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April 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 7

Getting Your Message Out (and Why It's Not Enough)

In a world of "messaging," let's not forget the importance of listening.

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The website eHow, which offers advice on everything from window cleaning to vegetable gardening, describes public communications as "the sending and receiving of messages on a large scale to and from the general public" (Papa, n.d.). At its best, public communications is a two-way street. It's both telling and listening, both explaining and absorbing. It's putting out information about education and schools; but it's also taking time to consider what parents, teachers, students, and members of the broader public have to say.
Unfortunately, some education leaders seem so intent on getting their own message out—often called "messaging"—that they neglect the listening part of the equation. This habit is jeopardizing public trust in public education and undermining our ability to make needed changes in U.S. schools.

The Uses and Misuses of Messaging

Obviously, it's essential for school leaders to think about what they want to say and how to say it. Sometimes, strong, well-thought-out messaging can be useful—in conveying specific kinds of new information, for example, or in countering misperceptions or gaps in knowledge among the broader public. A crisp, informative press release or a cogent, well-argued speech can enhance public understanding and put important ideas on the table. It's also vital to invest time and effort in communicating clearly and accessibly—jettisoning the insider jargon and the shop talk and using language and examples that are human, compelling, and concrete.
But if deciding what to say and how to say it is all we do, then public communications becomes nothing more than a top-down exercise destined to miss the mark more often than it hits the target. Here's why.

These Are Skeptical Times

No matter how well-crafted a message is, or how artful a speech or press release may be, it will arrive in a public sphere dominated by skepticism. Many people are supremely dubious about glib leadership pronouncements, jazzy websites, and polished brochures. Public distrust of the U.S. Congress and national policymakers is well known, and even public education no longer enjoys the broad public confidence it once held. Just 12 percent of Americans say they have a "great deal of confidence" in the public schools, with another 14 percent saying they have "quite a bit of confidence." That's a precipitous drop from the mid-1970s, when roughly 60 percent of Americans voiced solid confidence in public education (Gallup, 2014).
In focus groups conducted by my organization, Public Agenda, parents repeatedly express doubt about what education policymakers and school officials are doing. In large, urban districts, parents often refer skeptically to what is happening "downtown" or "in the central office," wondering how well district leaders understand the circumstances in their own schools and how much they really care (Johnson, Rochkind, Remaley, & Hess, 2011). In wealthy suburban districts generally thought to have good schools, parents often wonder whether glowing reports about student achievement, top test scores, and college admissions really mean their children are getting a high-quality education (Johnson, 2013).
A new study from the Kettering Foundation and the FDR Group (2014) titled The Maze of Mistrust suggests that suspicion reigns not just among the general public, but also among a variety of local stakeholders, including community leaders, local elected officials, and principals and teachers. As the report describes it, "local politics, distrust, miscommunication, and unhealthy relationships caused by lingering suspicions and old grudges play a surprisingly powerful role in blocking progress. In effect, the political and community milieu of reform has become a major stumbling block" (p. 2).
The upshot is that even well-developed and well-honed messages from leaders will be scrutinized and questioned by much of their audience.

The Public Distrusts Expertise

Leaders often assume that information that reflects a strong consensus of expert opinion will be credible and compelling to the general public. Yet in recent years, Americans have repeatedly questioned expert judgments in fields from health care to the environment to education. Large swaths of the public, for example, question cancer screening guidelines developed by medical and public health professionals and reject advice from prestigious medical groups and authorities on such issues as childhood vaccinations and strategies for combatting Ebola (see Dutton, De Pinto, Salvanto, & Backus, 2014; McNeil, 2008).
In education, there's no better example of the limited influence of expertise and leadership endorsement than the debate over the Common Core State Standards. These standards were developed at the behest of state education policymakers across the United States, represented by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. They have been endorsed by an impressive bipartisan array of elected officials, education leaders, and the business community, not to mention the U.S. Army (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2015a). The new standards have been adopted by more than 40 states, four territories, and the District of Columbia (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2015b).
Yet despite this powerful backing, the Common Core standards are now under attack by a surprisingly diverse range of opponents. Recent polling suggests that just one-third of the U.S. public favors the standards. Notably, only 17 percent say they have heard a lot about them (Calderon, 2014). Educators may feel inundated by articles, editorials, op-eds, blogs, and speeches praising or panning the Common Core standards, but most Americans still know very little about them, much less what they actually mean for their local schools.

