When implementing reform, communication is the key

08/21/2013  |  By DAVID R. VOSS - President, Voss & Associates
Common Core
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Common Core. Teacher evaluation. Career pathways. Here they come. Is everybody in your district on board?

If you’re being honest, the answer is probably no. While everyone is aware of these incredibly important reform issues, administrators are asking, “How do we get teachers, families and communities to understand, accept and buy into the changes?”

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”

Lawmakers and educators have often proposed meaningful reform that didn’t work. In many cases, teachers and parents rejected the idea, or the media misinterpreted it, or it appeared to be another unfunded “top down” one-size-fits-all solution from people who really don’t understand what’s going on in the classroom.

The three top-burner issues now hitting the schools — common core, teacher evaluation and career pathways — actually come from educators and community pressure as well as state governments, including a tremendous amount of input from teachers, so it shouldn’t carry the stigma of “top-down.” But it does, and therein lies the danger of another false start with education reform.

Based upon surveys and market research, teachers resist change when it comes from a source they don’t trust, and right now, they don’t trust Congress, legislators, state departments and boards of education, school board members or even top district administrators. That’s because for years, top-down reform efforts have come and gone, causing disruption and headaches, without a sufficient amount of teacher input.

The state of Georgia recently asked Voss & Associates to conduct market research and create a Strategic Communications Plan so their reform efforts would be well received. Teachers largely felt common core was “just the latest in a long string of changes that will once again tie our hands in the classroom” and the new evaluation system is “designed to punish or fire us based on unfair student test results.” Parents, for the most part, misunderstood career pathways, or Career and Technical Education (CTE), because they associated with the old model of Vocational Education when they were in school.

The bottom line is that Georgia was trying to communicate something people didn’t want to hear from a source they didn’t trust. A Power Point presentation from a state official with 42 slides and 300 bullet points won’t change anything. The result is a campaign called Georgia’s Future now (see http://gafuturenow.org) for more information, which contains a useful toolkit to communicate top initiatives.

Voss & Associates found that the most trusted source to convince a teacher to change is another teacher. Teacher leaders — like those evolving from Race to the Top or innovative career-related curriculum — are the most effective communicators. Short video clips from the classroom, or audio Podcasts that can be downloaded on MP3 players or iPods, provide teachers with an easy method of sharing lessons. Schools can video tape teachers in action and create a channel on YouTube to share them with other teachers in your school or district. This also allows “comments” and feedback in real time. Search YouTube on relevant topics to explore the possibilities.

Another example is Teacher Studio, an online professional learning community which allows teachers to upload videos and share them with all subscribers or limit them to specifically defined work groups. Subscribers or group members can then search for videos relevant to them. See http://teacherstudio.com  for more information on how it works.

Administrators should be careful who they select for speeches, back-to-school convocations and professional development courses. They should include stories from the classroom, not the board room. Rather than famous politicians, business leaders or motivational speakers from afar, consider teachers and students from within. Tell heart-warming local stories for greater impact. This is also true for professional development. Once you have a cadre of lead teachers using Common Core or administrators who have implemented the new teacher evaluation system, put them in leadership positions and let them teach others.

For parents and community leaders, school districts must make a concerted effort to reach out and engage stakeholders, not just tell them what’s next. It should include specific information on the role of families, taxpayers and business people in reform efforts. It needs a pro-active communication strategy that includes social media, public presentations, interactive websites, surveys and good old fashion town hall-type meetings.

For example, a trained Speakers Bureau can fan out into the community and talk to groups on front-burner topics, engage the audience and leave behind handouts. These appearances should include volunteer sign-up cards or specific suggestions for mentors and business partners. Consistent posts generated by the district and distributed through Facebook creates a conversation and responses. Negative and false comments can be corrected to separate myth from fact. Surveys provide input so districts can measure where their community stands on certain issues and how much change they are willing to absorb.

CTE programs must brand and market their programs to change attitudes. If parents don’t support it, they won’t enroll their kids. Branding is a powerful tool to change the image of job-related curriculum and stories from successful students will inspire other students to find their area of interest.

A good example is in Irving, Texas where the Independent School District branded CTE programs as “Signature Studies” and increased enrollment by 50 percent. (See irvingisd.net and click on Signature Studies.)

The best advice is to make sure communication is in the forefront of your reform efforts, not an after-thought. It takes creativity, pro-active engagement and smart marketing tools to communicate in a way that brings people on board.

David R. Voss is president of Voss & Associates, a full service communications company with its heart in education. He conducts communication audits, develops Strategic Communication Plans and provides tools and training for implementation. For more info, visit www.vossandassociates.net or e-mail [email protected].
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