their products.  But the commercial offered up by GoldieBlox requires me to break my own rules and sing the praises of this terrific piece of edu-marketing.
The goal is simple (I assume).  GoldieBlox is looking to sell a tinkertoy/connex-like product to parents of young girls.  But how the did it is far from simple.  GoldieBlox made engineering cool why empowering women.  Seeing the different pieces and how they work was fun to watch, even with the computer’s sound off.
But what really made my day was the soundtrack.  The company took The Beastie Boys’ “Girls” song (as a child of the 1980s, Eduflack was particularly proud of that) and rewrote it as a power anthem for girls’ ingenuity and the necessary breaking of the pink princess stereotypes.  
Check out the commercial.  You can find it here on YouTube.  And kudos to GoldieBlox for refusing to buy into the stereotypes and making a meaningful contribution on how to make STEM cool.

The Blame Game Continues

Too often, we look for easy answers and quick fixes to our problems.  And if we can’t find those answers, we look to quickly blame someone else for the problem.  We do this because change is hard, and it often requires admitting that the world is not one of lollipops and rainbows.

We see this on a daily basis in public education.  Even in the face of recent NAEP scores and high school dropout rates, many say our schools have never been stronger than they are today.  When confronted with questions about dropout factories and college remediation rates, the response is usually to blame poverty.  If only those kids weren’t poor, all would be well in the world.
Of course, one can point to true exemplars of excellence and improvement in low-income communities across the country.  Yes, poverty is a contributing factor.  A significant one.  But it is an obstacle that needs to be overcome, not a reason for inaction.
So it is disappointing when one sees the media buy into the blame game and offer an view that is so simplistic it is often nonsensical.  That is the case of a recent piece published by In These Times, an online pub with the tagline “With Liberty and Justice For All …”
A recent piece by David Sirota, Teachers Were Never the Problem: Poverty still lies at the root of the “U.S. education crisis,” the author advocates all of the urban legends floating around, and does so with vague claims of “the research shows.”
Want some examples?  Try these on for size:
“we know that American public school students from wealthy districts generate some of the best test scores in the world. This proves that the education system’s problems are not universal–the crisis is isolated primarily in the parts of the system that operate in high poverty areas.” 

“we know that many of the high-performing public schools in America’s wealthy locales are unionized. We also know that one of the best school systems in the world—Finland’s—is fully unionized. These facts prove that teachers’ unions are not the root cause of the education problem, either.”

All of this leads to an obvious conclusion: If America was serious about fixing the troubled parts of its education system, then we would be having a fundamentally different conversation.  

We wouldn’t be talking about budget austerity—we would be talking about raising public revenues to fund special tutoring, child care, basic health programs and other so-called wrap-around services at low-income schools.”

Get the point?  No, the problems in accountability and student performance and college/career readiness are not isolated in high-poverty areas.  That thinking is part of the problem.  It makes achievement an us-versus-them scenario, one where far too many people think this is just an issue of black and brown kids living in crime-ridden cities.  Instead, the problem is everywhere, even in white suburbs.
Anyone serious about improving our schools is not saying the unions are the root cause of the problem.  Instead, the argument is that unions often stand in the way of reforms and proposed improvements, choosing to protect the system as it is.  And yes, most of our highest performing schools are unionized.  But most of our lowest performing schools, particularly those in those urban centers focused on in point one, are also unionized.
And the obvious conclusion?  Most would agree that we need to focus on how to fund tutoring and interventions and health and wrap arounds.  Yes, all are important to overall learning environment and the community as a whole.  But austerity is also an issue.  We have never spent more per pupil on public education than we do today.  And some of our lowest-performing schools reside in communities with some of the highest per-pupil expenditures in the nation.  This shouldn’t be just an either or.  Instead, we should be looking at ways to expand how we support our kids, but do so by making sure that our education dollars are well spent and are having the impact on students and student learning that we all seek.
It isn’t enough to just say “social science research over the last few decades has shown” to make a general point about a topic where there is plenty of high-quality research to prove the opposite side.  And it certainly isn’t enough to offer up crass generalizations just to knock them down with questionable “social science research.”
I’m growing tired of this soapbox, folks.  We need to engage in more responsible dialogues about our public schools and where we need to take them.  Let’s stop playing to the lowest common denominator and have some real conversations where we all give a little to get further.  Please?

Vitriol on Both Sides

Last week, the good folks over at Politico Education Pro wrote an interesting piece on the discourse in the current public education debates.  Written under the header, Name-calling turns nasty in education world, the article by Stephanie Simon rehashed some of the name calling we’ve seen in the name of education and education reform recently.

There is no question that the rhetoric has gotten extremely ugly.  Simon highlights just a few examples, and even those examples don’t truly illustrate the level of vitriol out there, particularly when there are specific legislative fights or policy changes in process.
The issue, though, is not whether there is harsh rhetoric flying around the education corral these days.  We all know there is.  The issue is whether we accept the reality and acknowledge when things get out of hand.
As the former CEO of an education reform group, I’ll be the first to say there were things I said in the heat of the moment that I now wish I hadn’t.  The passion of the fight does that to one.  And while I am enormously proud of what we accomplished, and knew that the rhetoric I used was necessary in the moment, in reflection I wish I had chosen different words or framed things a little differently.  Doing so would have made the implementation of those reforms easier, pitching a larger tent, and would have reduced some of the extreme tension at the time.
But not everyone seems to see the issue through the same lens.  In response to the article, I engaged in a Twitter debate with one who has dogged me for years now.  His take of the article was completely different than mine.  He read the piece as an indictment of reformers and the reform movement for saying things that were completely inappropriate and offensive to educators.
When I pointed out that both sides were to blame, and both were guilty of the practice, his response was almost laughable.  Again, it was the reformers fault.  Those doing the work of angels were just speaking facts and truths. 
So I asked if he even read the article.  The parts about Diane Ravitch and her hateful words toward Parent Revolution (just one example the author could have used about Ravitch).  Or the truly hateful speech that came out of the mouth of Florida teacher Ceresta Smith that was directed specifically at Michelle Rhee.
His response?  They had to say those things.  It was the only way to respond to the reformers because they wouldn’t accept the facts and the realities.
And this is the great disconnect in the current education communications landscape.  There is no dialogue.  There is no discussion.  Instead, we are engaged in mutually assured destruction.  In an effort to control the headlines, get the blog posts, and gain the Klout scores, we say outrageous things in an effort to gain attention.  We try to position ourselves as the “smartest person in the room,” the only person with the facts and figures and data to win the argument.  We refuse to listen, and just think at the next retort or the next attack.
At the end of the day, those engaged on both sides of the education reform struggle, the “corporate reformers” and the “defenders of the status quo” agree on far more than they disagree.  So instead of the name calling and the mutually assured destruction, is there any hope for collaboration and some real, meaningful progress?  
Anyone?  Anyone?