Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How To Win Hearts and Minds for Charterdom

My esteemed colleague at Edushyster has scored an awesome little handbook straight from the world of charter school marketing-- the Charter School Messaging Notebook. Prepared by the Glover Group for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, this handy guide tells you everything you need to know about launching your successful foray into the lucrative world of pretending to run schools. So tip, not just of the hat, but my entire head to her for turning this up.

Edushyster has already covered the areas dealing with some of the specific language choices of messaging ("Say This, Not That"), but there is so much more to learn from these eighteen pages of marketing gold. Because it's not what you do-- it's what you say.

The Notebook provides valuable information about winning hearts and minds. First, the researchers plumbed the depths of public knowledge. This pre-assessment determined

    * 39% "know" charters are public, 37% think they're private
    * 53% think achievement at charters is highers
    * 25% think students are admitted by academic qualifications, 45% don't know
    * 25% think charters can charge tuition
    (Note that use of "think" or "know" in these hints that researchers know what's true and what's not.)

The researchers note (and we should, too) that even burdened with mis- and no- information, voters favor support for charters hits 50% (higher for Hispanic and African American voters). But here comes the really good news for charterpreneurs:

After being given key messages, support for increasing the number of charter schools increases to 81%.

Let's go ahead and read what the writers meant instead of what they actually said (I'm thinking we're not giving key messages to the support). Exactly what are those key messages that increase support dramatically for charter schools, and at whom should we hurl them?

Who are "Our People"?

The report shows who leads the pack in charter support without any extra information, and who leads the pack after getting key messages. Those are interesting lists, but what's really interesting is the list of people who can be moved the most by proper messaging. These are our targets, the people that we can turn from Doubting Charter Thomases into True Charter Believers, if only we smack them with the right messages.

     * Women over 50
     * Voters with a high school education or less
     * Voters over the age of 65
     * Voters in the Midwest and rural communities
     * Voters from low-income families
     * Women
     * Registered independents

So with what messages shall we smack them?

The researchers tested twelve messages. Three turned out to be huntless dogs, but the remaining nine look like they can bring home the mail effectively. In order of swellness, they are-

1) Achievement.
This is the big winner. So keep pushing out those misleading stats like the high college enrollment or the 100% graduation rates. It goes without stating that you should avoid bringing up the lackluster student achievement or the humongous attrition rates.

2) Responsiveness
Actually surprised me with this one, but the idea that teachers in charters are free to adjust to individual student needs is attractive (if somewhat fictional), as is the idea that the school itself can be flexible. Not sure how "no excuses" schools are supposed to make use of this marketing trick.

3) Partnership
Charter schools provide partnership between students, teachers and parents where all are held accountable with freedom to innovate  and stuff.

4) Innovation
Charters are on the cutting edge of public education reform. Really? So, they are further into Common Core and high-stakes testing than the rest of us? I'm pretty sure the charters that are advertising themselves as specifically NOT having Common Core are not using this page from the handbook.

5) Waiting Lists
This comes with an asterisk and a warning. Use it where people are trained to think "waiting list" means "huge demand" and not in places where people think "waiting list" means "huge PITA leading to no choice."

6) Options
When the public school won't treat your special snowflake properly, go to a charter. They'll understand.

7) Defining charters
This thread runs throughout the paper. Keep defining charters, so that you can replace peoples' many and varied misconceptions with more market-useful misconceptions. The go-to definition here is

Charter schools are unique public schools that are allowed the freedom to be more innovative while being held accountable for advancing student achievement. Like traditional public schools, they are publicly funded, do not charge tuition, do not have special entrance requirements, are not associated with any religion, and operate in all kinds of communities across the country-- urban, suburban, and rural.

You may need to practice getting through that with a straight face.

8) Social Justice
Another asterisk. This works great with minority voters as long as you don't start comparing minority kids to white kids.

9) Resources
Tax money does not belong to the school district; it belongs to the students. This is an interesting legal notion. I assume you should not frame it by saying to childless taxpayers, "You deserve no say in how the school taxes that you pay are spent."

Other Research of Note

The researchers also asked voters what actions they thought would lead to improvements in student achievement in public schools.

Here are the winning ideas:
    * Encouraging parent involvement
    * Reducing class size
    * Firing poor performing teachers
    * Creating safer, more disciplined learning environment

Here are the losing ideas:
    * Recruiting better principals/school leaders
    * Creating smaller, more personalized schools
    * Limiting the power of teacher unions
    * Creating new PUBLIC schools so parents have more choices

It's worth noting that the very highest choices only scored 58% agreement.

Messaging messaging messaging

Throughout the notebook, the writers provide little sidebars called "Charter Schools That Work" in which they provide a sample word salad using the points they just made to create a winning message. This handbook is all about message. Message, message, message. At no point do the writers address how a charter should actually be operated-- this is strictly about how to talk about what they do. We're not concerned with the reality here-- only the marketing.

That leads us to a last page of final advice

Always focus on students. "Hands down, student focused messages perform better than anything else we can talk about."

Get your PhD in Messaging. "The more we Personalize, Humanize and Dramatize our messages, the better we do."

Research done by the Word Doctors, a world-renowned messaging firm (yes, that's a thing), shows that the most absolute golden message phrase is "effective schools that challenge students and prepare them for the future."

Also, "the right of every child to receive an excellent education" beats "the right of families to choose the public school that is best for their children" 4 to 1. Yes, that's what all of this leads to. Discussing rights not as things that people have or deserve or which conflict with each other, but as phrases that test well among voters/consumers.

Children are our most effective spokesperson. When choosing a positive image, go with a small child.

What can we learn here?

People who love public schools (I mean actual public schools or traditional public charter schools, not public-when-it-comes-to-scarfing-up-tax-dolars-but-not-so-much-when-it-comes-to-accountability charters) need to see this sort of thing.

Practically speaking, it's useful to know the sorts of things they will claim so that we can be prepared to point out. We know to ask questions such as, "100% graduation rate! That's awesome. How many of the freshmen you had four years ago were part of that graduating class?"

And we also need to take a good hard look at what the research tells us about the concerns and cares of taxpayers, voters and parents. We don't this kind of research often, or even ever, and we'd be fools not to take note of what is uppermost in the minds of the people we serve.

But we also need to know about this stuff because this is one of the fronts of this battle that we are just not prepared to fight. We invest a ton of time trying to adjust, align, argue about, fight with, overcome, and otherwise cope with reality. Meanwhile, charters just deal with their issues by making shit up. It is one of our disabilities in this fight-- we feel bound by reality, while they simply do not.

Odd, isn't it? One of the guiding principles of Schools These Days is data. Measurable, quantifiable facts, facts that can't be argued away or spun or shaded. Here's your reminder that even the reformsters know that's not how it works. It's not the facts. It's not what you actually do. It's how you talk about it.


  1. Data, as long as it's the "right" data.

  2. Care to comment on the new poll showing New York's opposition to the common core (with low numbers of "don't know"s) ?