The Perception Challenge

Glenn Cook
December 1, 2003

Complete this sentence in five words or less: Urban schools are ... Now look at your answer. Is it based on fact or perception? Did you finish the sentence, or decide that "urban schools" are too difficult to characterize accurately in a few words?

You probably didn't finish the sentence. As a school leader, you know the complexities of urban education can't be reduced to a few short facts.

The public, on the other hand, often works from perception, not fact. This perception can be based on nostalgia, rumor, what's in newspapers and on television. Or it could just be a gut feeling.

Whatever the cause, the perception challenge faced by school districts -- especially those in urban areas -- is just as tricky as a financial crisis, takeover threat, or governance controversy. The reason: Everything a school district does -- and some things it doesn't do -- contributes to how it is perceived by the public.

"It is frustrating for educators because they have such a big job of organizing the schools and focusing on the core business of schools, which is academic learning," says Nora Carr, former assistant superintendent for communications in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools. "But if we continue to lose the public perception piece, ultimately public education as we know it is in jeopardy, because we simply can't survive without public trust and public support."


How often have you heard someone wax nostalgically, "When I was in school ... "?

Nostalgia runs rampant in education, especially since everyone has some school experience. It's why boards have difficulty closing schools, even if the buildings are outdated and too expensive to renovate. It's why community members -- 75 percent of whom do not have school-age children -- complain about the lack of discipline in classrooms and bemoan "urban decay."

"Everybody has either gone to school or had kids in school, and they think they're experts," says Jill Wynns, a member of the San Francisco Unified School District's board of education. "People generally extend that to teaching, being a superintendent, or a principal, or a school board member. They think it is something they know and is easy to do, and that makes it possible for them to make unexamined judgments about education."

But the public schools have changed significantly -- if subtly -- over the past four decades. It's not your mother's classroom, where the teacher was given a box of chalk and told to call the principal if she needed help. It just looks like your mother's classroom.

"Apples and oranges? You're talking oranges and tangerines," says Brian Perkins, vice president of Connecticut's New Haven Board of Education and chair of educational leadership at Southern Connecticut State University. "The fact that our schools have retained a lot of what we had before, like color and texture, doesn't make them the same. School systems are fundamentally different in terms of what we're expected to address today."

Poverty, diversity, and student achievement were issues for urban educators 30, 40, and 50 years ago, Perkins says. It's the approach urban schools are taking that's different, as is the scrutiny districts receive from the media and policy makers who are increasingly focused on student achievement.

Earl Watkins, superintendent of the Jackson (Miss.) Public Schools, says that in the past 15 years, the demographics of the 31,000-student district have shifted from majority African-American to almost entirely -- 96 percent -- African-American. This shift, and the poverty that accompanied it, has presented a multitude of problems for Jackson's schools, which are chronically underfunded by a predominantly rural state that has been near the bottom in student achievement scores.

"There's not a clear understanding here of what occurs in urban districts and the kind of resources that you need in an urban district," Watkins says. "At the same time, without the resources, we have a cry for accountability from our communities."

For Watkins and other urban school leaders, the task of educating the community is almost as daunting as educating students. And Perkins, Carr, and others are quick to note that districts have been slow in telling their story to the general public.

"Businesses have been charged with reinventing themselves over and over," Perkins says. "Someone sold educators a bill of goods that we should be able to do it right the first time. Even though everything we do as a society changes, educators were still supposed to put something in place that did not need to be tweaked.

"The problem is that we didn't go about educating the public about those tweaks along the way. We didn't let them know that the expectations for schools were changing. Now we've got to play catch-up, and we're behind in doing that."


When did this perception of failure begin to take shape? And is the perception real?

Some say the perception problem started in the wake of Vietnam, when riots ravaged many cities, whites fled to the suburbs, and the public's faith in government institutions plummeted. Others point to the publication of A Nation at Risk, the groundbreaking 1983 report that pointed out flaws in America's schools and chastised districts for accepting mediocrity.

