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5 Messages About Public Education That Don't Sell (and Ones That Will)

Some messages about education should not be used.

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The following is from a talk given at a meeting of the  Young Elected Officials last week in Washington, D.C.

Thanks for having me here today. I’m feeling a little out of context at a meeting for the Young Elected Officials. And it’s not because I’m not an elected official.

But I suppose there are some advantages and benefits to aging. Wisdom, however, is not one of them, as the demographics of Fox News bear out.

In aging you have experiences that you can reflect and act on over time and experiences that are unique to your generational cohort. For instance, how many of you have deep expertise in junk mail? That happens to be my work in trade as I’ve been in that business for over 20 years; although, the industry is nothing like what it once was and is rapidly going the way of the dinosaurs.

Also, how many of you were in school in the South during the early years of forced integration of the races? I was in second grade in Dallas, Texas and  remember vividly the day they bused the poor kids across town to my school.

When they brought the poor kids into my class, there was a girl named Brenda who didn’t have on any shoes. And there was a little boy named Jerald who still sucked his thumb and was basically dressed in rags.

I think I learned more that day than I did the rest of my second-grade year. I learned that public schools are where our nation’s grossest injustices – the poverty, neglect, and malnutrition of children – are first exposed to the light of day. That’s why we have to keep schools public. Otherwise those injustices will be covered over or swept into a corner.

So because of my experience with junk mail, I know I can sell stuff. In fact, at one point in my career, I was writing fundraising letters for Human Rights Watch to help them protest against the terrorist suspects being held in Guantanamo, while at the same time, I was working for the very company that sold the uniforms the suspects were wearing in the prison. I’ll let you make of that what you will.

And because of what I witnessed as a child of the South, I know what’s at stake. Over the past 60 years, our country has actually made quite a lot of progress on civil rights – Trayvon Martin aside. And I’m afraid we’re in danger of losing all that. I think things have gotten just that bad.

So based on that – that I know how to sell stuff, and I know what’s at stake – I want to offer some advice on how we should do a better job of selling public education. And in particular, I want to call out five messages about public education we should stop using because they don’t sell well.

Message #1: Education is mostly a private pursuit.

Politicians like to talk about getting the best education for YOUR child. When talking about education, the emphasis is always on “competition” and using individual rewards and punishments to get students over the bar or up to speed. Terms like “college or career ready” and getting young children “ready to learn” all perpetuate the idea that the only purpose of education is to get individuals to a next stage or an end goal.

This rhetorical frame doesn’t sell well because it convinces people that once their own children are provided for then that’s all that matters.

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