Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Can Marketing Fix What Is Wrong in Our Schools?

Could the talents of AMC's 'MadMen'
keep families satisfied with our schools?

It is important to note at the beginning that there are many excellent teachers, principals, and staff in Madison's public schools. These people put in long, often unpaid hours, produce results under difficult conditions, and are too often told that they are overpaid laggards rather than thanked for their dedication and service. These people are central to family loyalty to Madison schools.

That they exist, however, doesn't mean that we don't have problems or that we are helped by denying that we need to change. There are times when it is at least as important to respond to the reasons that people leave as it is to know what will make them feel good about staying. I would argue that, for the Madison Metropolitan School district, responding to discontent is far more important than trying to convince people that all is well.

This will return to Madison's schools... I promise...
But First, a Word on Marketing and Communications

I’ve been around conversations about ‘marketing’ for longer than I care to admit (it’s more than one digit, and the first number is a 2) because of my day job at UW-Madison.

I’ve seen logo mania, branding bizarreness, and now social networking and e-branding all embraced and implemented, some with strong results, others not so much. I’ve been in study groups that read and presented our way through classics, such as “Building Strong Brands,” and I’ve read pithy titles like “Emotional Marketing,” “Rocking the Ages,” and “Bobos in Paradise.”

Through it all, I’ve noticed a few constants. These are personal observations, not scientifically tested theories. Full disclaimer delivered.

1)      An amazing number of people believe that knowing how to read and write and exposure to marketing products makes them expert in strong marketing strategies. Not so much, say I.
2)      Too many decisions to do ‘strategic marketing’ are searches for a quick fix to a PR problem rather than a commitment to the hard work needed to do a realistic assessment of why that problem (or problems) occurred and what it would take to fix the problem before tackling the image.
3)      Trendy strategies and ‘edgy’ logos are not substitutes for the attention to quality product, personal relationships, and customer service that build the strongest brands over time.
4)      You are not communicating or ‘messaging’ if you haven’t considered your audience and what they value, and care enough to connect with them at all levels of the process. Talking at people is just that. It is not relationship building, communicating, or marketing.

How does this relate to Madison’s public schools?

A recent Wisconsin State Journal editorial took MMSD to task for its’ diminished reputation and admonished the district to ‘tout its successes.’ For the past few years, the Board of Education has pushed for a ‘marketing plan’ or a ‘communications plan’ that will help to convince parents to stay in the district’s schools rather than leaving for private schools or using open enrollment to transfer to neighboring districts. Mayor Dave, too, has weighed in with concerns about the impact of school reputation on decisions to buy homes in the Madison Metro School District or specific neighborhoods within the district.

And recent proposed changes to Board of Education policy and Code of Conduct (rejected by the board majority) would have prohibited elected members of the Board of Education from saying or doing anything that would create image problems for the district with transgressions and sanctions to be determined and applied by the board president. I had visions of myself, like Bart Simpson in the opening credits, spending long hours in Room 103 writing on a blackboard, “I will only praise our schools.”  had the revised codes been approved and implemented.

Never mind the calls for transparency and disclosure that I heard when I first ran for the school board 4 years ago, and heard again when the community weighed in during the search for a new superintendent.

We have the information on why people leave. But do we have the will to use that information in a responsive way?

To his credit, Superintendent Nerad conducted a survey of people who chose to leave the district and shared the results with the board around a year ago through a report (link) and, upon board request, a document with the detailed feedback provided by respondents.

The recent WI State Journal article on recent proposals to limit the percentage of students who can leave a district through open enrollment and/or help stop the loss of funds that goes along with the students (estimated at $2.5 million for MMSD in 2009-10), has generated quite a debate. Most of it aligns with the findings from the 2008-09 survey. (That article drew 89 responses, most from people who posted only once.)

There is a lot to work with if the district truly wants to turn around the out-migration that has been taking place through open enrollment, transfers to private schools, and home schooling choices. Parents have cited a number of issues in their decisions to leave: lack of programming for talented and gifted students, bullying, quality of curriculum, and discipline issues, stand out among the factors mentioned.

At issue is whether we listen to what families are saying to us and treat their concerns as valid? Or do we wrie their experiences off as “perceptions.”

Marketing is of Limited Value if We Don’t Fix the Problems
To be clear, this post is not an argument against marketing or communications. Even organizations at the top of their form use marketing and communication strategies to improve and stay at the top. Rather, this post is meant to serve as a reminder that marketing is not a panacea. It does not solve problems, nor does it make problems go away where they exist. (Think of the ads for air fresheners that claim to ‘get rid’ of fish or litter box smells.)

I would guess other board members have an idea of changes that we believe would help to keep families in the district and perhaps even convince others to return or move into the district for the first time. After all, if we have been able to  develop highly recognized and sought after programs to serve the needs of students on the autism spectrum, shouldn’t we be able to develop programs that fully include for academically talented and gifted students? Shouldn’t we be able to develop an inclusive approach to students of color at all levels including TAG? If we did these things, wouldn't the district reputation change, and wouldn't it be easier to attract and retain those students?