Messaging Often Addresses Leadership, Not Public, Concerns

Another danger of messaging is that it tends to reflect what's on leaders' minds, not what's on the minds of most parents and community members. Consequently, it fails to excite much of the audience.
One example is the public's tepid response to the education accountability movement. Over the past decade, states and districts have raised academic standards; organized testing regimens to measure student progress; and established new policies to evaluate schools, teachers, and principals on the basis of student learning. There's more scrutiny of schools and educators, more transparency, and more information available to parents and the public than ever before. But rather than an increase in public trust, we've seen sliding confidence and growing parent and teacher backlash against standardized testing (Johnson, Rochkind, & DuPont, 2011). What's going on?
Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation recently analyzed public opinion on the education accountability movement and conducted focus groups with parents exploring their perspective on the movement's value and effectiveness. Although most parents applauded many of the movement's long-term goals and believed that accountability reform had produced some needed improvements, they also saw its impact as "profoundly incomplete." In effect, many parents told us that accountability (as they understand it) does little to address the problems they perceive in education—unmotivated, undisciplined students; disorderly classes and schools; uninvolved parents; and too little support from the community (Johnson, 2013).

We Need to Listen Better

After decades of working with K–12 leaders, I am convinced that nearly all of them want to improve their communications with the public, and most of them make an effort to understand public and parent concerns. However, some of the tools we use to listen to the public are inadequate, and we often use them in ways that damage understanding rather than enhancing it.

Surveys Sometimes Mislead

Public opinion surveys can be enormously illuminating when they are carefully done and understood in context. But in too many cases, surveys yield an incomplete or unreliable reading of what people are actually thinking. Here are three weaknesses that polls sometimes exhibit:
  • They try to measure public opinion about ideas people barely understand. Reading respondents a quick description of "charter schools" or "the Common Core" doesn't magically give them a grasp of how these reforms work or what benefits and trade-offs they entail. At best, polls using this technique capture a top-of-the-head reaction to words and phrases.
  • They don't probe what respondents mean. Public Agenda research has shown, for instance, that even though survey responses show parents have broad interest in "more math and science," most parents are actually talking about basic arithmetic and math, not the geometry and calculus classes STEM crusaders are suggesting. What's more, majorities of parents say science can wait until high school—not at all what most STEM backers have envisioned (Johnson, Rochkind, & Ott, 2010).
  • They don't ask respondents to choose among priorities. Most Americans, whether they have children currently in school or not, will say that they favor a whole host of potential education improvements—more early childhood education, more after-school programs, smaller classes, better pay for teachers, more counseling for students who struggle, more parent involvement programs, more computers in schools, better career and college counseling, more money for education, and so on. But not all of these ideas are equally important to people, and even if they like them all, they may not be willing to provide the taxpayer dollars to support them. Polls that don't follow up and ask people how important a particular reform is to them compared with other things they like can provide misleading feedback.
Moreover, even well-designed surveys that avoid these common mistakes can't replace two-way conversations. But these, too, need to be well-constructed.

Sometimes Meetings Aren't Any Better

In general, talking with people directly improves the odds of having more authentic and enlightening conversations. But public hearings and municipal and school board meetings often generate more heat than light. They are typically centered on specific proposals or regulatory changes, so there's not much chance to explore the community's priorities or to ask people to join leaders in problem solving. The substance is often a debate between advocates and opponents—sometimes an acrimonious one. People who are still trying to educate themselves about an issue can end up more confused than edified.
The standard "public hearing" can actually inflame already-tense community disagreements. Jam-packed meetings with officials sitting up front on a dais while partisans deliver their two-minute comments at the mic actually do very little to increase understanding.
When Public Agenda interviewed New York City parents and parent leaders about policies on persistently failing schools, the tenor of local hearings on school closings was a repeated complaint. Some considered the meetings bogus; they believed that decisions had been made ahead of time and that the meetings were just for show. One official, presumably there to listen to the community, was reported to have spent most of his time staring at his phone. A process designed to include the public ended up making much of the public feel even more excluded (Johnson, Rochkind, Remaley, & Hess, 2011).

