Teacher Unions, Reformers, and Language



Valerie Strauss, a frequent critic of education reform, interviewed Lily Eskelsen García, the new head of the NEA (national teachers union).

There is much to be unpacked from the interview. 

What I Found Effective in Garcia’s use of Language:

1. Testing: At her best, she does an excellent job of criticizing testing, especially when she connects it to the realities of a teacher’s life in the classroom, as well as the idea that a teacher could get fired because of a formula.

2. Straw men: While I find straw men arguments to be disingenuous, they are effective – pitting reformers against Shakespeare and blood drives (I did not know reformers had taken a stance against either), plays well into the stereotype that reformers are cold technocrats who are far removed from the classroom.

3. Corporate education reform: This continues to be the most effective rhetoric against the reform community. In one phrase, it (1) calls out the influence of the rich (2) plays on people’s dislike of cut throat corporations and (3) covers up the fact that many reformers are in fact educators. 

I also found much of her language to be ineffective, but I’ll leave that analysis up to her colleagues.

My Thoughts on Messaging for the Reform Community:

The reform community really needs to win (at least) two messaging battles: families and policy makers. Generally speaking, reformers have done very well with policy makers, so I’ll focus on how to message to families. As a caveat, I’m by no means a communication expert, but I’ve thought about this issue a bit (and gotten advice from real experts, as well as had access to polling data and focus groups). 

1. Talk about the childhood experience: Talk about what means for a child to attend a great school – arts, sports, literature, caring teachers, etc. I think parents actually do care about performance on tests (which is why I support public school letter grades), but it’s not the way to their hearts. Parents want to their children to be inspired and engaged. 

2. Talk about the future: Families care whether their children will be prepared for college and career. This is much more real to them than school level accountability. Reformers need to talk about what it will take to prepare children to live a meaningful, successful life. 

3. Be inclusive: Reforms can’t just be for some kids (those that get into the best charter schools, those that aren’t expelled, etc.). Families need to know that everyone, including their child, will benefit from these new opportunities. To some extent, this was the initial genius of the phrase “No Child Left Behind.”

Some Reflections

1. Relinquish vs. Reform: It’s worth noting that Relinquishment (charters, choice, etc.) is in many ways more amenable than Reform (teachers evaluations, testing, etc.) to the positive messaging suggested above. This is not to say that all Reform efforts are all bad – just that they are more difficult to communicate. As I’ve noted before, charters poll very well. 

2. This is the time of Obama: For now, I think we’re in a national communications paradigm where positive messaging will win the day. This could of course change – different messaging works in different social contexts. Of course, well placed negative messaging has its place. But I don’t think these messages will win the day. 

All told, I think those seeking to reform public education, myself included, have a very mixed track record on messaging. 

1 thought on “Teacher Unions, Reformers, and Language

  1. Mike G

    “Even KIPP [charter schools] will say one of the secrets of their success is a stable, highly professional faculty.”

    Um, what?


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