The Blessing and Curse of High Visibility

Bonus post this week!  Mass Insight Education President Justin Cohen shares his thoughts on Common Core roll-out and how #edreformers can better engage the public.

I am enjoying the ongoing debate on the edreform interwebs about how the rollout of the Common Core State Standards has hit a completely predictable bump in the road known as “public opinion.”

As I’ve spent more and more personal time digging into the Common Core and the real rigor behind it, I have become even more convinced that it is a powerful step forward from our existing patchwork of standards. And as Mass Insight Education has spent the summer training middle and high school teachers in Common Core ELA and math – not to mention Next Generation Science – the transition in standards creates huge opportunities to connect with teachers on a much deeper level than is afforded by traditional PD.

That said, while there are substantive problems with the rollout of the Common Core, we can’t ignore the immense problems in communicating with the public about the transition. This is even more acute as conversations about education have become more national in nature, as opposed to local or statewide.

As an education professional, I basically jump for joy at the fact that education seems to have become more of a first tier domestic issue. But more attention means more scrutiny! The folks who make and drive education policy have to explain things to the public, justify their actions, and perhaps even tweak their approaches based on how the public responds.

While I don’t have a randomized trial to support the following assertion, I’m not sure that everyone in my field is thrilled about this scrutiny. That’s not so surprising, because serious changes usually start small and are less subject to broad public debate. Like it or not, with those dual holy grails of “scale” and “impact” come existential challenges around public engagement.

The Common Core blowback is but a whiff of things to come, so here are some quick thoughts on how to do a better job on public engagement:

  1. Think about a communications strategy at the beginning of a major initiative. Don’t get 90 percent down the road before asking a communications expert to repackage it. I have heard groups complain that this is likely to “water down” the approach. First of all, I don’t think that needs to be true, but second, nothing is more “watered down” than an initiative that doesn’t happen because it gets killed in a legislature or by a gun-shy state board of education.
  2. Talk to real humans that don’t communicate in “eduspeak.” I’m guilty of peppering my everyday speech with terms like “vertical alignment” and “expansion of high quality seats.” These utterances will get #edreform hearts fluttering, but they’re likely to be dead-on-arrival with anyone who doesn’t have dog-eared copies of the last 15 Rick Hess books on his/her nightstand. If we get too attached to the language we use, it can distract from the fact that core ideas remain popular when the language becomes toxic (see Mike Petrilli’s good point on this).
  3. Teacher buy-in really matters. A lot of people – rightly! – listen to teachers when it comes to education policy. So from a communications standpoint, that means active communication with educators. But it also means absolutely nailing the rollout of major new initiatives. As more and more unions point to “botched” rollout, it’s going to get harder to advance a positive message around the Common Core. That’s why solid training and support is so central … and why it’s important to remember that policy, implementation, and communications are inextricably linked!

Justin Cohen
President, Mass Insight Education