Monday, November 19, 2007

Impression Management, or: How I Learned to Stop Hating Press Releases on Test Scores

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, district leaders did not live and die by their students' test scores. When I peered back into the educational debates of the 1980s and even the early 1990s, I found that the release of state and federal test scores was not an occasion for carefully orchestrated media stunts.

Sure, there was spin then, too - but district leaders were just as likely to decry poor test results to build political momentum to infuse additional resources or make needed changes.

Not so last week, where almost every district publicly releasing scores from the Trial Urban District Assessment spun a fabulous yarn around the NAEP results. Indeed, some of the results were promising. But many of the results that district leaders swaggered about were not. Instead, district leaders cherry-picked the results, up-playing positive news while ignoring or discounting negative news.

I pulled the press releases and local news articles from the TUDA districts, and here's a sample of what I found:
    • Chicago and Cleveland - both of which posted lackluster performance - chose the "What TUDA Assessment?" approach. Neither district issued a press release. (However, Cleveland did issue a press release when Cleveland football teams made the championship game.) Barbara Eason-Watkins, Chief Education Officer for the Chicago Public Schools, dismissed the flat scores from 2005 to 2007, noting, "We are encouraged that we have been trending up in all subjects at all grades."

    • Houston leads its press release by saying that "HISD students are beating their peers in most other big-city school districts" - which is true - but buries a key fact and then dismisses it: "4th graders in Houston this year declined in reading, but overall, HISD's scores were up."

    • Perhaps most astounding was New York City's press release, which leads with "New York City students made impressive gains on the 2007 NAEP" - never mind the 4th grade and 8th grade reading results, or the 8th grade math results.
If I sound frustrated, it's because I am. This dynamic is too reminiscent of one of the most potent quotes from Ron Suskind's 2004 NYT Magazine article on the Bush administration, where a senior aide remarked:
We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
To me, it seems that the tone of education policy debates has shifted in the last 25 years. At the center of this shift are the concepts of "impression management" and "reality creation" (see here for one recent example in New York City). Maybe this is a common cultural trend, or perhaps I am re-imagining an idealized past that never existed.

For those who have been in this game longer than I have, please weigh in. On Wednesday, I'll profile one district's response to TUDA in more depth in an attempt to understand the increasing role of impression management in urban education policy.


Anonymous said...

Yep, I think you're imagining an idealized past that never existed. Take a look at the rhetoric in "A Nation at Risk," circa 1983 -- using U.S. test scores in relation to the scores of our major economic peers to try to scare the American public into falling for a half-baked set of initiatives to raise standards for American performance. Consider the "rising tide of mediocrity" and "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." The spinning of test score results, whether justified or not, is a longstanding American tradition.

eduwonkette said...

I certainly agree the feds did it in '83 - but my comment is specifically about the locals (especially the district supers). Did it happen there in the 1980s, too? It may have just been the result of the need to drum up support for the 1990s adequacy suits, but I recall a lot of blatant advertising of bad test scores by the urban district supers.

And were there millions of dollars spent on commercials in the 1980s? Glossy brochures? Press releases that are 90% fabrication?

Anonymous said...

Well, the TUDA is a relatively recent thing -- NAEP was prohibited from reporting even at the state level for a long time -- and there were few, if any, measures that were salient at the district level in the 1980's. So I don't think that districts were where the action was in the '80's or even '90's. In the earlier era, the courts were more important than the court of public opinion, especially around issues of desegregation, which were very much a district-level concern.

The National Education Goals Panel (circa 1988) and the 1994 Goals 2000 legislation made state-level test performance, graduation and dropout rates, etc. more salient, and there was some misrepresentation of the relative positioning of states during those eras.

My impression is that you are reacting to the sheer audacity of the NYC response, which is of the "up is down, night is day, black is white" variety of rhetoric -- what in an earlier era was labeled the "Big Lie" technique of propaganda. Was the reporting of previous educational data so blatantly misleading and false? Perhaps not; but the press release accompanying the publication of the 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity study (the Coleman Report) was pretty misleading. Were the disinformation campaigns as well-organized as they are today? No, they weren't. But "A Nation at Risk" was widely disseminated in booklet form, and the rhetoric was arresting -- in part because the National Commission on Excellence in Education hired a professional writer, Jim Harvey, to punch up the text and issue a call to action.

Robert Pondiscio said...

Oh my, where to begin?