"There's a collective understanding that urban schools mean poor children, brown children, schools that don't do well, a government that doesn't function well, a system under turmoil, and people throwing their hands up at what to do," says Katrina Kelley, director of the National School Boards Association's Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE). "That perception is out there, painted in broad strokes, and it's a hard one to shake."

Lowell Rose, the retired executive director for Phi Delta Kappa and coauthor of the influential PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, says changing perceptions is difficult because people don't perceive "the nation's schools" as a single entity.

"'The nation's schools' don't exist for people," Rose says. "The schools that exist are the ones in the community."

And in urban communities, especially, the politics of school governance can make a huge impact on how the public views the district, Rose and others say.

In a number of urban school districts, pervasive negative perception -- combined with struggles to raise student achievement -- has led to mayoral takeover threats and choice programs -- mostly charter schools and private schools -- that drain precious resources from the public schools.

"We've changed expectations for public schools, and we want all these kids to reach these high standards," says Richard Lee Colvin, director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College-Columbia University. "To do this, there has to be a change in performance, and when there's a lag in performance, that creates a perception problem."

Arnold Fege, director of public engagement for the Washington, D.C.-based Public Education Network, says low-performing schools and the perception that districts -- especially urban districts -- are failing have "captured and driven the attention of Congress," resulting in the sweeping reforms of the No Child Left Behind Act. And, he says, researchers and pundits who support vouchers, free-market choice, state takeovers, and other programs targeting urban schools also have gained a toehold in the perception game.

"We have lost proportion as a society about the value of public education," Fege says. "The public school establishment has not done a very good job of marketing itself, providing counter viewpoints and a vision of itself. If we come out and try to respond, it's translated into whining and apologizing for a bad school system."

Carr agrees. She notes that Charlotte-Mecklenburg has received glowing reports from the national media as a model for urban reform, but the district regularly gets hammered in the local press. The sound-bite mentality that is common in the media and the general public only seems to make matters worse.

"Urban education is often equated with failure, and it's much harder to share the complexities and nuances of an urban school system without sounding like you're making excuses," she says. "But this is reality we're dealing with, and I don't think school districts have done a good job of putting a counter argument up there."


So who has the most influence over perception? Is it your local PTA? The business community? The mayor's office? Is it your staff and your board? Or is it school officials in surrounding rural and suburban districts who make disparaging comments about urban centers when making comparisons to their own programs?

Each of these groups influences perception, but in terms of overall impact, none carries the same weight as "the media." Ask educators that question, and they'll say it's the journalists who cover education. But if you ask education reporters, they'll say educators still control their own image.

"The public sees the public schools through the media's eyes, and the major media -- every major newspaper and television station in the nation -- are based in urban school districts," CUBE's Kelley says. "And yet the media are often not digging deeper, not looking at all of the indicators of success or failure."

In today's 24/7, hypercharged media world, news travels as fast as your Internet connection. The vast reach of cable networks such as CNN and Fox News Channel can put your district's successes or woes in the homes of millions within minutes.

"I really believe CNN has become the common denominator of American views, lexicons, and beliefs," Fege says. "We have lost out to very powerful media in shaping public opinion and beliefs in institutions."

But journalists who regularly follow education note that changes at the nation's top newspapers have resulted in more in-depth coverage, focusing on trends and policy rather than routine reports of board meetings. And groups like the Education Writers of America (EWA) and the Hechinger Institute provide research tools and instructional courses so reporters can better understand their beats.

"One thing I hear over and over is that reporters only cover the negative," says Lisa Walker, executive director of the EWA. "They cover what's in front of them. They cover what the news is. They have to report on what districts are doing, and if you're not doing a good job of explaining that, then the coverage may not be as broad as it should be."

While noting that reporting should go beyond the "he said, she said" stories, Walker says educators "are terrifically thin-skinned" when it comes to criticism of their programs.

"Educators have to realize that we're not going to do their PR for them," she says. "That's not what our role is. Our role is to let people know objectively what is happening."

Wynns, the San Francisco board member, is critical of the media for not digging deeply enough, but she agrees that educators also have negative perceptions of reporters that might not be entirely accurate.

