After Tony “the Idol” Bennett’s ousting in November from Hoosier chiefdom, reform funders commissioned public-affairs experts ED 08 Associates and The Acropolis Group consulting firm on how the stalled reform movement can regain momentum. Herewith the executive summary of their report.
Like the Republican Party, the education-reform movement has been searching its soul, examining its slogans, and bickering over who’s in charge. Those who lost hard-fought elections in typically reform-minded states in November understandably wonder: Are our policies off and our principles awry? Is it just “message” and “tone”? (Or could it be our weird spokespersons?)
Well, be of good cheer, reformers. Our state-of-the-art research has found that your policy prescriptions are still popular with the unwashed masses whose tax dollars you crave, whose children you yearn to change, whose neighborhood schools you insist on closing, and whose favorite teachers you are bent on firing. All you need to do is change your messaging and explain your intentions in focus-group-validated language uttered by hypnotically beautiful spokespeople.
We’ve learned that your present message is too often perceived as “dour,” “tough,” “mean,” and “divisive.” You must become the happy movement!
Closing sh***y, no good schools
Our research revealed that people hate this idea. Doubly so if Michelle Rhee is the one doing the closing—and that mishap with Rhee, the bulldozer, and Akron’s Coolidge Elementary School’s fifth-grade classroom didn’t help. (Luckily, the kids were out at recess.)
But do not despair. That eyesore of a school building need not stand in the way of new luxury condos for philanthropy-supported do-gooders. All you need is the right tone, message, and personality.
- Rather than “This school evokes a World War II bomb shelter,” say, “We must transform education for the twenty-first century.”
Firing worthless “teachers”
- Rather than “This teacher’s grasp of pedagogy is on par with that of a Barbie doll, her classroom presence wouldn’t fog a mirror, and her content knowledge is surpassed by my dog,” say, “We must open up new, twenty-first-century career opportunities for our struggling education professionals.”
- And stop soliciting layoff tactics from Donald Trump and Simon Cowell; instead, recruit someone more supportive, like Tim Gunn or Oprah Winfrey. “Everybody gets more free time! You get more free time! You get more free time! YOU get more free time!”
To be sure, some policy ideas are harder to message than others. With vouchers, liberals drone on about obsolete minutia like “the First Amendment,” while conservatives yammer about black helicopters assaulting independent schools. As for people in the relatively sane middle, they inexplicably appear to like their public schools (see “closing sh***y, no-good schools,” above).
So how to thread the needle?
- Rather than “Our nation’s urban public schools are in the toilet, and poor kids should be allowed to hoist themselves out,” say, “In our twenty-first-century education system, every family deserves a private lavatory, er, school of its choice.”
- Refuse to take questions after.
Letting helicopter parents fly via the parent trigger
- Surprisingly, this one polls quite well—especially in the South, where it is sometimes confused with gun rights for parents. Others (teachers, mainly) think it is a proposal to hold parents accountable. When the actual policy proposal is explained to voters, support drops dramatically. So don’t ever do that.
Getting on with those national standards
Finally, there is growing concern about the Common Core initiative. Parents and the public believe in “high standards” and “accountability” in the abstract, but they don’t generally like their precious cherubs “writing twenty-page analyses of bus schedules.” They also claim to hate the idea of anything “national.” So what to do?
- At every available opportunity, explain slowly and plainly that the Common Core will prepare students for the twenty-first century—and that it is a state-led initiative.
While we can’t guarantee this strategy will lead to electoral success everywhere, we do firmly believe that the next time an articulate, attractive, reform-minded, Republican state superintendent is up for re-election in a heavily Republican state, he or she at least won’t get beat so soundly.