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October 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 2

Talking to the Public About Public Schools

Educators must make communications a priority if they are to gain public support. Here are some practical ways of forging better links between school leaders and the community.

It has become a cliché to say that these are precarious times for public schools. It is also a reality.
On the one hand, improving schools is the public's top priority. On the other, significant numbers of U.S. citizens are giving up on public schools. More people are now willing to say "yes" to alternatives that include public vouchers for private and parochial schools, untested charter schools, and public schools operated by private firms.
The sad irony is that by many measures, U.S. public schools may be doing better than ever in educating more students at higher levels. But the world has changed, and schools are not doing well enough. The public grasps that. So do policymakers and many education leaders, which is why we have substantial, perhaps overwhelming, waves of reform efforts, and why education issues have been so visible in this year's election campaigns.

Practicing Public Engagement

In nearly every state and in many school districts, we see an emphasis on higher academic standards and more accountability. Schools are being asked—or forced, in some places—to completely restructure themselves under the banner of whole-school change.
Among reformers, we see a desire to practice something called "public engagement," which tends to focus heavily on deeper community conversations around public schools, particularly on the value those institutions have for our democratic traditions, and on the quest for involving ever more citizens in the work of schools.
As parents and citizens as well as communicators, we certainly support these kinds of public engagement efforts. But we don't believe they are sufficiently practical—at least not for school leaders who are trying to change schools significantly to raise student achievement. Most education leaders need more immediate solutions for building and sustaining public support while these deeper conversations take root. They do not feel they have the time to attend yet another public discussion about the purposes of public schools.
We believe that the right measure of successful public engagement is not how many community members come out to public meetings, but rather how well the schools connect their work to the priorities of the community. It is more important to listen well than to listen to everybody.
Indeed, several years of working with education clients, particularly forward-looking school districts, have solidified our belief in the power of strategic listening. Every community is unique. But practical public engagement steps apply everywhere. What follows are four lessons that allow education leaders to successfully manage, not manipulate, public expectations. We believe that people—inside and outside the district—need good information to help them understand where a school district is going and why, when it will get there, what it will see along the way, and how it is progressing.
We also believe in one overriding principle: Our version of public engagement needs to support the district's efforts to improve student achievement. If the bottom line is not increased learning, but just better packaging of more of the same, then the effort hardly deserves increased public support. And the public won't support it.

Listen First

Today's parents—and, indeed, all voters—need to see signs of success if they are to support public schools. But their ideas of success often differ from the agendas of education reformers. In many districts, the public looks first at what we call the "three b's"—books, bathrooms, and bureaucracy. People want their children to have the books they are supposed to have, they want the bathrooms in schools to be clean and safe, and they want the administrative bureaucracy to be trimmed. Districts must address these core issues before the public is ready for deeper conversations about higher standards, challenging tests, and restructured schools.
One of the most powerful ways that education leaders can engage their public is to ask this question: What would you need to see that would indicate that schools are getting better? The answer: Lots of things. Our polls and focus groups have told us that all these things—higher test scores and graduation rates, higher levels of engagement for children and their parents, improved safety, and smaller classes—could signal to the public that schools are on the right path. The public's evaluation of public school performance is not one-dimensional; people focus on far more than test scores or standards.
In a national poll, we asked 1,000 voters which of four things would tell them that schools in their area were improving. Thirty-seven percent wanted more parents personally involved in their children's education; 23 percent wanted increases in such quantitative measures as test scores and graduation rates; 19 percent wanted higher academic performance standards; and 9 percent wanted improved safety and fewer discipline problems.
At the same time, when we asked which major changes they would implement, 25 percent chose teaching students values, such as tolerance, respect, and self-discipline; 23 percent chose raising academic requirements and standards so that students must prove themselves in order to graduate or advance a grade; 23 percent chose moving beyond the basics to problem-solving skills and teamwork; and 22 percent chose requiring parents to take more active roles in the academic portion of their children's education.
Essentially, we found all four ideas equally popular. People recognize that schools need many improvements. But if we examine the results by education levels, for example, we see that college graduates are most likely to want raised standards, whereas those with only a high school diploma or less are most likely to want values taught in schools.
The key point is that the public is by no means monolithic. That point may seem obvious, but we make it because education leaders often treat the public as a single entity. They produce one set of materials for the public, and if they subdivide the public at all, they treat parents differently from other members of the community.
Education leaders do best when they understand how various parts of their many publics feel about schools. The purpose of strategic listening is not to pander to particular audiences, but to understand where to start the conversation about better schools—and then to use the information to deliver the results that different publics expect to see. The public engagement we recommend emphasizes building trust and delivering on promises.