Every paycheck in my adult life has come from three activities: journalism, PR, and teaching. So that may give me some useful perspective on this. The confluence of politics and PR is now such a given that it is hardly worth remarking upon. And while I don’t believe in being nostalgic for a time that never was, it seems quite clear that the history of the government “public information” function has moved rapidly in the last generation toward unabashed, aggressive political “spin” operations. It’s now such a part of the process that it seems unremarkable.

As for schools and PR, there are two ways to look at it, one cynical, the other more hopeful, but both designed to mask a potentially dispiriting truth. If politicians hitch their political wagons to the issue of school improvement, they eventually have to show progress – steady, significant progress --or else be judged a failure by the standards they have set for themselves. The massive spin operations that have grown around government exist to keep such harsh judgments from being made. The more benign explanation is the simple desire of people in leadership positions to energize us, to maintain effort and forward momentum with positive words and imagery, to keep us from sliding back into a feeling of despair and hopelessness. As has been famously observed, Martin Luther King did not deliver the “I Have a Nightmare” speech.

But whichever explanation you choose, both mask a harsh reality: bad schools and slow to nil progress cannot be legislated away. It is the work not of years, but of lifetimes and is stubbornly resistant to policy solutions. The problems of schools are the problems of society itself in all its irrationality, complexity and inequity. Solve society’s ills and you will have fixed the schools. Simple.

Americans have an enormous amount of capital tied up in education, to say nothing of the lives of their children. As a nation, we expect problems to be addressed – reduce crime, win wars, keep our food and water safe –the average American simply doesn’t understand (or at least those who seek our votes believe we don’t understand) why it should be so damned hard to run a decent school system, and why the most powerful nation on Earth can’t produce results in its classrooms that aren’t at least the equal of say, Latvia and Lithuania. And indeed, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that we should see a little return on our prodigious investment. So demands are made, plans are put in place, and every available piece of data becomes ammunition to be thrown behind or at those plans.

Spin, then, is the grease in the gears of education policy. Again, there are two ways to view it, one cynical, one benign. If you are an elected official and you believe that the key to your political fortunes is tied to the perception of progress, then you will fight like hell to keep that perception, along with your reputation, intact. Or if you really believe that your policies are the true and only path to change, then you will fight like hell to keep those policies in place and build support and enthusiasm for your program. Every bad test result is a potential chink in your armor that leads critics to call for a return to the comfort of the known and established practices of the past. In either scenario, your PR person is your critical ally.

What you are responding to then, EW, is the politicization of education. Public education is not above the fray. It is the fray. Promises have been made and must be kept. Laws have been passed that must be enforced. Failure is unacceptable. It is also frustrating, soul-crushing stuff. So instead, we redefine success. Over and over and over again. Simple.

Anonymous said...

"Public education is not above the fray. It is the fray." Nice turn of phrase!

eduwonkette said...

hi robert,
great thoughts - i liked your attempt to get in the district supers heads. especially relevant to NYC is this point - I will say more about this tomorrow:

Or if you really believe that your policies are the true and only path to change, then you will fight like hell to keep those policies in place and build support and enthusiasm for your program. Every bad test result is a potential chink in your armor that leads critics to call for a return to the comfort of the known and established practices of the past.

Bob said...

The trend toward spin is not new. Recall that, in 1987, a country doctor from West Virginia revealed that every state and most large school districts reported that students were "above average" on standardized tests. There were a lot of reasons why that was the case (old norms, teaching to the test), but the states and districts were quite happy to maintain the impression that students were doing well.

Leonie Haimson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leonie Haimson said...

another point-- DOE has a large and highly paid PR dept. unlike other school districts and even city agencies; this is a good way to keep them active.

Beyond that, since most people at Tweed have given up on the notion that it's actually their job to improve our schools, and are leaving it up to the principals and the SSO's to perform this task, there's nothing much left than PR.

Roger Sweeny said...

Of course, there was "spin" of test scores in the past. What has changed is the incentives.

Twenty years ago, there was an incentive for school systems to publicize bad scores. The result was likely to be more money for the school, the okay for new programs, etc. So systems told us how badly they were doing.

Now bad scores carry with them a risk of firing of administrators, and the loss of control to outsiders. It probably doesn't mean more money, certainly no money with no strings attached.

So schools publicize good scores. And when they can't do that honestly, they get creative.

Roger Sweeny said...

Twenty years ago, bad test scores made politicians (and the voters who elect them) say, "What more can we do for you?"

Now it makes politicians say, "You aren't doing enough for us."

Is it any wonder the message from the people who run the school systems has changed?