By Madelynn Coldiron
School board members who hear criticism about public schools should respond in a personal way, Dr. John Draper told a record crowd who attended this year’s KSBA Summer Leadership Institute in July.
Myths about America’s public schools stick, he said, and one way to counteract, or unstick, those myths is not with data, but with personal stories about what goes on inside your schools, he said.
“The way you do it is, you use stories. You connect your community using stories,” Draper said. “It’s not data … tell me about something that makes a difference in the life of a child; it’s powerful that way.”
He gave examples of a caring teacher, a coach and a school bus driver, along with his own account of unknowingly making a life-and-death difference for one of his students when he was a teacher.
Draper cited one public school district that has students fill out “Successory” forms every grading period to thank someone who has helped them be successful in school. Some of those stories are shared at school board meetings.
“We do great things in schools and I think we should be proud of what we do. More of God’s work is done every day in public schools than any other institution in American” said Draper, now a consultant for the National School Public Relations Association. School board members are especially well-positioned to get the message out about their schools.
“School board members, I find, have a broader view,” he said. “Sometimes I get with superintendents, principals and they’re a little bit narrow ... they live in education, but you guys, I find, have a better picture.”
“Public schools are actually doing a better job than they ever have,” Draper said. He urged board members to think and talk about what they believe:
• Every child deserves a quality education regardless of where he lives or who his parents are.
• Standardized tests are just one measure of learning and don’t measure qualities like creativity.
• All children can learn but at different rates with different strengths.
•An overwhelming majority of educators are good people who care about children.
Use language that re-frames the loaded phrases used by public school critics, he said. For example, when a board member hears “godless government schools with selfish union employees leaving little children behind,” respond by describing them as “caring community schools with sincere, dedicated professionals who give every child every chance every day.”
Draper outlined some of the myths about public schools and the danger of not counteracting them.
Polling shows parents think their local schools do a good job, and even half of those without kids in school agree with that. But when the question broadens to grading the nation’s schools, approval sinks to 18 percent.
The danger in this broader opinion, he said, is that it leads Congress and state legislatures to believe that local schools are good, but overall they’re bad “and we need to fix them … and their ideas of fixing are often not very good ideas.”
“This myth hurts us. So our nationwide support has to begin here at home. We have to be very careful that we don’t compare our district to other districts. All we’re doing is adding to the myth that our schools are pretty good but there are some really bad ones out there,” Draper said, pointing instead to a Texas superintendent who compared his district’s performance with the state average.
Draper gave board members plenty of ammunition to respond to those who believe the myths about public schools, demolishing them one by one.
Schools are improving the graduation rate, “and we have a more challenging student body than we’ve ever had.” But he warned that reducing the dropout rate must begin in the primary grades. Retention is not the answer, he said, but flexible options like year-round calendars and ungraded high schools may be.
“We just need to remove the stigma attached from the student who takes a little more time to make it,” he said.
Public schools do have an achievement gap, Draper said, but they are narrowing it a little. The term itself is a misnomer, he added. “Poverty learning gap is a better description of what we’re dealing with. The poverty learning gap is not our fault – it is our problem and we need to be working on it. When we call it a poverty learning gap then we put the emphasis on who’s the enemy, who are we battling?”
As for charter schools, even though no research has shown that charters as a group outperform public schools, Americans like them, even though they don’t know why.
“If two-thirds of the constituents think they’re a good idea, there will come a point, where even in your state legislature, the legislators don’t care what the research says,” Draper warned. “They’re going to act in the will of their constituents.”
He similarly debunked the myth that merit pay for teachers produces increased student achievement and that the ACT/SAT scores have been declining. Of the latter, he said the overall average is indeed going down – but it’s because more students, including special-needs students, are taking the tests. The scores of subgroups, however, are up or holding.
As for U.S. students’ ranking on international testing, “We suck,” he acknowledged, because the U.S. is so diverse. American students have never done well on these tests, he said, but are near the top when measured in global competitiveness. U.S students are in the middle range, which he called “the sweet spot,” because our educational system has a good balance between curriculum and creativity.
— To view Draper’s PowerPoint presentation on “Crucial Conversations About America’s Schools,” go to www.JohnDraper.org.