We hear so many negative things about public education in America -- most notably, that our schools are failing. And the reasons often cited involve educator shortcomings, for example, that colleges of education are doing a terrible job of preparing new teachers, or that the students in those colleges are not the high quality individuals we want teaching our children. We also hear that teachers unions care only about adult interests and that as a general rule the professional development teachers receive is a waste of resources.
This rhetoric is impacting the education community. Morale is down; the Metlife Survey of the American Teacher shows that teacher job satisfaction has dropped 15 percentage points in the past two years -- the lowest level in more than two decades. And the percentage of teachers who say they are very or fairly likely to leave the profession has increased by 12 points since 2009, up to 29 percent.
The rhetoric comes despite: 1) the public's general confidence in educators (shown in the 2012 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll) and, 2) data showing that public education in America is actually improving (for example, the graduation rate is at the highest it has been in three decades, though there is still room for improvement). And the rhetoric comes from a number of corners. Some might be expected, such as those who are interested in the privatization of the education sector. But we also hear this type of language from the media and from those we would hope to consider friends of public education, including politicians, government employees, and others.
Everyone involved in public education recognizes that we need to make major changes to improve outcomes for an increasingly diverse student population. And individuals and organizations representing stakeholders from teachers to state boards of education, school counselors to superintendents and more are working every day to do so.
To support their work, we have to change the way we talk about our public schools and the professionals who work in them. We need to move from an accusatory tone to solution-driven rhetoric and begin talking about public education and the work that educators do in a way that celebrates accomplishments while acknowledging what needs to be improved. Learning First Alliance (LFA) Executive Director Cheryl S. Williams recently offered some concrete examples of how to do that. To quote:
- Instead of "Our schools are failing," let's try, "Public schools need to get better at meeting the needs of all our students, regardless of socioeconomic class or ethnicity. And, we all need to work on this together to be successful"
- Instead of "Teacher unions only care about the adults in the system," let's try, "Teacher unions provide a collective voice for classroom practitioners at the local, state and national level and have for some time focused on supporting improved classroom practice. High performing school districts have strong, collaborative relationships with their teacher union"
- Instead of "The US is losing its leadership place in the world because our students perform poorly on international tests," let's try, "International tests provide valuable data for us as we work on improving our public system, and we should closely examine approaches high performing countries use in their education systems to learn from them. However, standardized test scores are only one data point and should be viewed in the context of cultural differences and student populations"
To lead the effort to change the conversation, this year LFA is launching a messaging campaign to frame the conversation about our public schools in a way that reaffirms the importance of the publicly-funded universal education opportunity and highlights work underway and strategies for working together to implement change.
Work began with a scan of the current landscape (including an examination of public opinion data and past and present messaging campaigns on public education) that revealed common assumptions that the public holds about public education -- for example, that education is influenced primarily by parents, students, and teachers (an assumption that downplays the role of other actors in the education community, such as principals, superintendents and school boards). Based on the scan and what it showed would resonate with the public, a series of messages were developed to drive a new way of talking about public education.
Work is based on the overarching core value statement: Strengthening our public schools is the best way to ensure our children's future success and our country's prosperity.
The key messages that will be used to frame the conversation:
- All children have the right to a public education that prepares them for college, careers and citizenship
- Quality public schools build the knowledge and skills young people need to succeed in a global knowledge-based world
- Communities are stronger and schools are better when we all work together to support public education
This year, LFA (where I am deputy director) will be helping educators get these messages across to national and local politicians, media personalities, business leaders, local community members and more. We must move the conversation beyond pointing fingers to find fault to working together to ensure that all our children have the future they deserve.