President's Corner

Good News To Share With Gusto

by John R. Lawrence, president, AASA

How often have you heard a colleague utter a line similar to this: “You know, we need to tell more positive stories about America’s public schools, to tell people about the great things that occur in local schools every day!”

It’s not surprising that we make these soul-bearing pronouncements because educators are an introspective lot. What’s surprising is that despite recognizing the need to better market our performance, we can’t seem to do so in a sustaining way.

The unfortunate effect of our historic humility is that the adversaries of America’s public schools, lingering in small-town coffee shops and urban-based Starbucks, daily criticize our nation’s great institution.

Even though educators have lacked a synergy in marketing our product, public education remains alive and well. What’s more, we have a cedar chest of sound bites to share for as the cliché goes, “If it’s true, it ain’t braggin’!”

Pardon me for departing briefly from our profession’s “kinder and gentler” side. It’s past time for a little chest beating and a Tarzan-like yell. So here goes with the factual support compiled by, of all places, the U.S. Department of Education. Relying on the department’s current and statistically valid data, we can make the following honest claims about American public education:

  • Fewer students are dropping out of school;
  • Student mathematics and science achievement is improving;
  • SAT scores increased during the 1990s, and ACT test scores are up;
  • Students are taking more AP exams;
  • School crime is declining;
  • Public school teachers are better educated than private school teachers; and
  • U.S. students receive more instructional time than European students.

Perhaps most remarkable of all is that our nation has accomplished these things with a diverse student population, a strong tradition of local control and enormous variation among states and districts in their populations, policies and practices.

I am asking you to share the good news stories with your staff members, community patrons and most importantly your local media outlets. AASA focus groups have determined firmly that local newspapers are the most trusted source of information parents use for shaping their perceptions about our schools. “Dateline NBC,” “20/20” and “60 Minutes” may be viewed by millions but, in the sea of public opinion over public education, they pale in weight to the persuasiveness of the Lincoln County Journal in my home community or the similar news vehicle in your town.

There is a myriad of other great stories to be told, many known only to you. For additional research on the national picture, I encourage you to visit the Educational Research Service website (www.ers.org).

While I am tempted to close by reciting time-worn phrases (“The best defense is a good offense”; “If you don’t speak up for yourself, no one else will”), I’ll suggest instead the heart of our message is not something based on sound bites. Public education truly is a cherished profession where magic moments occur daily. Walk down the hall in any one of America’s 15,000 school systems to re-energize yourself by listening to a 1st-grader read--not because we have to, but because we want to. We are blessed to be a part of it and it’s our responsibility to share the story.

John Lawrence is president of AASA.