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Friday, December 29, 2006

The Media, Public Perception and School Reform

I came across the following quote in a book I am reading, Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform by Frederick M. Hess.


Individuals without firsthand evidence about politics or policy rely heavily on the cues provided by local activists, community leaders, and the media. The result is that media coverage has a bigger impact in large districts than in small districts. The community's reliance on local leaders and the media for cues about a district's performance reduces district leaders' ability to directly shape perceptions of system quality. This situation encourages the school leadership to emphasize visible and dramatic initiatives that will translate well to the general public.
Is this true for Seattle? Certainly the media has a large amount of influence on public perception of schools. And depending upon which paper someone reads (Times or PI), the perception may vary significantly. But what about the tendency for leadership to "emphasize visible and dramatic initiatives that will translate well to the general public"? The school closure and consolidation plan was dramatic, but did not translate well to the general public. What other recent initiatives either follow or diverge from the theory presented here?

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like it fits to me. School closure did not translate to the families going to those schools. Local activists in those schools put up quite a ruckus.

Superintendents - even teachers - serve too many masters. There will always be problems because there will always be contrarians.

Anonymous said...

I would say that's a true statement and an important one that the district doesn't get. So much of what parents know about a specific school is from other parents. Not a website, not an enrollment guide, not a tour (but those tours are important as well). I've done tours at elementary, middle and now at high school and it is fun and strange and interesting. Some schools organize better tours than others, some parents come in with a laundry list of questions believing the tour guides will know everything, at the high school level you are apt to get high schoolers and parents as guides (a good thing)and some parents ask nothing and then complain later on. If you are a popular school, you are faced with hordes of people (who, oddly enough, seem to believe they should be fed) and how to corral them and give them good, solid information. At Eckstein, they have been tweaking this process and, I think, came up with a good system. But every school has to do its own thing but parents shouldn't take a school's identity from a tour which are sometimes organized by the principal and sometimes by the PTA.

So back to the subject at hand. Well, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. The media likes loud stories and no matter the issue, likes the loud voices. Naturally, those in power (or who were in power) get attention because of their position. Now, more than ever, we see the media banging the drum to a certain beat and I hear parents echoing the beat (although, thankfully, making up their own minds). Meaning, the Times had been ceaseless in their criticism of the board and yet you saw little forward traction among parents to circulate recall petitions or fight for appointed Board members.

I think perhaps Carla Santorno's push for more international schools might be one of those visible and dramatic initiatives. It is both something that parents have agitated for and something very palatable to the public as an initiative that is good for children and good for the district.

I think a key problem is the lack of good communication skills within the communications department of the district and from district leaders. When I don't get something and I go to a Board member for clarification, my reaction usually ends up being, "Well, why didn't you say that in the first place?" Sometimes leaders only get one chance and to shrug off misunderstandings is a bad practice.

Charlie was very on the money when he stated (repeatedly) that the school closures and consolidations were not presented in the best light i.e. how does this help academic achievement for greater numbers of students? There is no great way to close schools but you need as much buy-in as possible. Again, it is back to parent-to-parent communication. If one parents "gets" the message and, in turn, gives that message back out to other parents it sets the stage for a greater understanding of what is happening and why.

I am hoping by the end of the week to finish a document I am writing about my opposition to the BEX III capital bond measure. One of my principle objections is that the list doesn't reflect the time and place our district finds itself in. If even one of the buildings selected was tied to closure and consoldiation, the district and board could say, "We are helping a building that is a receiving building. Fixing up this building will aid both incoming students and existing students and we can show both sets of parents that we are committed to a better educational experience through a better building." That's getting buy-in. But no. Nothing in that list does that and I find it disturbing. (I was told the argument that they didn't do any elementary schools because of closure and consolidation issues. However, we on the CAC considered elementary, alternative and K-8s. There are no elementary or alternatives on the list (even though they have some of the worst buildings in the district and this is another flaw in the list which is not addressing the worst buildings)and yet there is one K-8, the New School.

Charlie Mas said...

There was an article in the Times today about the District's effort to control their public image.

The effort, of course, is clumsy and feeble, just as the Times continued effort to convince people that there are "troubles in the school system".

I think the central problem for the District is that they don't really care about public opinion. It isn't anything noble, principled, or transcendent; it is simply a part of the District's culture of disdain for the public.

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