Messages About Public Education That Don’t Sell Well (And Ones That Will)

[The following is from a talk given at a meeting of the Young Elected Officials last week in Washington, D.C.] Thanks for having me here today. I’m feeling a little out of context at a meeting for the Young Elected Officials. And it’s not because I’m not an elected official. But I suppose there are … Continue reading “Messages About Public Education That Don’t Sell Well (And Ones That Will)”

[The following is from a talk given at a meeting of the Young Elected Officials last week in Washington, D.C.]

Thanks for having me here today. I’m feeling a little out of context at a meeting for the Young Elected Officials. And it’s not because I’m not an elected official.

But I suppose there are some advantages and benefits to aging. Wisdom, however, is not one of them, as the demographics of Fox News bear out.

In aging you have experiences that you can reflect and act on over time and experiences that are unique to your generational cohort. For instance, how many of you have deep expertise in junk mail? That happens to be my work in trade as I’ve been in that business for over 20 years; although, the industry is nothing like what it once was and is rapidly going the way of the dinosaurs.

Also, how many of you were in school in the South during the early years of forced integration of the races? I was in second grade in Dallas, Texas and remember vividly the day they bused the poor kids across town to my school.

When they brought the poor kids into my class, there was a girl named Brenda who didn’t have on any shoes. And there was a little boy named Jerald who still sucked his thumb and was basically dressed in rags.

I think I learned more that day than I did the rest of my second-grade year. I leaned that public schools are where our nation’s grossest injustices – the poverty, neglect, and malnutrition of children – are first exposed to the light of day. That’s why we have to keep schools public. Otherwise those injustices will be covered over or swept into a corner.

So because of my experience with junk mail, I know I can sell stuff. In fact, at one point in my career, I was writing fundraising letters for Human Rights Watch to help them protest against the terrorist suspects being held in Guantanamo, while at the same time, I was working for the very company that sold the uniforms the suspects were wearing in the prison. I’ll let you make of that what you will.

And because of what I witnessed as a child of the South, I know what’s at stake. Over the past 60 years, our country has actually made quite a lot of progress on civil rights – Trayvon Martin aside. And I’m afraid we’re in danger of losing all that. I think things have gotten just that bad.

So based on that – that I know how to sell stuff, and I know what’s at stake – I want to offer some advice on how we should do a better job of selling public education. And in particular, I want to call out five messages about public education we should stop using because they don’t sell well.

Message #1: Education is mostly a private pursuit.

Politicians like to talk about getting the best education for YOUR child. When talking about education, the emphasis is always on “competition” and using individual rewards and punishments to get students over the bar or up to speed. Terms like “college or career ready” and getting young children “ready to learn” all perpetuate the idea that the only purpose of education is to get individuals to a next stage or an end goal.

This rhetorical frame doesn’t sell well because it convinces people that once their own children are provided for then that’s all that matters.

It ignores that education is really about developing our societal capacity. We want all citizens educated so our whole society prospers.

That’s why early state constitutions in the U.S., like those of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, set up and stressed the importance of a system of public education. That’s why the Land Ordinance of 1785 provided for public school financing in new territories. In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson sought a publicly funded system of schools because he believed that an educated citizenry was critical to the well-being of a democratic society. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote “The influence over government must be shared among all men.” The earliest advocates for public schools – Jefferson, George Washington, Horace Mann – all agreed that democratic citizenship was a primary function of education.

Well, democracy is a collaborative process. It’s not always about getting your own way.

So instead of telling parents their children need to be well educated so they can compete, we should be telling them their children need to be well educated so they can take part in our democratic society.

Message #2: America’s System Of Public Education Is Broken

How often do you read a statement about education that begins with “America’s schools are broken” and “public education is in crisis”?

When you hear statements like

  • America is getting out-competed in education
  • American kids score poorly on international exams in comparison to their peers in other countries
  • Achievement in America has been flat for decades

what you’re hearing is a condemnation of the entire public education system.

This rhetoric doesn’t sell well because it reinforces the belief that our schools and our teachers don’t do a good job and public schools should be abandoned.

