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Communication and Engagement: The Lifeblood for School Reform Success

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By Rich Bagin, APR, Executive Director of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA)

When it comes to communicating about school reform, we educators are often our own worst enemies.

Traditionally when a school reform effort is percolating, we say close to nothing to our external publics and create a vacuum that our critics quickly fill. They jump right in and brand our programs with their messages. We forever play catch-up when we should have been ahead of the game from Day One.

For more years than I hate to admit, I have seen the above scenario play out in states and in local communities throughout the entire U.S. And our critics are now armed with instant messaging tactics that can immediately coin a "killer phrase or term" that creates a negative buzz in a "140 characters or less." Rumors and isolated "kernels" of reform spread like wild fires that often scorch our reform efforts before they are barely launched.

Unfortunately, even the well-intentioned efforts by school leaders fall into the category of too little, too late.

So what are the "game-changers" when it comes to communicating school reform?

  • First, we have to stop just talking to ourselves about the reform effort. Some political commentators are quick to point out that like-minded advocates just talk to themselves inside their bubble, which creates a false sense that everything is going really well. They are often clueless that it will take a comprehensive communication effort to start engaging key constituents outside the bubble.
  • Second, we must engage all our staff in building understanding and support in the school reform effort--just not those who are actually involved in the reform effort. Our research in school communication tells us that local staff, especially teachers, are often the most credible communicators when it comes to school issues. That's why the potential power of the Learning First Alliance, with its 10 million members, can be dynamic force in communicating the need and solutions of school reform.
  • Third, we must work with professional communicators on strategies and messaging as well as developing transparent approaches to school reform work. Communication professionals also must work with school leaders in completing a list of next-step engagement strategies including opportunities for parents and others who are outside of the bubble to learn more and ask their questions about the reforms being offered.

Finally, our work with 50 school districts last year sheds some light on the "whom do you trust?" question in school communication. In a survey through our partnership with K12 Insight, Inc., we asked 43,410 parents about their communication preferences concerning messengers, delivery systems, and content. Surprisingly to some, parents ranked traditional media (newspapers, television ,radio, and district cable channels) just above the surprising last tier of preferences. They also ranked social media devices low as a preference as it seems that social media for some parents is "too social' and lacks credibility on key school issues.

In this study last spring, parents noted that districts that were becoming the "go-to" resource for school news and information were those that established direct e-communication links to parents and others who were outside the bubble. Parents preferred electronic or internet-based sources like email, e-newsletters, district websites, and parent portals.

The lesson learned for the communication of school reform is that the "secret sauce" is when schools provide genuine two-way, credible, ongoing communication and engagement strategies. And as NSPRA Past President Ron Koehler, APR, noted,

The message is clear. Open, honest and transparent communication is the best antidote to public mistrust. This research finds the institutions that invest in communication, and provide opportunities for dialogue and dissent, are the first choice for information about the services they provide.

To be successfully implemented, our school reform efforts require proactive communication and engagement efforts or they are destined to hit a wall of misunderstanding and challenges from critics that will impede or even possibly kill the school reform effort.


Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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