Guest Column

Race to the Top, NCLB and Why My Mom Doesn’t Care

by JOSEPH F. DONOVAN

I live in a bubble and, if you are anything like me, you do, too. As education professionals, our world is filled with the challenges of complex policy issues, new best practices in curriculum, instruction and technology use, and an array of acronyms that color our conversations.

We have advanced degrees and years of experience working with these issues, and we have a commensurate level of familiarity with them. And so do other people — our colleagues mainly — who also exist in our bubbles.

Inside the bubble, we toss around ideas, jargon and educational solutions. Inside the bubble, we wax eloquently about such nuanced policy issues as the supplemental services provision of the No Child Left Behind Act or what Race to the Top will mean for our longitudinal data systems.

The problem is that my mom doesn’t care.

Lacking Engagement
My 74-year-old mother, like most members of the public, is interested in education. She sees it as the critical determinant of her children’s and grandchildren’s happiness in life and success in the workplace. She reads two newspapers a day, watches the nightly news and is on top of current events. While interested in public schooling, she certainly is not in the bubble.

And therein lies a problem.

As educational professionals, we too often do an inadequate job communicating with my mom. And if community engagement is on the positive side of the communications continuum, we do a poor job of engaging my mom in the challenges and opportunities of our schools.

My mom and others like her are important stakeholders for our public schools. But many school districts I work with as a communications consultant have upward of 80 percent of their community members with little or no connection to the schools. A substantial part of that group is seniors.

Perhaps this lack of involvement is because when it comes to communicating to anyone outside our bubble, we tend to make one of two critical mistakes. First, we tend to use the same language and methods of communication that we would use inside the bubble.

My mother is bright and patient, but she is not going to read a white paper or journal article. No way, no how. And like others, my mother knows the No Child Left Behind Act by name, but does not know what it means for our schools. Similarly, IDEA and Race to the Top are just more noise in the already-noisy education echo chamber.

Underestimating Knowledge
The second mistake too often made by education professionals is to assume community members know nothing about education. This is worse because it seems to community members that either you are hiding something from them or, just as bad, suggesting they are not smart enough to understand.

After leading focus groups and conducting surveys over the years, I can tell you that while community members often do not understand specific pieces of educational policy, they do understand educational concepts. My research consistently suggests that community members want to make sure students have the knowledge and skills necessary for success in an increasingly competitive work life. You and I call that “21st-century skills.” They call that a good education.

The key then is to find common ground where you can communicate with community members about education in a way that allows them to engage more deeply in the conversation.

Bubbling Outside
Here are four criteria for communicating outside the bubble:

•  Don’t use acronyms outside the bubble. Never, ever. Instead, provide an explanation in the simplest possible terms. Just like a good doctor, take the time to explain the issue in a way that everyone can understand.

•  Treat community members as bright and thoughtful people. I don’t understand my car’s fuel injection system, not because I’m not smart enough to understand but because I simply don’t care to learn. My mechanic understands this.

•  Don’t overwhelm community members with too much information. However, you should allow them the opportunity to ask questions or get more information if they want it.

•  Make your point and move on. Don’t make the mistake of debating the obvious. Communicating with the public is not a graduate school seminar.

When you do find yourself outside the bubble and using acronyms like LEA, IDEA, AYP or SIP, remember these three letters: MOM.

Joe Donovan is president of the Donovan Group LLC in Milwaukee, Wis. E-mail: joe.donovan@donovan-group.com.