Winning Advocacy

How to take charge of communicating before the media define your schools as failing by Adam Kernan-Schloss

The newspaper headlines from around the country in recent months document what might be a superintendent’s worst communications nightmare: “131 Stay on Md. List of Failing Schools” (The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore, Md.); “Parents Opt Not to Move Children: Failing Schools Keep Numbers” (The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.); “Most Schools Face Failing Grade” (The Greenville News, Greenville, S.C.); and “Students Leave Failing Schools” (Chronicle-Tribune, Marion, Ind.).

Especially troublesome is when the “F” word is applied to schools that traditionally have served the majority of its students very well. Consider Tuckahoe Elementary School outside Richmond, Va., which was a 1996 Blue Ribbon School of Excellence with test scores among the best in the state. Last year it was labeled a failure under the federal accountability system because it tested only 94 percent of its students, one point short of the federal requirement. Meanwhile, hundreds of schools in Florida that were praised as A+ schools according to traditional state measures one month were declared weeks later as “needing improvement” by the new modified rating system imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

It’s easy to sympathize with superintendents like Carlton Lawrence of the Hamburg School District in southeast Arkansas, who says: “No Child Left Behind gives no play to the idea that different districts with different student populations exist in different circumstances. They just identify everybody like we all started at the same place and had the same circumstances to deal with when really the challenges are as different as night and day.”

As measured by the number of published articles in U.S. newspapers and wire services in the Nexis database, references to “adequate yearly progress”--the key benchmark for school performance under NCLB--nearly quadrupled between December 2002 and December 2003. State and local news outlets have devoted significant space to their state announcements of schools on the “needs improvement” list and those that have not made adequate yearly progress.

As the news coverage of school progress under NCLB multiplied, so has the prevalence of the “failing” label. Failure is still the predominant term used to describe the schools on NCLB’s needs improvement list. In fact, use of the term “failing” to describe schools increased nearly threefold over the previous year. The all-or-nothing label makes it easy to miss distinctions among schools, lumping schools that are serving most students well with schools that are chronically low-performing.

Demonstrate Progress
So faced with the tendency of the news media to oversimplify a complex picture of school performance, what is an overworked superintendent to do?

Based on our work with numerous state education agencies and school districts around the country, we offer 11 recommendations for taking charge of how you educate your communities about the performance of your schools. Many education leaders suggest that the future of public education is at stake.

From our perspective, the best way to preserve and strengthen public education is to make demonstrable, regular progress in providing all students with at least the basics in reading, writing and math--and then be able to communicate that progress to those who actually own your local schools: parents, voters and taxpayers. The increased attention to school performance offers an unprecedented opportunity for school leaders to make your case and to build the community support you will need to achieve your goals. You have the public’s attention.

Be pro-active. Spend as much time as possible playing offense, not just hunkering down into a defensive posture. That means, above all, developing in advance a strategic plan for communicating with key stakeholders in your community about school performance. Address these six questions:

› What do you want people to do (actions, from having your principals communicate with parents or your parents writing to Congress)?

› Who needs to know and be involved (which audiences)?

› What do they need to know (messages)?

› How should they be informed and involved (messengers/mechanisms)?

› When should they know (timetable)?

› Who will do the work (responsibilities)?

Take advantage of multiple teachable moments. Help parents and community members understand how their schools are doing--and how they can help. For example, when releasing lists of schools that need improvement, put the spotlight on your efforts to provide extra learning opportunities for students.

Conduct several background briefings for parents, community members, business leaders and other interested groups to show how taking a closer look at performance data is now allowing teachers to address learning challenges that may have been obscured before. And create Take-the-Test events to help community members better understand your state’s more challenging standards and tests.

Alternative Reports
Share a complete picture of performance. Develop and distribute as widely as possible your own report cards that give a more thorough look at school performance than the pass/fail ratings under No Child Left Behind. True, districts now must publish and disseminate annual reports on each school that highlight the reading and math scores of each subgroup of students, the qualifications of teachers and a few related indicators such as attendance and graduation rates.

But nothing precludes school districts from supplementing this federally mandated data with additional information: awards received by students and staff; status of the new afterschool program; or information on the expanded array of extracurricular activities.

In Kansas City, the Partnership for Children is disseminating a model report that provides clear graphics, short explanations about what the data mean, advice for how parents can constructively use the reports and an opportunity for principals to describe successes (www.pfc.org).

Work closely with your local media to cultivate good relationships. Let them know when you read a good story and when you think coverage has been misleading. If you’re lucky and live in places such as Iowa, Minnesota or North Carolina, your state department of education will have provided useful tools to assist you with local media outreach.

Develop tools that put AYP performance in context. In Minnesota, local newspaper reporters and newspaper readers could see at a glance that the vast majority of schools on the “needs improvement” list missed making AYP because of the performance of only one or two student groups, usually special education students and students still learning to speak English.

