I have been a close, professional observer of elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education for most of my 30 years as a journalist and, more recently, communications consultant. Over time, I learned to avoid talking about what I do. Because, invariably, when strangers or casual acquaintances or even family members hear that I write about education, their memories and the experiences of their children and what they heard about at the office, at church or the synagogue, or at the beautician or in the barber’s chair, or what they read in a magazine or online pour forth like a river liberated from a dam.
The memories, anecdotes, rumors, and emotions yield strongly held opinions, usually lacking any shred of nuance. Get rid of tests! End teacher tenure! Pay teachers more! Longer school days! Who needs standards! Higher standards! Spend more money! No more money!
Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to matter how much education the person has had. Highly accomplished professionals, who one would think had been well-served by the schools they attended, are just as likely to offer silver bullet solutions (and spread wildly false, often ideology-driven assertions!) as people whose schooling failed them.
One reason people offer up these solutions is, I think, that they understand the fundamental importance of education for their children and their communities. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t bother.
I try to keep these experiences in mind when I work with educators and policy makers who are trying to communicate complex changes in policy or practice to a variety of audiences.
One current such Cross & Joftus project is helping the Statewide Special Education Task Force in California produce its final report and recommendations. The language of education policy and practice is often highly technical; the language of special education even more so. But when their children need special education services, parents’ protective instincts kick in. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to ensure their children are well-served.
The members of the Task Force, who all have experience with special education, are acutely aware of that reality. They are committed to pushing for improved services for students with disabilities so that they graduate from high school able to think critically, solve problems, read and do math, and communicate clearly orally and in writing. Doing so, the Task Force leaders believe, will require bringing transformational changes to the entire enterprise of public education in California. That won’t happen unless parents and educators themselves advocate for those changes. And they won’t do that if the recommendations are overly technical and seem to address only the concerns of adults and don’t put the needs of children first.
Our job is to help the Task Force express its analysis and recommendations clearly and forcefully, in a language that will resonate with key audiences—parents, educators, journalists, foundations, and policy makers. We will assist the Task Force in building a strong, rational, research-based argument in support of those recommendations. But we also have to keep in mind that education stirs up strong feelings, so we also have to help the Task Force tell the emotional story that supports the recommendations.