From an event that featured over 9,000 NEA
members, EIA moves to a venue that has only one identifiable NEA member (and
I wonít identify her). EIA will report for the next three days from the
Marriott City Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the National School
Public Relations Association (NSPRA) is holding its annual conference,
titled "Closing the GapÖ To Build Support for Education."
No doubt you
have a few questions about NSPRA and about why I am here. First, I will
venture a guess that many of you are unaware your school districts employ
public relations officers, or that there are enough of them to have a
national organization and a conference. I assure you there are over 1,000
school district public relations officers at this event, along with some
superintendents and other school officials. Second, what goes on at this
event speaks directly to why EIA does what it does. The people here have
been hired with your tax money for the specific purpose of presenting a
positive image of the public schools to you, the public. EIA has been, and
will continue to be, criticized for disseminating an excessively negative
image of public education and teachersí unions. If you could see the lineup
of people, resources, and money behind the effort to persuade you that all
is well, you would be astonished that any negative or critical coverage
appears anywhere, at any time. Third, teachers are "the point of the spear"
when it comes to education, so it is reasonable to spend the most time
examining them and their unions. But EIA has reported that only 52 percent
of public education employees nationwide are classroom teachers. Itís time
to shine a light of some of the other 48 percent.
The first thing one needs to know about school district public relations
officers is that most of them are not educators. Their backgrounds are in
journalism or public relations in the private sector. So, while they
positively spin events for the good of the districts they serve, they also
recognize that school systems have problems and quirks they have never seen
in the private sector. And, apparently, when district PR officers get
together socially, they discuss these quirks in very forthright language,
language that would appear extreme if it came from my mouth.
Indeed, the first keynote speaker, Dr. Jennifer James, author of
Thinking in the Future Tense, talked about what she felt was hurting
teacher and school quality: public educationís "cultural belief system." She
cited statistics that show high-performing students donít enter the
education field and, when they do, they donít stay. Why? When they question
why things are done a certain way, theyíre told they will get used to it, or
will accept it once they have more experience. "When those different people
come in, they are pushed out," she said. Dr. James told the crowd that
public schools need to tell a new story that conforms with reality and
represents the future. The lack of respect felt by teachers and school
officials is directly related to their lack of believability, particularly
when they say they are preparing students for a world of increasing
sophistication and complexity. She sees the public demanding diversity,
decentralized management, alternative routes to teacher certification, more
choice, and competency testing. Dr. James called on schools to prepare for
this new world. "Otherwise," she said, "you will continue telling the story
that you yourself do not believe. And no one else will believe it either."
If Dr. James painted a dark picture, Dr. William J. Banach of Michigan
threw some black paint on it. Dr. Banach is a futurist, public relations
specialist, and former president of NSPRA. In his presentation he gave his
determination of "whatís hot" and "whatís not" in public education for 2001.
Two things that are "hot" are "fundamental uncertainty" and "fog." Two
things that are "not hot" are "relevance" and "the real world." In
describing the latter, he explained how fortunate public school employees
were to have professional development programs. He told the story of a
corporate consultant called "The Chainsaw," whose job it was to turn around
failing companies. The Chainsaw would typically arrive on Monday, come to
his usual conclusion -- "we have too many staff" -- by Wednesday, and fire
people on Friday. Improving staff performance was considered too costly.
If "fog" is what we can expect from public education in 2001, it is
likely to prove two other maxims that Dr. Banach provided to the assembly:
1) "External forces trigger most change;" and 2) "The public is the ultimate
Between them, Dr. James and Dr. Banach also offered short opinions about
the future of teachersí unions. Dr. James said that education unions will
become professional guilds as the old culture disappears. Dr. Banach also
spoke to an increasing irrelevancy for unions when he talked about the
growth of the "contingency workforce." More people will be free agents,
working for an employer on single projects, then moving on. He suggested in
the future the average job will last for six months.
When I arrived, I thought the "gap" in the title of the conference
referred to the gap between the public and the schools. Now Iím not so sure.
Because after two lectures on "tearing up the fabric of the past" and
discussions of plasma fusion, cryogenics and nanotechnology ("Is there a
School-to-Work program for cryogenics?" Banach asked rhetorically), I was
thrown back into the day-to-day world of school public relations, some of
which was downright surreal. Many of you are familiar with education jargon,
but public relations jargon might be even more responsible for the
communications gap between the public and their schools. If youíre talking
about something good in your district, you have to preface your description
with "We are excited aboutÖ" whatever it is. Then you must add a moving
story of some individual, preferably a crying mama, who was helped by your
[fill in the blank] program. If a problem arises for which you donít have a
program in place, say "Thatís still a challenge for us." If you have a
program in place, and itís not working, say "Weíre not where we want to be
on that." Nobody "spins" stories anymore. Evidently thatís old jargon. Nope,
one "tweaks" them.
Nevertheless, everyone is called upon to "think outside the box." No one
ever asks who built the box, why do we have a box, and why donít we just
tear down and throw out the box.
It soon became clear that the gap was between message and substance, or
maybe between inputs and outputs. One workshop on recruiting, retaining and
rewarding teachers held by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in
North Carolina came complete with a full package of materials and brochures
highlighting the districtís goals and accomplishments. As a recruitment
package it was beautiful, but we were halfway into the presentation before
we learned that the district loses 19 percent of its teachers overall each
year, and 32 percent of its new teachers. And the workshop was almost over
before we learned that the program has no formal evaluation process built
into it to judge its effectiveness.
The afternoon sessions I attended were called "Using the Media to Reverse
Negative Perceptions" and "Beyond the Mediaís Reach." The former was
presented by Neil Kuvin, the president of a PR firm that was hired by the
Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky. He said his first task was to
"build brand loyalty" with the public schools. Which is kind of like the
U.S. Postal Service saying "Buy stamps!" Public relations would be a lot
easier for Coca Cola if people had money extracted from their paychecks to
buy Coke even if they preferred Pepsi.
Kuvin discussed forming partnerships with the media and corporations to
present a positive image of the public schools. In this way, schools can
disarm their critics. "We use the same media that have been shelling the
beaches by creating a partnership with them," he explained. Corporations get
positive PR by helping the schools, the media get community recognition and
"organizational ease," which Kuvin explained as "Someoneís going to do the
work for them," and the district, through prepackaged stories and videos,
gets guaranteed positive coverage that is ongoing and reliable.
The latter presentation came from two PR officers from the Indianapolis
Public Schools, who use an e-mail list of "key communicators" to get their
message out past the filter of the local media. Evidently many school
districts have individuals both in the schools and in the local community
who can be counted on to spread the districtís message to their colleagues
and constituents, and can even bring pressure to bear on the local media to
tone down negative coverage.
Tomorrow, EIA will continue its coverage of the NSPRA conference. For
further details on NSPRA, visit its web-site at http://www.nspra.org
+ Quote of the Day. "By the year 2008, reading, writing and
arithmetic will be taught at home. The regular school day will be spent in
self-esteem training, the administration of medication, and on-the-job
training." -- One of Dr. William J. Banachís tongue-in-cheek predictions of
the future of public education.