Here’s the truth, from economist Richard Rothstein:

In the only longitudinal measure of student achievement – the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAPE – American students have improved substantially, in some cases phenomenally. In general, the improvements have been greatest for African-American students, and among these, for the most disadvantaged. The improvements have been greatest for both black and white 4th and 8th graders in math. Improvements have been less great but still substantial for black 4th and 8th graders in reading and for black 12th graders in both math and reading … On international assessments, American students’ performance in math and science has improved from the bottom to above international average. U.S. students in schools with 10% or less poverty are number one in the world.

Does this mean that there are no broken schools in America? Of course not, but don’t trash the whole system. Instead, say that the problem is that America’s schools don’t work well for every kid. Especially if the kid happens to be poor, from a minority ethnicity or culture, or if the kid happens to have some special needs.

Message #3: Money Doesn’t Matter

Do you know that most states spend less money on education today than they did in 2008 – some of them a lot less money? In the meantime student populations continue to increase.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called this “the new normal.”

The typical storyline is that spending per pupil has increased dramatically and scores on national assessments have stagnated, SO since we’re spending more and more, and not getting results, it’s clear that money doesn’t make a difference.

This rhetorical frame doesn’t sell well because it justifies cruelty to children and inequality on the basis of fiscal responsibility.

It’s also just not true. Rutgers professor Bruce Baker looked at the data and concluded:

On average, higher per-pupil spending is positively associated with improved or higher student outcomes. School resources that cost money — like class size reduction or higher teacher salaries — are indeed positively associated with better student outcomes. Further, when states improve the level and distribution of funding across local public school districts this tends to lead to improvements in the level and distribution of student outcomes.

So instead of talking about the need to “tighten our belts” and adjust to the “new normal” we need to talk about doing what’s really best for kids and getting the resources that are necessary.

Message #4: Schools Should Be Run Like A Business

How often do you hear people say, “If we ran a business the way we operate schools, it wouldn’t be in business very long”?

We’re told that

  • Public schools are archaic that they were designed for the industrial age and are out of step with the needs of a “knowledge society.”
  • That education is too inefficient and not productive enough, that schools need to focus on “quality improvement” and “zero defects.”
  • We’re told that teachers resist change, that they’re protected by tenure, and that schools are a bureaucratic monopoly.

So now superintendents are calling themselves CEOs and parents are being called customers.

This rhetoric doesn’t sell well because it distorts the mission of education.

First when people say run schools like a business, they don’t say what kind of business? Coal mines aren’t run like restaurants.

Second, most businesses fail. Do we really want schools that are constantly failing? How is that good for kids?

Third, you’ve all heard the Papa John’s tagline “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza.” Well, as Jamie Vollmer has pointed out, schools can’t control their ingredients. They have to educate all children with the resources they are given by the community.

Lastly, businesses are not democratic institutions. Schools must be democratic if we want parents and taxpayers to have input into how schools are run. And schools must model democracy if we want children to be prepared to function in a democratic society.

So instead of comparing schools to businesses, we should be talking about schools as essential infrastructure, like fire and police protection, roads and bridges, and our electoral process.

Message #5: Higher Standards Will Solve Inequality

It seems today that whenever the issue of education inequality or the achievement gap comes up the reply is to raise standards. We’re often told that the way to reduce inequalities is to

  • Hold all students to the same, more rigorous, learning expectations.
  • Make teachers ratchet up the difficulty of curriculum so that, for instance, algebra is taught in earlier grades, or little kids are made to read more difficult nonfiction rather than Charlotte’s Web.
  • And demand that states and school districts raise the cut scores on high stakes tests so more students fail.

At a panel on education at a conference I went to earlier this summer I heard one of the panelists call the Common Core State Standards “Brown 2.0” likening the new supposedly higher standards to the landmark Supreme Court case that forced the racial integration of schools. Really?

The message higher standards solves inequality doesn’t sell well because it overpromises the benefits of standards, and it lets those who are responsible for persistent inequality off the hook.

You can’t raise the bar while at the same time you’re cutting the supports children need to reach it.  As my colleague John Jackson likes to say, this is like throwing a kid who doesn’t know how to swim into the deep water and then continuously pulling back the shore.