Moreover, many of the schools fell short of the federal benchmarks not because of low reading and math scores but because schools failed to test 95 percent of their students. Arguably, putting in place practices to ensure that students show up on testing day is a more solvable challenge than teaching kids to read.

Recognize Success
Celebrate when appropriate. This includes any academic successes and interventions that schools are applying in response to information gleaned from the new data. Many newspapers used the announcement of the “needs improvement” list as an opportunity to focus on struggling schools or those that have had turnaround success, highlighting the special challenges each school faces. For example, when the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., covered adequate yearly progress of local schools, one of the stories profiled Balfour Elementary, the largest and most diverse inner-city elementary school in its district, with a particularly fast-growing Spanish-speaking population. The principal credited better teamwork, teachers’ willingness to modify their instructional approaches and increased parent and community outreach as keys to the school’s success.

In some cases, newspapers have profiled schools that did not make AYP, but made significant gains nonetheless. The Seattle Times examined Sultan Middle School, showing how new levels of teacher teamwork, combined with instructional innovations such as having students read in every class, including physical education, helped improve literacy.

Stick to messages that resonate with your community. Consider using the following four messages as your starting point:

› Helping all students get to grade-level in at least reading and math is the right thing to do. (There is overwhelmingly strong public support for this goal.)

› Helping all children learn more is doable. We have plenty of examples of high-poverty schools that are serving all children. (Being pro-active assumes communicating hope--the can-do attitude that makes America great.)

› This will not be easy. (Temper hope with realism.)

› It will take all of us, and here is what we as school leaders are doing. (Enlist the support of your community while clarifying how your schools are using performance data to strengthen curriculum and instruction.)

Build a chorus of key communicators. Instead of relying solely on your media to be your primary messenger, start with teachers and other school staff, who are regularly deemed by parents and voters as the most credible source of local school information--far more so than state officials, school boards or the press. The business community can be helpful, too. The one-pager flier by the national Business Roundtable (see related story) can be shared widely with local media and citizens. It urges journalists to use more accurate labels and headlines when describing schools that need improvement.

Upbeat Edge
Stay positive. Consider the following two quotations. A Connecticut school leader observed after the passage of NCLB: “Requiring every group of students in every school to be proficient within 12 years is like asking every kid to jump the Grand Canyon.” Compare this to the remark by a North Carolina superintendent: “Yes, parents may have the greatest impact on how their children come to us. But we have the greatest impact on how they leave us.”

Now, assume you’re a parent, voter or student. Who would you rather have in charge of educating your community’s children?

If you must address some of the unintended consequences of the law, stay balanced. A letter from Cherry Hill, N.J., Superintendent Morton Sherman to the Philadelphia Inquirer is instructive. He wrote: "How can a U.S. Department of Education 'blue ribbon school' and a school that earned the state Department of Education's best practices award be told they're falling short when their SAT scores exceed state and national averages, their dropout rates approach zero and 90 to 95 percent of their graduates go to college?"

But then he added: "The good thing about No Child Left Behind is ... it has forced districts to make a strong commitment to improving education."

A corollary to this suggestion: Don’t overreact to unfriendly headlines or articles. Instead, recall the wisdom of Mark Twain, who observed that bad news travels halfway around the world before good news even gets its shoes on.

Be truthful and pro-active. When communicating with parents about choice, supplemental service options and teacher quality, don’t drag your heels in these notifications or write in impossible-to-understand legalese. You and your staff do no favors in building trust among parents by doing so.

Many state departments of education and districts have posted sample letters on their websites that individual schools can customize and send to parents. Check out the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s sample addressing AYP status and school choice options (www.pde.state.pa.us/pas/cwp/). A few Colorado trade associations have developed a useful toolkit for communicating about AYP, including sample letters to parents about teachers who have not met NCLB’s “highly qualified” standard (www.casb.org).

Think long term. The goal of educating all children to higher standards is here to stay. Yes, after this year’s presidential elections, Congress may well modify some of the law’s particulars. But elected officials are not going to compromise on the underlying purpose of NCLB or on holding school leaders accountable for improved results for all groups of students.

Standards-based reform didn’t begin with George W. Bush and the Republicans. In fact, much of the early pressure came from Democratic governors from the South in the 1980s and early 1990s, including Bill Clinton and Jim Hunt. The basic standards agenda continues to enjoy strong bipartisan, broad-based political and popular support.

Early Start
For educational leaders, the communications challenge is huge. The issues are complex, confusing and impossible to explain in a 10-second sound bite. Making matters worse this past year, many districts and states seemed caught by surprise by the AYP announcements and accompanying media coverage.

The next year should be better. But don’t wait until mid-August to begin communicating about the performance of your local schools. Start now.

Adam Kernan-Schloss is president of KSA-Plus Communications, 2300 Clarendon Blvd., Suite 600, Arlington, VA 22201. E-mail: adam@ksaplus.com