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July 9, 2001
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 judge."

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.

 

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