Sure standards need to be high. But that doesn’t solve the problem of the declining and unequal support that our students are getting. The only way to close the achievement gap is to eliminate the opportunity gap.

Finally, let me recall another Southerner who also had a deep expertise in junk mail and had grown up during the time of forced integration and ended up using those experiences as catalysts to work for social justice.

His name is Morris Dees, and many of you may know he runs an organization called the Southern Poverty Law Center that tracks right-wing hate groups and publishes a K-12 education program called Teaching Tolerance.

I had the good fortune of hearing Dees speak at a convention some time ago when he described an important moment that changed his life and caused him to start the SPLC.

Living as a fancy Manhattan attorney, far away from his roots in Alabama, he was watching the evening news when there was news footage of Bull Connor’s police forces beating and fire-hosing peaceful protestors in Selma who were speaking out for their civil rights.

When Dees saw the injustice playing out on the evening news he said to himself, “I know what to do about that. And I can do something about that.” And he did.

Today, when I look at scenes of poor black and brown school children having their schools closed down and thousands of classroom teachers protesting their unfair working conditions, I say to myself, “I can do something about that.”

When we see schools being shuttered, for no legitimate reason, in the inner cities of Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cleveland… when we see school children and parents out in the street fighting for their right to an education… when we hear the warning signs from front-line classroom teachers that our public schools are sliding over the brink… we should all be saying, “We can do something about that. We can do something about that.”

And I know that you all will. Thank you.

19 thoughts on “Messages About Public Education That Don’t Sell Well (And Ones That Will)”

  1. Yes! I can say as a retired public educator that I agree with your article. You have said so much of what I have said for many years. Thank you!

  2. Finally, you have said something positive and accurate. If only this was said more frequently and more often.

  3. Thank you for this lucid article. I was a high school teacher for 23 years and can add these problems; courses in credentials that are meaningless and a waste of time. Nowhere in (Los Angeles) was there any talk of Dewey, Freire, different learning sckills and techniques such as visual learning, rote, collaborative presentations, film, etc. Not a word. Once in school one has to face 3 or 4 mafias- the administrators and their ass-kissers. the spies that lurk ready to denounce you, the teachers in other areas who won’t speak to you as they pass along the hall, the cliques and lunch meetings where they talk behind the backs of those that are not present, the opportunistic Union that let me work for decades before I found out (not through them) how to raise my pay scale. Lest you think there was something wrong with me my students always supported me vociferously. The administrators and some teachers hated me because I always openly and vocally supported the students- ghetto kids in a Mexican neighborhood.

  4. Terrific, Jeff! I needed the energy to get at it…doing something about it. 🙂

  5. Terrific, Jeff. Thanks for these great ideas. They will certainly help in “doing something about it!”

  6. We are doing something about that. We are a small group of dedicated women in Mexico City, and have a program which is starting it´s 5th scholastic year in August called ¨Niños Cosechando Salud,A.C.¨It is based on making vegetable gardens in the public schools and giving the Activities Intergrating Mathematics and Science (AIMS) program which we translated into Spanish. The students, teachers, directors, supervisors and parents all get involved and it has proved a great benefit to all including ourselves. See us at (

    1. You’re an idiot. You just want public ed appear failing so you can privatize it or get gov’t money for vouchers

  7. After reading this report I am extremely grateful I had the opportunity to attend private schools while I was growing up. Now there were many advantages to this in that the teachers were paid well enough that they were able to spend what ever time was needed wit each student to allow the student to reach their potential and the teachers were not allowed to have failing students. The schools were more closely related to Dictatorships and there were great rewards from a students point of view for doing well. Teachers made students think independently by challenging them to challenge what the teacher told them in class and to produce evidence or back up the students opinion based on the concepts learned in class. This is something I have not seen in public schools that in my experiences were interested in producing robots and not truly independent thinkers that have learned how to back up their thinking by drawing examples or proven facts into their arguments. You know the same experiences that the children of prior to 1960 experienced and allowed for and encouraged independent thinking that could be argued while accepting differing points of view. Maybe if today’s teachers had that point of view on education and spent that amount of time delivering their lessons as opposed to teaching how to pass a placement test then maybe the USA would be able to approach the top of the list for education effectiveness that is so important to be on for continued success of our country.