"When you feel under siege, you get defensive, and educators do get defensive too quickly," she says. "It's understandable because they are attacked, not questioned. The public school system has been under-resourced for so long, and people are alone trying to do complex, difficult jobs, or they feel alone. When they are questioned, they don't have allies to rely on."

Colvin, who covered education for more than a decade for the Los Angeles Times, says reporting on schools is "far better than people generally realize." He notes that most education reporters "see education as one of the most important -- if not the most important -- beats for their newspaper.

"What I see at every seminar we do is a cadre of people who are deeply, deeply interested in understanding the beast of public education as best as they possibly can," Colvin says. "They really, really put a lot of effort into learning about it, understanding it, and writing sensitively about it."

The way to improve media coverage -- and ultimately perception -- is for school districts to spend more time on educating the people outside the classroom, Colvin and others say. That requires more staff, more time, and a financial commitment by school boards.

"The public doesn't want sensationalist stories. They want to understand how education works," Colvin says. "They want to be able to judge whether schools are performing well, whether teachers are serving kids well. They want to know whether their kid is going to be OK."

Carr, who now serves as a consultant to school districts through her work with a North Carolina advertising and marketing firm, says school districts must stop making excuses and operate under the premise that academic failure "just isn't an option."

"Most reporters, political leaders, and taxpayers won't listen to you and won't listen to your story if they don't see an improvement in test scores or a majority of kids on grade level," she says. "That's the ticket for getting into the game."


So how do you pull this off?

"It's tremendously hard," Walker says. "The public is many different people. It's parents who have kids in elective schools. It's parents who are working several jobs and are not very involved in the schools. It's parents who have issues with how their child is being treated in the schools. It's parents and people who don't have kids in public schools at all."

With the choice options now available for parents, Carr says, school districts must beef up communications departments even in tight financial times. If one $30,000 marketing campaign brings five or six private school students back to the public schools, then it has more than paid for itself, she notes.

"We're already in a highly competitive environment, and we're losing market share, ..." she says. "If you continue to lose market share, and continue to lose the middle class, then ultimately you'll start losing your tax base and your ability to make a difference for children."

Building partnerships -- and explaining how today's schools are different from those of your parents -- is critical if urban schools truly want to alter public perception, Wynns says. Not just with reporters, but in parent meetings, back-to-school nights, community venues, and churches.

"Part of the message we have to have for people is that we want you to understand the complexity of public education," Wynns says. "It can't just be, 'You're wrong and we're good.' When you want someone to do something for you, you have to look at what needs to be done and say, 'Here's the part that I can do. Here's what I think you need to do. What do you think of that?'"

Colvin, who also teaches courses on educational leadership at UCLA, believes school leaders need to be able to discuss their challenges and achievements openly and honestly.

"One of the hallmarks of good leadership is to be able to speak honestly and knowledgeably about what's going on," he says. "School leaders must do a better job of telling their story."

Ronald Ross, who works on urban school reform issues for the National Urban League, knows this firsthand. Formerly, as superintendent of New York's Mount Vernon schools, he worked in a district where the public voted on the budget. For two straight years, the spending plan was rejected. Then after a series of stories on Ross' reform efforts appeared in the New York Times, the public became supportive.

"It was simple. We started talking about what we were doing, and not just to the Times, but all over," says Ross, whose district doubled the number of students meeting state standards in just two years. "The next thing you knew, we had a $100 million budget passed because we had told people what we were doing and how we were going to do it."

For Ross, who also worked for the New York City schools for 27 years, telling your story is critical to survival. If large districts don't start working to change perception, he warns, the takeover threats and governance challenges presented by No Child Left Behind will continue to blunt any strides districts make.

"The three things that made this country great were the family, the church, and the school," he says. "As an educator, I don't have any control over the way families have changed from Ozzie and Harriet to the way they are today, if it ever was that way to begin with. I certainly don't have any control over the church.

"But," he adds, "what we do have control over is the schools. For the vast majority who have succeeded, that was the way. And it still is the way for our country to succeed. It can be done, but we've got to start with leadership. We've got to tell our story, and we've got to do it now."