Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why We're Losing the Ed-PR Battle

Which would you rather eat - hamburger meat labeled as "85% fat" or "15% lean"?

Research shows that how situations are presented to us - known as "framing" - influences our thoughts and behaviors about those situations. Hamburger-meat consumers are more likely to buy that pack of meat if it's labeled "lean" than "fat." We are more likely to carry an umbrella on a sunny day if the weatherman says there is a 20% chance of rain rather than saying there is an 80% chance of sun. There is no difference in the chance of rain in either frame, but our behavior is very different in response to it.

Education reformers today are very good at framing. They employ folks whose sole purpose is to frame the argument in ways that will influence policy makers and venture capitalists to support their ideas and reject the ideas of the opposition. They have even figured out how to sway the public sentiment in their direction.

Let me stack these frames up for you, and you tell me who seems to be winning here. Ed reformers give us "No Child Left Behind." They give us "Race to the Top" and "Turnaround Schools." They rail against "Last in, First Out" and the dreaded "Status Quo." They point fingers at "teacher unions." They cry out that "poverty is no excuse for failure!" They "Teach for America" and propose that "Knowledge is Power." They put "Students First" while they are "Waiting for Superman."

What are the frames from their opposition? They say, "but the kids are poor and come from broken homes." They complain about politically charged school climates and vindictive, lazy administrators. They insist that some children will be left behind because some kids just aren't smart enough to go to college. They cross their arms and say they're not going to run in any race, thank you very much. They plead for more money to fix crumbling buildings and broken air conditioners, assuring us that a pretty building will make all the difference. They complain under their breath as they spend valuable time on test prep. They insist that Superman is not enough to fix the problems that face us.

The frames the reformers provide are showy and nice, enough to showcase something valuable. The other frames are chipped and bent, looking quite ready to be replaced. The sad fact is that the reformers are offering nothing of substance in this debate to put in these pretty frames. Charter schools systems haven't been the salvation of failing schools, even if they are reaching a few of the failing students. Turnaround plans like those in Central Falls, RI, aren't producing results. Arne Duncan predicts that 82% of schools will be labeled as "failing" in 2011 as No Child Left Behind bears down on even highly performing schools. And states are putting the brakes on their winning Race to the Top reforms as the realities of those reforms become clear.

But the responses to these reforms leave educators looking cold hearted. Instead of looking within ourselves and being our own best critics, we educators are making lame excuses that blame everyone but ourselves. We teachers are busting our butts to do a good job, and all you people expect out of us are miracles. But, come on, our students are left behind because they are poor or lazy or stupid or bad. Their parents are uncooperative and apathetic. The administrators are vindictive and lazy. The DOE is unsympathetic and out of touch.

How can we expect to win the hearts and minds (and money) of the public if we don't take appropriate responsibility and fix those parts of ourselves that are broken? We need to take a good, hard look at tenure to see how we can avoid the perception that tenured teachers simply "phone it in" until retirement. We need to examine constantly how we prepare students so we give them the best possible choices for their futures. We need to develop systems of accountability for students and teachers that provide direction for continuous improvement. Right now, we are letting others come up with ideas for how to address these problems. We need to stop complaining about how difficult the job is. We need to take charge and develop programs and solutions that we can embrace. We do not need to be afraid of change. We just need to create a change that will work.