Focus on Internal Audiences

When we started our company in 1995, we thought we would spend much of our time on external communications—helping education leaders explain proposed changes and results to parents and taxpayers. We listened to an array of potential clients tell us that their main problem was dealing with an unfriendly media or with parents who were obstructing change. But after years of conducting "communications audits" in school districts, we have consistently found that the primary communications problem is with internal audiences; the people who work for the school districts are not adequately informed to do their jobs or to be good communicators themselves. In focus groups and in conversations, teachers have told us—with considerable levels of frustration—that they get their information about their own district from the local newspaper or the rumor mill—rarely from the district itself.
That's dumb. For one thing, alienated employees do damage inside and outside schools. They are probably responsible for more defeated bond and levy votes than the most active antitax community groups. The following exercise is instructive. Visit almost any community and tell people that your family is moving into town. Ask an open-ended question about the schools. All too frequently, you will come across parents, teachers, other school staff, and real estate agents who are ready to share horror stories about the latest fights between the superintendent and the school board, about conflicting and confusing new mandates from the central office, about teachers who should have been fired years ago, or about parents who are either over-involved or not involved at all. Rarely will you hear a clear and positive message about what the schools are trying to do, with examples of success.
Moreover, failing to communicate well with internal audiences means missing an opportunity to expand the district's level of public support. Teachers are the most important communicators in almost every school district, whether they know it or not. Consider the data that we produced with the Education Commission of the States on the basis of a 1995 telephone survey of 2,700 parents in seven areas of the country (see fig. 1). When we asked parents which sources of information they relied on for information about education issues, teachers were at the top of the list.

Figure 1. Who Has Credibility with Parents about Education Issues?

Not surprisingly, school employees are pleased when the district does make the effort to communicate with them. Sometimes this is as simple as sending a letter from the superintendent explaining a new budget before the news is released to the press. Sometimes this means producing professional newsletters or brochures that focus on the reform issues that teachers care about—and sending these directly to teachers' homes. Sometimes this means connecting teachers through electronic mail, which supports a constant flow of information at low cost. Other districts offer workshops for teachers to help them become effective communicators within the community.
These are smart activities. The district can build greater levels of public support if instead of informing only the superintendent and board members, it has an informed cadre of communicators who talk positively about schools with their neighbors at supermarkets, on soccer fields, and in barber shops.

Use Effective Messages and Messengers

At times, watching education leaders try to explain their programs to nonexpert audiences is painful. Their language is often complicated, their sentences complex and hard to follow. They get to the point slowly and speak on an abstract level. Education leaders need to develop the communications discipline to produce messages that work, to explain about their schools and programs in plain language. They need to understand that less really is more—a paragraph can be more effective than a page.
Standards, for example, are "what students are expected to know and do at particular grade levels." They are not "the culmination of a dynamic mixture of developmental and discipline-based content that is connected to performance indicators and congruent opportunity-to-learn standards."
Words matter.
So do images. Education leaders do well when they understand that much of communications is emotional rather than intellectual. Engage people through stories, symbols, and pictures. One good story about a child's success and his or her teacher's high expectations is more likely to connect with audiences than a discourse on the value of world-class standards to the competitive position of the United States in the global economy of the 21st century.
People who are improving schools need to make their work more concrete and visible. Personalize the improvements. Rather than tell people about a list of standards, give examples of the test questions that might measure the standards.
People need to see what change looks like. Too much of the conversation about school improvement occurs at levels far out of sight of the classrooms and the living rooms where students, teachers, and parents work and live.
Parents particularly care about the bottom line of schools—whether children are succeeding, especially their own child. Reassurance can often be most effective if it comes from articulate students and caring teachers rather than from superintendents or board members. This is a hard lesson for superintendents and principals, who believe that their leadership is judged by their visibility. But take a blossoming student and an effective teacher to a meeting with the local newspaper or the business community, and you will see the impact.
Invite members of the Chamber of Commerce, real estate agents, ministers, and community activists to a morning breakfast at a school auditorium. Bring in a teacher and a few students to have a class on stage, perhaps a 7th grade math lesson. Make sure the audience has a chance to work the same problems that the students will solve. You can expect to hear surprise from the audience, followed by appreciation. Recently, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders went to the Boeing Company in Seattle to show business school partners how they could solve math problems without paper and pencils. A banking manager responded, "I want to hire those kids when they graduate."

Make Communications a Strategic Priority

Effective public engagement amounts to politics, public relations, marketing, communications, and organization all wrapped into one. Manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble spend up to 35 percent of their budgets on this kind of work; service companies spend about 15 percent. Our guess is that most school districts and education reform groups spend considerably less than one percent. For too many education leaders, the idea of public engagement translates into a press release. That will not produce the public support they need.
This work requires resources—people and money. Factoring in communications from the very start is crucial. Have skilled communicators at the table. Take their advice. And give them the authority to work across all departments to improve the communications skills of everyone, from curriculum specialists to school receptionists.
Most school districts have a strategic plan, presumably focused on improving student achievement. The best of these plans have specific goals and objectives, with measurable outcomes and clear lines of responsibility.
A district needs the same thing—a strategic communications plan linked explicitly to its educational goals. This puts communications in the direct service of student achievement.
  • What do you need from which segments of your public to succeed?
  • What do you want people to do? How can they support the district's efforts to improve achievement?
  • What do these people want you to do? What do they need to see from you?
The plan needs to be measurable and must include the district's key messages, a timeline of communications activities, and necessary resources.
In some ways, this is marketing, a word that makes many education leaders uncomfortable. Today, however, many educators are playing defense, under siege from many publics who expect more from schools. In this climate, in which school leaders are having to compete for students, marketing suddenly seems much more palatable.
But our overriding principle is that marketing and communications that aren't accompanied by tangible accomplishments won't get you very far. In fact, they might further alienate an already distrusting public.
The public doesn't demand miracles, just progress. In most communities, the public is ready to support education leaders who can tell them what progress they will see and when they will see it, and then report the results. Good public engagement is just that simple—and just that difficult.

Adam Kernan-Schloss has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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