  8. I agree with this article wholeheartedly but also see the reality that people are FIRST interested in the success of their OWN kids and want the BEST for their own kids before they think about society in general. I had to come to grips with this fact when I decided to homeschool my own two children because by the time I could do anything to improve my local district, those improvements would not benefit my kids and their opportunity for an excellent education would be lost. I had to focus my energy on THEM getting a good education.

    The other flaw of the “village raising children” philosophy is that I have no vote on how many children others choose to have and who chooses to have children. The real debate really needs to be what are the BASICS that we need to provide each child as a human right in our society and how that will be paid for. Yes, opportunity is unequal but those of us who are able and willing to provide the best opportunity for our children are not willing to drop that level of support to our own families in order to support others. I am not willing to be taxed at a higher rate so that our family is forced to have two bread winners in order to eat so that all of us can use “subsidized daycare and high quality preschools”. Part of the picture also lies in the commitment of the PARENTS to work with the schools to provide that high quality education. Sometimes we may be enabling parents to continue irresponsibility by continually expanding services like free lunch and breakfast programs instead of asking the bigger question of why these kids are not being fed at home.

    Our educational system cannot be everything to everybody. Other sectors of society also have to be engaged.

    1. Karen, if you are “able and willing to provide the best opportunity for [your] own children”, and you are in a position to be “taxed at a higher rate”, then you should consider yourself lucky. Did you ever consider the fact that certain people are taxed more to pay for the education of other people’s kids precisely because those other people do not have the incomes to afford such taxes, and are totally unable to provide the “best opportunity for [their] children”? Did you ever consider the fact that kids are not being fed at home because their parents live in poverty, and simply cannot afford to feed their children? Really, you sound like an upper quintile person totally out of touch with the realities of how the lowest quintile live.

  9. Agree with the education concepts presented here, although it is human nature to want to do the best for your own children given the limits of financial resources. Our kids went to public and private schools and the advantages of private schools are overstated in many cases. The teachers aren’t all that well paid. The big advantage is that private schools can get away with putting pressure on parents that the public schools legally can’t do. It is really the parents that are the key to well educated children. Books in the home and intellectual pursuits go a long way in making the child comfortable with the learning process. I am not a big fan of home schooling since most parents are not very good teachers and have limited resources. I do like the idea of personal tutoring which I got when I was homebound for a year. I really learned a lot with one on one education with an excellent teacher provided by the school district.

  10. Thank you, Jeff, for a well written and very well thought out article.

    Recognizing that all of us are experts with the process to a degree, since we are ALL educated here, one may question how we have come to this moment where we can be so divided in our opinons about something we ALL so obviously care about? But then, aren’t we ALL following the same pattern of thinking that is a result of Western Education? And isn’t its pedagogy one that developed centuries ago in support of empire and colony development? I know we’ve learned a bit more about thinking since Victorian times, and I think we should ALL be mature enough to apply our modern knowledge to the process.

    We now know we are each a part of a greater, inter-connected whole; of an ecosystem, where each part is inter-related and interdependent. We know that man’s intelligence evolved from that which preceded him and that our intelligence is more than what is measureably defined on an I.Q. test. The next education model, one long overdue, will reflect this knowledge.

    And it turns out the new model is already in place. Ignoring it does few of us good. Adopting it will serve ALL of us well. It is an Earth based education model. When we choose to give every child at every grade level a real world, hands-on, multi-sensory, inter-disciplinery experience in each community’s natural settings led by educational specialists, we will connect state learning objectives with place, where we first learned the language and numbers that life requires. In doing so we will be systemically supporting both learned and innate intelligences in our children, leading them toward a wholeness contradictory to the divisiveness that presently afflicts us ALL.

  11. You get it. I just wish everyone who knows how important a quality education is could get it. But, I guess it depends on who is defining “quality education”. You are so right. We are facing the challenges of an opportunity gap. That has been my message for the past couple of years. Your message is a treasure chest for change…and yes, we can do something about it; if only we decide to.

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