Feature

Winning Advocacy

Proven techniques, supplemented by AASA polling and focus groups, for delivering public education’s message by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi and Talton Gibson


Unlike mathematical computations where there are definite answers, successful communications in public education is not an exact science. There are, however, public opinion research tools and communication strategies that can help you succeed.

At its core, all efforts in advocacy are essentially about strategic communications. Whether your target is one individual or one million people, if you are trying to persuade, then you need to understand message and strategic communications. The principles are the same regardless of the scale of the effort.

Superintendents are the leaders of the school system. Like any leader, you have put a great deal of thought and planning into your vision for the public schools under your watch. An equal amount of thought and planning should be put into communicating that plan. The greatest plans in the world do no good if they are sitting in a desk drawer. Without a strategic communications plan to advocate your vision for public schools, your plans are effectively sitting in a desk drawer.

In designing your plan, ask yourself key questions: Who is my audience? What is the best way to reach my audience? How do they get information to make decisions? Who are third parties they trust in informing those decisions?

You then need to systematically identify how you will communicate with each audience. Possible channels include the mass media (including targeted, audience-specific media), existing civic and social groups, and meetings with elected officials. Develop a specific plan tailored to each group, while retaining the same overall message.

Keep in mind that in all communications efforts, just like campaign elections, you can divide people into those who will always be with you, those who will never be convinced and those in the middle who haven’t made up their minds. Your target audience are those in the middle. Often you will be confronted most directly by those who will always oppose you and those who always will support you. Your plan should identify how you will enlist your supporters on your behalf and how you will mitigate those who oppose you. But don’t forget those who are persuadable.

Credibility First

Our purpose is to describe some proven techniques and background for winning communications about education. First we will offer key components of your message. AASA has done substantial work with polling and focus groups to provide you with tested elements of a message. While you may not have the resources to commission polling and focus groups, you can apply these tests in order to fit nationally tested research to your individual communications plan. Next we will try to identify some keys for delivering that message. Your communications plan should incorporate both.

  • Your message must be credible.
    This is not as simple as it might seem. Sometimes it is tempting to promise parents and the public the moon. But don’t. No one will believe that you have a magic wand that will fix every aspect of public education.

    You need to be sure your statements pass the “nod test.” Will your audience hear what you say and absently nod in agreement? If so, your message is credible and satisfies the test. If, however, your audience would not see your statement as being true, then you fail the nod test and need to try a new message.

Instead of promising quick solutions to huge problems, state your commitment to solving the problem in a manner similar to this: “No child should be denied access to a quality education. I want every child to get not only the basics of reading, math and science, but also to enjoy learning. I want to run the kind of system that will recognize that every child is special and where children will lean forward in their seats because school is interesting and exciting. I know we have many challenges ahead. Class sizes need to be smaller so that every child can get more personal attention. Every child should be safe in school, whether it is safe from disorderly students or unsafe buildings. These are goals we must reach and we are working hard every day to achieve them.”

  • Your message must be emotional.
    One way to make a message more relevant is to make it emotional. There is no greater way to personalize a message than to capture the heart of the audience. We should not speak in macro terms about huge numbers of people or national data. Personalizing it means talking about individual cases and the dramatic impact a policy can have or has had on select individuals.

    A professor who taught quantitative training always said the singular of “data” is “anecdote.” Keep that phrase in the back of your mind at all times. Policymakers can analyze data, but school leaders must focus on the real stories of real children. These stories tell your stakeholders that you are in touch with them on a personal level, reassure them that you have an emotional response to their needs and allow you to build a bridge between your emotions and their emotions. In the end most stakeholders vote with their heart and not their head.

    For example, in focus groups commissioned during the past year by AASA, parents talked about standardized tests. A few of their views:

    “So you've got to test them but a kid who is a great tester—a smart kid, great tester—gets the whole thing down. Then I've got another child, a bright child, not a great test taker.”

    “That's the worst thing about proficiency tests. (They) are set up by what they expect you to know for that grade rather than being set up for what is being taught at that time.”

    “Each state has their own academic schedule and some of these tests, like for instance my son has a Stanford test. …Who is Stanford? Are they familiar with the Maryland public school system and what they are teaching my child? If they say he should know C and D and Maryland is only teaching him A and B, of course he is not going to be as proficient to their standards. I think they need to test on whatever they are learning not what they think they should learn at that age but what is actually being taught at that grade level.”

    “You can teach a child a lot of stuff, but if you teach just to the exam it's like you said earlier, it's rote. You teach the exam. They pass the exam; they get the great statistics and yeah, we're doing a great job but the child really isn't learning. He is just learning (to take the test).”

  • Find the right message.
    A key foundation of winning communications is relying on public opinion research to help you understand what your stakeholders expect of you, the public schools and their government. For example, a poll done by our firm and Luntz Research for AASA dramatically demonstrates public support for Congress to pay for its unfunded mandate on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Fully 75 percent of the public believe the government should fund the program to the level authorized in the legislation passed in 1975.

    Additionally, 84 percent of Americans oppose having opportunities denied to non-disabled children because of the lack of funding. As you know, because funding of IDEA is mandatory, the shortfall in funds has typically been made up from other education funding. The shortfall has forced state and local governments to cut funding and eliminate programs for non-disabled students.

    The public will hear you when you point out that for close to three decades, Congress’ unfunded mandate has forced state and local governments to pit disabled children against non-disabled children. Parents will appreciate when you speak up and state that Congress needs to stop making school leaders choose which child gets a good education. The fact is that all children deserve a good education and this poll clearly demonstrates that Americans want Congress to honor its obligations.

