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?


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.


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!