The Brookings Survey on Communication Says . . .

 If NSPRA were to do a national study on communication patterns between our schools and our publics, we would probably ask the following questions:

 With the evolving mix of old and new media, how do Americans get information about elementary and secondary schools? How do they rate the performance of various content providers? What topics deserve additional attention? How would viewers and readers like to get information about schools in the future? And how do consumer differences in age, gender, race, income, region, and parental status affect their views about these issues?

 Read the Full Report 

 The good news is that thanks to the Brookings Institute and funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that national study has just been completed. You can review the summary results and then download the full study by going to Americans Want More Coverage of Teacher Performance and Student Achievement. It is clearly a must read for those in our profession. (As an aside, it will be interesting to see how these results stack up against the survey now being completed by NSPRA members who are participating in our Communication Accountability (CAP) survey. Results will be given at our San Antonio Seminar this July.)

 My observations from being in this field for many years are:

  •  The study confirms what most NSPRA members know: face-to-face communications still ranks the highest when parents and others want to learn more about their schools. Family and friends with their personal networks were the highest news provider as well as the most highly regarded news source. Keeping a focus on opportunities to interact with key opinion leader networks, and staff at all levels needs to remain a top priority no matter the changes brought by technology. Tech messages are obviously more credible when the source is known and respected. That’s why we have always urged key district leaders to get to know staff and key community leaders in a face-to-face fashion.  
  • The second top source, school publications, proves that our publics want school information from us. That’s why cutting communication is like committing suicide as communication is one of the best vehicles we have to build understanding and support. And what do we need now in this era of economic strife? —  more understanding and support. Newspapers followed a close second in rank order, but there was a considerable drop in local TV, community groups, national TV, radio, and social networking devices. My hunch is that it all depends on the credibility of the communication vehicle. 
  • We need to start giving our constituents, parents and general public alike, the kind of content they are requesting. The survey found that there is a mismatch between what people want to know about education and they are reading and hearing in the media. The report urged the media to take a new look at the topics in the next bullet. In other words, we are asking them to provide more stories beyond the politics and watch-dog investigative piece about cafeteria food, children missing bus stops because they were sleeping and reacting to parent complaints about walking distance changes to their local schools. I understand that some leaders and teacher groups may not want to cover some of the most-requested topics, but for accountability measures, it is time to do so. We need to work with media to help them cover the content items listed in the next bullet. But with the media’s staffing and budget constraints, it is an uphill battle. That’s why we need to more on these topics ourselves. The report even notes that “There is a great desire, especially among parents, for more information from the schools themselves. Parents want schools to keep in touch with them. Schools need to communicate not only on day-to-day issues, as they do now, but also on thornier policy questions related to curriculum, teacher performance and student achievement.”  
  • More report findings: Large majorities wanted more news about teacher performance (73 percent), followed by student academic performance (71 percent), school crime or violence (69 percent), school curricula (68 percent), school finances (66 percent), and school reform (66 percent). My opinion is that many of these measures need to be presented in ways that take into account more than test scores of students and the staff who teach them. We need to demonstrate the characteristics of what makes a great school and a great teacher and report on the evaluation process used in our schools to pinpoint weaknesses and the actions we take to improve our schools and staff. By noting that you have 600 teachers in your system and ten were not renewed, says that your district is accountable without naming individuals  in your district.  
  • Somewhat surprising to me was that newspapers, beyond family and friends, remained the single most important source of education news. This was even true for younger populations who wanted more news about schools. So a breaking news item from this report is that newspapers are not yet dead and are needed. If we ask this same question five years from now, the e-news or web-news edition of the same papers may find themselves in this second-place spot. Credibility still comes with established journalists, and that is a characteristic lacking in some other segments of the newer e-publishing world. 
  • The report also gives us a snapshot of differences in regions of the country, race, gender, parents versus non-parents, and economic levels. Except for a few minor exceptions, little differences came into play when looking at ways communication works between the schools and their communities. 
  • One point along demographic lines did stand out. The report notes that “Non-whites were more interested in improving access to education news through the use of cell phone texts by school (42 versus 30 percent), Facebook (46 versus 35 percent), newspapers sending email alerts (65 versus 52 percent), and cell phone messages (40 versus 18 percent). In our work completing communication audits around the country, we hear district leaders tell us that the equity issue comes into play when communicating as many of their students and parents do not have access to communication technology. These findings report differently. 
  • The report also notes that as schools consider how to communicate with parents, they need to take into account different levels of access to the new technologies between the affluent and the less well-off. The extent to which poorer Americans rely on cell phones for basic information was striking. The family-and-friends networks on school issues seem stronger among the more affluent than the less affluent. The report recommends, “Schools should consider working with community organizations and religious congregations to strengthen these informal networks of information among parents of their poorer students – especially since these informal networks, as our survey found, are vital and trusted sources of knowledge about the schools.”  

Time to Take Some Action  

Again, we urge you to read the full report. Do you think the findings ring true for your school community? The only way you will know is to ask.

 Do start thinking about an editorial content calendar to focus on some of the “thornier issues” mentioned n the report. And do talk to your local media about the report. See if there is some common ground so their readers and your community can start receiving the credible information they are after. 

Do make sure that all your district decision makers are aware of the value placed on district communications to parents and the general community. Without it, there would be a disastrous gaping hole in communication in your district. And as we have always said, create a communication vacuum, and your critics will certainly be happy to quickly fill it. 

And finally thanks to the Brookings Institute and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for undertaking and financing this study. It helps build awareness on just how critical communication is to building understanding and support for all schools and children.

Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director


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