Blog: The Educated Reporter

How to Communicate Complex Education Issues

Today’s post features guest blogger Nancy Mitchell, communications director of the Education Commission of the States, who attended EWA’s National Seminar at Vanderbilt University in Nashville earlier this month. 

Stephen Abbott reacted with horror to one television reporter’s attempt to squeeze the Common Core State Standards into a sound bite: “It was a complete hot mess.”

Conversely, a story on the same topic by Sarah Garland of The Hechinger Report drew praise from the communications director of the Great Schools Partnership as a “great example” of how to tell a complex story.

Abbott used the two efforts to illustrate communications strategies in a workshop for community members at the EWA National Seminar in Nashville. Among his key points:

1. Focus on something achievable

There are few things more complex in education than the continuing debate over the Common Core. Abbott said the reporter he referenced “stumbled into something incredibly complex and overwhelming. She tried to take on the whole of the Common Core and how it is being implemented in schools. She tried to do everything.”

Garland, at the Hechinger Report, focused on one piece of the issue and used that piece to illustrate overall trends. The headline of her article: “Why is this Common Core math problem so hard?”

The story delves into a father’s complaint about a math problem his son has been asked to solve. The father blames the Common Core. Garland asked two of the lead writers of the Common Core math standards to respond. The resulting story highlights the difference between standards and curricula, a key concept in the ongoing debate that many fail to grasp.

2. Specificity is a pathway to understanding

Abbott particularly praised Garland’s story because it includes actual learning standards.

“If you want people to understand something like standards, get the reporter to put learning standards in the paper,” he said. “The more concrete, the more pragmatic, the more specific you can be, the more people will understand – and with understanding comes support.”

Getting a reporter to include concrete examples of standards, however, isn’t easy, Abbott acknowledged.

“I have read probably hundreds of stories about Common Core and learning standards,” he said. “I have come across one that actually put learning standards in the story.”

3. Create a glossary on your website, or link to one

Whatever help reporters might provide in furthering understanding, Abbott advises creating your own “semantic or conceptual eco-system” on your website – or linking to his, The Glossary of Education Reform.

“Go into the issues you want people to know about,” he said. “People who are curious will link from your press release to the briefing. That’s an easy way to build up a network of explanations that you can repurpose in all of your communications aspects.”

He created his glossary for journalists, parents and community members after witnessing their frustration in trying to locate concise information about various education concepts.

4. Connect something people know with something new they don’t

This tried-and-true communications strategy has proven itself time and again, Abbott said, citing examples such as “horseless carriage” to describe automobiles when they were new.

In education, he discussed a school’s use of an airplane to talk about how it is assessing students differently through competency-based learning. School leaders used the analogy of teaching a student to take off, fly and land an airplane.

Under the old assessment method, they said, a student was tested on all three areas and those scores averaged to decide the final grade. This means a student could earn an A in taking off, an A in flying and an F in landing – and still pass.

But with its new competency-based approach, Abbott said school leaders explained, “We’re not going to let them fail landing. They have to land before they pass.”

“This is something that resonates,” he said. “It gets the point across without getting into the weeds of how this actually plays out in schools.”

5. Familiarity does not necessarily equal understanding

Abbott cautioned communications professionals against assuming people know something familiar. For example, the term ‘standards’ is familiar and recognizable – but it doesn’t mean it’s understood.

He used Shakespeare to drive this point home, asking audience members whether they believed they understood the famous line “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” Most assumed they did, until Abbott pointed out “Wherefore” meant “Why” at that time.

So Juliet is not asking where Romeo is, he explained, but why he is.

“As communications professionals, you don’t want to embark from the point of view where you assume people know something familiar,” Abbott said. “Experience does not equal understanding.”


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