The cover story of last month’s Review examined the quality of New Jersey’s public schools. The article had a happy ending, of course, because by nearly every measure, public education in New Jersey is the envy of the nation. From a commitment to preschool education to high standards for teachers and students and a commitment to narrow the achievement gap, the Garden State has led the U.S.A.
NJEA’s “Great Public Schools” tagline isn’t just a slogan—it’s a fact. Why, then, do so many people believe otherwise? And more important, what can be done to correct the perception that our public schools are failing?
While there may be little that each of us can do about the reasons that this perception exists, there is something that can be done in the effort to change it. Since we are the people who actually work in a public school day in and day out, we are witness to the remarkable success story that is public education in America.
Many opportunities exist to demonstrate how proud we are of the tremendous work we do and the remarkable accomplishments of our students. This is no time for modesty.
Beyond that, it is our collective responsibility to remind the public that by many measures, our public schools are better than ever before. Many opportunities exist to demonstrate how proud we are of the tremendous work we do and the remarkable accomplishments of our students. This is no time for modesty. Let’s engage every member of the general public in a discussion about our great public schools. We know that miracles happen in our classrooms every day. It’s time to be sure that everyone knows about them.
Why the negative perception?
Mark Twain once observed, "A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on." The recent political season reminded us yet again how persistent and powerful a lie can be. But there is more to public education’s bad rap than a few mistruths.
In his book Schools Cannot Do It Alone: Building Public Support for American’s Public Schools, education reformer Jamie Vollmer refers to the practice of bashing public schools as a “blood sport.” He calls it “a game where false comparisons are made between past and present, public and private, and us versus them; where headlines broadcast half-truths, statistics are used out of context, and test results are reported in the worst possible light.”
Vollmer has identified the “"Twenty Terrible Trends" as the reasons why our public schools are under attack. Some of the trends come as no surprise—distrust of government, the anti-tax movement, the frenzy of privatization, and union bashing to name a few. Changing demographics—the fact that less than 27 percent of adults have children in school—also undermine support for public education. Standardized testing and international comparisons present a host of difficulties in getting the truth out. Schools are often used as scapegoats for social and economic problems. Americans now have an ever-expanding list of expectations regarding what schools are expected to accomplish. But Vollmer also points out other more surprising and harmful developments.
For example, Vollmer declares that “the melting pot is dead,” noting that some of today’s parents go to great lengths to ensure that their children associate exclusively with others who share their ideas and beliefs. “What was once a great strength of public education has become for some a cause for abandonment.” He also believes that schools are “ground zero” in our nation’s culture wars. “Polarized worldviews collide in the classroom,” and no matter who wins, public education loses. Finally, Vollmer notes that the public’s demand for customization in every product or service—education included--and the perception that alternatives to public education are superior fuel the erosion of support for our schools.
It’s important to note that Vollmer only spends one chapter of his book explaining the external forces that are pushing the public away. Most of the ink is dedicated to how to change current perceptions.
What can be done?
Vollmer calls his solution to the problem of public sentiment “The Great Conversation.” Not only will it help to change perceptions, it will also help us strengthen our great institution of public education. The process is neither costly nor complex, yet it has the potential to “Inform, inspire and invigorate all who choose to participate.”
The Great Conversation has a formal and informal track. The formal track is an organized set of actions designed to produce a meaningful flow of communication. In short, Vollmer has described NJEA’s Pride in Public Education program where the Association and its locals work to build strong community support for and involvement in our public schools.
In many ways, the informal track of The Great Conversation is more challenging because it demands that each of us play a role in promoting great public schools. It is composed of “hundreds of conversations conducted by individuals talking to family, friends, and acquaintances within the course of their daily routines.”
The informal track has four steps: shift your attention to the positive, stop bad-mouthing one another in public, share something positive with your ego network, and monitor your progress.
Shift your attention to the positive
Let’s face it—it’s easy to become negative in the face of constant attacks on public education and school employees. But Vollmer reminds us that when we focus on the negative, we can find ourselves doubting our own value and purpose. But by putting our attention on the positive, this internal shift allows us to feel better about ourselves as professionals. And there is plenty to be positive about in our public schools.
From parenting to politics, it’s important to present a united front. Likewise, in education, we need to support our colleagues and our schools. Vollmer explains: “The teacher who stands in the grocery checkout line and trashes her peers or the district, spreads her negativity like a virus, and everyone within earshot is infected. She confirms their worst fears. She erodes confidence in their schools.”
Instead of criticizing, share something positive with what Vollmer calls your “ego network,” or that personal social network composed of family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. “Even a casual reference to something positive—an allusion to some small breakthrough at school, the recounting of a hopeful moment with a student--added to our daily routine is enough to make an impression.” Because each positive remark “sets in motion a tiny wave of appreciation and goodwill,” a more hopeful and optimistic tone will begin to “permeate the public’s awareness.”
Finally, Vollmer suggests that we monitor our progress by asking ourselves if we have done all that we could to share something positive and avoid negativity. Only through self-reflection can we be sure we have affected the conversation in our own small way.
It may sound simplistic, but Vollmer is no Pollyanna. He argues that to keep all of the good that is accomplished to ourselves is irrational, given our current environment. “If we increase—even slightly—the amount of positive information flowing through our personal networks…we make a tremendous contribution to the welfare of our students and our community.”