    It’s up to you to point out that in 1975 Congress enacted IDEA. The program assured that all children with disabilities would receive a free, appropriate education. Under the legislation, however, Congress also was authorized to contribute up to 40 percent of the average per pupil expenditure for each special education student. In the 26 years since IDEA was enacted, Congress never has fully funded its commitment. If IDEA had been fully funded, state and local governments would have saved an estimated $311 billion. Funding for FY2002 alone was $10.5 billion short of the Congressional commitment. This means that children in your schools are shortchanged.

  • Delivering a Message

    Once you have your message, incorporate the following in your plan to deliver it:

    • Show empathy.
      As the old saying goes, sometimes it’s not how much you know that matters, it’s how much you show you care. Indeed, many times you will have all the facts needed for your communications efforts, but will get an F from your audience. After all, it is not what you say that matters, it is what the audience hears. What they really want to hear is that you understand their frustrations with public education and that you understand that they want their child to be both happy and successful in school and in life.

      Don’t make the mistake of thinking that giving a speech is the core of your communications. The public will judge you more by how much you listen than by how much you say. You must really listen to the questions and concerns of your audience. When they ask you a question, nod your head. Take notes. Let them know that you and the school system are not perfect, but that day and night you are working to make schools better so that every child can succeed. In every presentation you make, you should spend at least as much time taking questions and listening as you do on your formal talk.

    • Define your goal.
      Critical to your communications success, whether it is with parents, politicians or the public is to decide exactly what you are trying to communicate. While that sounds incredibly simple, many people get it wrong. They try to accomplish too much without understanding the interest level of their audience. The more clear and specific your goal the better.

      In any target audience, whether it is parents of children who attend public schools or public officials who fund your programs, there are relatively few genuine core committed activists who really want to know everything you have to say. Because most people have their own sphere of concerns (their individual child or re-election campaign), you have to pick your fights carefully.

      As an education leader, you are different from the rest of society. You care a lot about every aspect of the public school system. For parents, however, their concerns are much more local. They want to know, are their kids happy in school? Are they getting a head start on a successful path in life?

      Therefore, to successfully communicate an issue to the public you must have a way to get their attention, hold their interest and make the issue directly relevant to them. And you must do all this amidst a sea of other communications competing for your audience’s very limited attention.

    • Say no.
      As important as it is to define what you are trying to do is the discipline to say no to all the things that hinder your ability to accomplish that goal. It is easy to get bogged down trying to answer every individual problem. It is tempting to address every health, social, political or economic crisis that shows up at your doorstep.

      School leaders can be bleeding hearts who try to do too much. Do the public, the students and yourself a favor by saying no. Being overextended will mean you will fail in all you are trying to do. The best success comes from situations where you are fully committed—your heart, school budget and time are all in the project.

    • KISS the public.
      One of the keys to successful communications is to Keep It Simple Stupid, the KISS principle. Think about the worlds of commercial marketing and politics. “Coke is the real thing.” “Ford has a better idea.” President Bush’s “Leave No Child Behind” are real messages. Sadly, too many talks by education leaders are ridiculously long, confusing and dull.

      If you can keep your message to eight words or less, you have a chance of winning. If it takes more than eight words to communicate why your issue is important to the press, politicians or parents, then you will likely lose. Of course, you can go into greater detail about your topic, but your opening, chorus and closing must all be short, focused and simple.

      One example of a key issue is standardized tests, a core part of the No Child Left Behind Act. While standardized tests are given in every state, 20 states use standardized tests for high-stakes decisions such as graduation. Such tests have become a lightning rod of controversy in the education community and with parents.

    In a poll conducted by our firm along with Luntz Research on behalf of AASA, we found:

       

    • 63 percent of American voters do not agree that a student’s progress for one school year can be accurately summarized by a single test.

       

       

    • Only 45 percent of voters believe standardized test scores accurately reflect what children know about the subject being tested.

       

       

    • 49 percent of voters disagree with the idea that students should be kept back a grade if they fail to achieve a passing score on a statewide standardized test.

       

       

    • Looking to their own personal experience with standardized tests, only 49 percent of voters stated when they took a standardized test, the score accurately reflected what they knew about the subject being tested.

       

    Thus when you communicate about tests, you can be crystal clear. You can strongly support accountability and high standards for America’s public schools. You can state that testing should be a part of how schools measure student performance. At the same time, however, you are on safe ground when you state that educating students for success in today’s society cannot be measured by one test alone.

    Simplistic Solutions

    Just as AASA Executive Director Paul Houston has stated, you can point out that only on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” can people rise to the top by rote memorization and answers to multiple-choice questions. After all, successful education is more than memorizing facts for a multiple-choice test. Children today need critical thinking skills, creativity, perseverance and integrity—qualities not measured on a standardized test.

    American innovation and technical advances are the envy of the world, and they did not come about by accident. Our skilled leaders and hard workers come from a nation of people who are largely trained and educated in public schools.

    Registered voters and public school parents value individual talents and contributions and know “one-size-fits-all” tests that take 90 minutes do not take the full measure of a child. Many Americans know, for example, that Albert Einstein, who was dyslexic, did not perform well on tests as a child yet had one of the best minds in our history. The idea that every child should be treated the same is a profoundly un-American idea.

    You can explain you understand why states are moving to high-stakes testing. They want a silver bullet to improve public schools. However, you can explain there is no one silver bullet. America needs comprehensive reforms that include high standards, more parental involvement, safe schools, smaller class sizes, improved compensation to draw our best people to education and a curriculum that engages children in the excitement and joy of learning.

    Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi is the founder and president of Laszlo & Associates, 2020 K St., N.W., Suite 7600, Washington, DC 20006. E-mail: jlaszlo@aol.com. Talton Gibson is a senior project director with Laszlo & Associates.