It is clear that doing the same things over and over while claiming that we can expect different results clearly is not working.

My personal change wish list includes:

Get serious about TAG. I say this as someone who said pretty much the same thing over 15 years ago. Since then, TAG positions and programs have been diminished, not enhanced, through MMSD policy and (in)action.

Two years ago, the district received a report and recommendations to bring TAG programming into compliance with Wisconsin’s minimal laws requiring accommodation for TAG students. Within a month, district staff tried to sneak through a rewrite of the recommendations, to remove language providing for ability grouping of up to five or six students at the elementary class level. Authors of the report viewed this step as critical for helping teachers and students without creating separate classes. At the board’s insistence, the wording was returned to the original language. But the foot dragging continues.

The board also passed a motion requiring newly-hired TAG staff to have discernible experience, credentials, and coursework in TAG education. (When the report was approved, only one TAG Resource Teacher had a degree in the field; a few others had certification. At least one had a special education background, which is a very different model and understanding of ‘special needs’ education.)

Existing staff have done a lot of work to improve their knowledge and skill base since then. But the search for a new TAG coordinator foundered for reasons that could be debated depending on one’s vantage point, so there is again an interim coordinator who does not have a TAG background. Two additional TAG Resource Teacher positions are vacant, for a total of 3 positions that lack the staff to help carry forward the testing, problem solving, and programming called for by state law and the district’s plan.

This cannot continue.

Get serious about services for kids with serious mental health issues.

By this I mean the growing body of students, some with serious mental health needs before they begin Kindergarten, who create a good portion of the disruptive atmosphere that we hear about from parents, staff, and students.

I am referring to children who are not simply "naughty" or "wild" or "unsocialized." Students in those groups can and are served by the districts positive behavior coaches and support structures. Demanding that they "behave," or "buckle down" is pointless. They cannot.

Here, I am referring to students who -- through no fault of their own -- come to our schools with serious mental health problems including PTSD, attachment disorders, fetal alcohol syndrome, and a range of other serious problems. Some have been in and out of institutions, often failed by a system that releases them back to the conditions that created the mental health problems in the first place. With no back up or support plan.

These are children who can be violent, disruptive, aggressive, or self-destructive. They live their lives in ways that make it impossible to participate in or benefit from the behavior interventions that work with other children. It is not their fault. Many want desperately to be "good," but are not helped by our failure to admit that they exist and need services.

Last year, the board pressed administration on the dire need for services for children with serious mental health issues. We eventually received data that confirmed what we have heard from exhausted principals, social workers, health workers, teachers, and aides for years: the number of slots available to help children with the most extreme levels of mental illness, does not come close to serving the number of children who would be referred and served if room were available.

Until we commit to truly addressing, not glossing over, addressing, the needs of students who have identified, serious, mental health issues, the reports of bad behavior, aggression, disruption, and other problems will continue to mar the district's reputation. We can put out all of the glossy brochures and press releases that we want, but one parent witnessing a rough episode with a mentally distressed student and describing it to another parent, is a much more powerful force in creating perceptions of our district.

Enforce Bullying Policy. MMSD has had a bullying policy for as long as I can remember. But policy means little if it is not clear, coherent, and enforced among our students. Some teachers, principals, and staff, are good at establishing a firm 'no bullying' environment. Others, not so much. And there in lies the problem.

The board has heard for years about problems of bullying and aggression among all age groups. Three years ago, our expulsion hearing examiners spoke out and asked the board to address issues of bullying because of the numbers of victims who had been ignored by school staff, and ended up in the expulsion process because they took matters into their own hands. This aligns with concerns that have emerged for individual board members whether through family experience or education by school staff.

Last year, the district took steps to improve its bullying policy. But that is not the end, it is only the first step. It is up to central administration, school staff, and the Board of Education to ensure that the policy is operational and enforced if it is to stand as more than just words on paper. Until that happens, families will leave the district if it means the difference between feeling that their child is safe and their child is being victimized on a regular basis.


These are just some of the issues that I believe can and must be addressed, not by more study, not by review, not by task forces, but by changes in our daily practice as a district. There are other areas that need similar focus, too. The above issues are used to illustrate the seriousness and depth of the issues that cannot be explained away as simple differences of perception. These issues, and the others like them, require thought, a desire to change, and a willingness to get over our dwindling reputation as a strong district to get to the work that must take place if we are to guarantee our strength into the future.

And a nice press release or glossy brochure cannot take the place of what must be done. The people who question staying in the district will decide to stay (or come back) if and when they believe that someone is listening to their concerns and willing to change the problems that they are experiencing.

We can do it. But only if we have the will to be honest and to act.