How about a little TLC?
Vollmer isn‘t the only one suggesting that what we say—even during the most unassuming conversations and in the most immaterial of settings—matters. Educators John C. Draper and Nancy Protheroe explain that the purpose of their Educational Research Service publication, Crucial Conversations about America’s Schools, is simple. They wrote the book to change the behavior of educators who unintentionally feed the perception that our schools are failing by “not being aggressive enough in providing a more accurate and comprehensive picture of our schools.”
Like Vollmer, Draper and Protheroe acknowledge the sad reality that data hasn’t made the difference it should in the conversation about our schools. For many reasons, rumors about “contrived crises in public education” remain despite a mountain of solid evidence that public schools work, especially in New Jersey.
“Facts or information can make a difference, but facts alone have not turned the tide in the crucial conversations about public schools,” note Draper and Protheroe. “It is up to school leaders to more effectively engage communities in the crucial conversations necessary to help citizens appreciate the positive impact of our schools and avoid the rocks that threaten our national ship of education.”
Draper and Protheroe suggest the TLC Formula: Think about and talk about what you believe and why you believe it. Learn to use language that reframes the issues of public schools. And, Connect your community to your students using stories that bridge the gaps between generations, classes, races and religions.
The authors recognize that “as educators, we have an innate, shared value system that we rarely put into words.” But we can’t assume that everyone shares the same values nor can we get angry when that is not the case. But it is equally as foolish to not take every opportunity to explain to someone in respectful and concrete terms why class size matters or how school funding makes a difference.
In other words, don’t be afraid to “say so” when confronted with an opinion with which you disagree, or when you can fill the void of accurate information swirling around our public schools.
If, for example, “you believe that the purpose of our schools is not to fill the minds of our students with facts but to teach them how to think….Say so!”
“Do you believe that, while standardized tests can provide some measurement of student achievement, qualities such as creativity, self-discipline, curiosity, persistence, courage, imagination, enthusiasm, and patriotism are equally important? Say so!”
Draper and Protheroe know that educators have stories that can “inspire, uplift, motivate and connect us as a country.” But it’s up to us to share those stories whenever and wherever we can.
Making sure our message sticks
The 2007 bestseller, Made to Stick, by brothers Chip and Dan Heath, offers six simple principles that we must follow to be sure we share our message in a way that works.
Simplicity—Sure, there are myriad reasons why the obsession with standardized testing will undermine genuine learning. Resist the temptation to identify each of them! Identify what you believe is the most profound argument and focus on that one line of reasoning.
Unexpectedness—Unfortunately, the public has come to expect bad news. It shouldn’t be hard to surprise people with any of the innumerable success stories that abound in our public schools.
Concreteness—Don’t get bogged down in educational philosophy and jargon. Use the concrete images and human interactions that are a part of everyday life in our schools to make your message meaningful.
Credibility—This one is easy. Survey after survey shows that the public trusts teachers. We have credibility when it comes to our schools and our students. But we must speak up in order to take advantage of that trust.
Emotions—We know that deep down, everyone cares about children and schools. Let’s harness that feeling by reminding the public that education isn’t about numbers, it’s about people.
Stories—As Draper and Protheroe noted, “Charities know that it is more effective to tell the story of one starving child and ask for a donation than to tell about 10,000 nameless, starving children in a third-world country.” Similarly, a story that features the success of one student, the caring of one particular teacher, or the dedication of one specific support employee is more effective in building support for the whole district.”
Showing our feathers
Researchers have identified an interesting disconnect in the way Americans feel about public education. While most people believe that their community schools do a good job, they feel less positive about the schools in the next town over. This defies logic, of course, but it provides us with an important course of action.
Dr. Jay Dugan has been an educator for 37 years, working as a public school teacher, curriculum supervisor, principal, and superintendent. He currently serves as the director of professional/curriculum development for the Educational Information and Resource Center (EIRC) and as an adjunct college professor at Rowan University. Dr. Dugan was to present a workshop at the NJEA Convention on the good news about New Jersey’s schools. Just as New Jerseyans haven’t let Hurricane Sandy derail their families’ futures, Dr. Dugan won’t let it interrupt his message of hope and support for public education in our state.
“I am equally awed by and worried about the collective humility of New Jersey’s teachers,” says Dugan. “I wonder if the majority of teachers believe, let alone even know, how good they are. I fear that if they are continuously labeled ‘incompetent,’ they might start to believe the rhetoric.”
That’s why Dugan urges educators to fight back against the negative perception of schools and teachers.
“It is hard for individual educators to get the truth out to large groups of people, but it is not impossible, nor is it as difficult as it used to be. Technology has replaced the newspaper and magazine as a prime source for information. Anyone can be an author of a blog, a social media post, or a website. Educators need to embrace the combined prowess of their intellect and technological competence to show just how good New Jersey’s schools are.”
Data doesn’t lie, but it’s too easy for the public to ignore the statistics that prove that New Jersey’s public schools are among the best in the nation. That‘s why it’s time for us to spread the word about our collective successes, one heartwarming story at a time. Educators make miracles happen every day. Let’s market those miracles. Let’s reshape the conversation. Our schools and our lives will be better for it.