Putting the Public Back into Public Communications

Improving communications between education leaders and the public—and among the whole range of stakeholders in public education—is not an easy assignment. However, some thoughtful observers and pioneering organizations are developing and testing alternative communications models that could help.
Opinion and social analyst Daniel Yankelovich (1999) identified dialogue as a way to reset these relationships. This approach, which centers on listening and understanding rather than advocating and persuading, can be used in corporate settings; but his observations and recommendations are readily applicable to education (also see Goleman, 1999).
Public Agenda and the National Issues Forums have published discussion guides and moderator materials to promote dialogue on specific education issues, such as enhancing teacher quality, that leaders can use to improve leadership and public communications. (See "" for specifics.)
These approaches and materials tend to emphasize some common elements that might be considered the ground rules for more authentic public communications. Here are the basics.
  • Start early. Establishing open, constructive lines of communication is a gradual process that involves listening and building trust. It can't be done in a week or two after a crisis has emerged or just prior to a decision on a controversial question. And without regular give and take, it's an uphill climb to get parents and the public to do their part to help improve education in their communities.
  • Listen to understand, not to persuade. This is the essence of dialogue, and it is the opposite of the "debate" approach used throughout much of today's politics. In debate, each opponent listens to identify some weakness in the other person's position that he or she can attack or correct. In dialogue, the goal is to understand where the other person is coming from and to find common ground. Listening for understanding can give leaders insights that will help them craft better solutions and communicate those solutions more effectively. And people today have a deep desire to see that leaders are, in fact, listening to what they have to say.
  • Let people in on how hard this is. The mission facing education today is daunting: We have to do a much better job educating all our children to live and thrive in a world that is changing in ways we often struggle to understand. People need to understand that improving schools doesn't happen with a wave of a wand; change always comes with risks, costs, and trade-offs. Public Agenda and National Issues Forums use an approach called choicework, which asks people to weigh alternative options for addressing problems in the way leaders themselves must think through options to reach a sound decision. Especially if it is incorporated in the earliest stages of decision making, choicework can give leaders important feedback on public concerns, and it can help build the public understanding that's so essential to change.

When to Listen and When to Follow Your Heart

Sometimes, education leaders must choose between doing what's popular or doing what's needed to create a more equitable, effective education system for the future. It's a balancing act. After all, public education uses taxpayer dollars to educate the public's children, so we need to take seriously what parents and the public say. But it's also true that public opinion sometimes lags behind the arc of history, as it did during the civil rights movement and the drive to establish equal opportunities for women.
Recognizing this tension and thinking carefully about it is a key element of leadership. Yet whatever decisions are required—whether they are popular or not—leaders can always benefit from understanding how people feel about the conditions in schools and from talking frankly, clearly, and respectfully with them about how things could be better.

Calderon, V. J. (2014, August 20). Americans wary of federal influence on public schools. Retrieved from Gallup at www.gallup.com/poll/175181/americans-wary-federal-influence-public-schools.aspx

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2015a). Statements of support. Retrieved from www.corestandards.org/other-resources/statements-of-support

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2015b). Standards in your state. Retrieved from www.corestandards.org/standards-in-your-state

Dutton, S., De Pinto, J., Salvanto, A., & Backus, F. (2014, October 29). Do Americans believe there should be a quarantine to deal with Ebola? CBS News. Retrieved from www.cbsnews.com/news/do-americans-believe-there-should-be-a-quarantine-to-deal-with-ebola

Gallup. (2014, June 5–8). Confidence in institutions. Retrieved from Gallup at www.gallup.com/poll/1597/Confidence-Institutions.aspx

Goleman, D. (1999, October). Both sides now (book review). New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/books/99/10/10/reviews/991010.10golemat.html

Johnson, J. (2013). Will it be on the test? New York: Public Agenda & Kettering Foundation. Retrieved from http://kettering.org/publications/will-it-be-on-the-test

Johnson, J., Rochkind, J., & DuPont, S. (2011). Don't count us out: How an overreliance on accountability could undermine the public's confidence in schools, business, government, and more. New York: Kettering Foundation & Public Agenda. Retrieved from http://kettering.org/wp-content/uploads/dont-count-us-out.pdf

Johnson, J., Rochkind, J., & Ott, A. (2010). Are we beginning to see the light? New York: Public Agenda. Retrieved from www.publicagenda.org/pages/math-and-science-ed-2010-full-survey-results

Johnson, J., Rochkind, J., Remaley, M., & Hess, J. (2011). What's trust got to do with it? New York: Public Agenda. Retrieved from www.publicagenda.org/pages/whats-trust-got-to-do-with-it

Kettering Foundation & FDR Group. (2014). Maze of mistrust: How district politics and cross talk are stalling efforts to improve public education. New York: Kettering Foundation. Retrieved from http://kettering.org/wp-content/uploads/Maze-of-Mistrust.pdf

McNeil, D. G., Jr. (2008, March 28). A multitude of vaccine benefits, yet controversy persists. New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/ref/health/healthguide/esn-vaccinations-ess.html

Papa, N. (n.d.). Effective public communication. Retrieved from eHow at www.ehow.com/about_6672164_effective-public-communication.html

Yankelovich, D. (1999). The magic of dialogue. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Jean Johnson has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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