Archive for the ‘Policy Communications’ Category
re·form: noun 1. the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory, etc.
In the wake of the Chicago teachers strike, many of us who follow education policy are wondering what the implications are for efforts to improve America’s public schools. American Prospect ran a thoughtful analysis of one of the few published public opinion polls, noting the disconnect between the perceptions of white professional parents and minority working-class parents. In addition to the points they make around historical relationships with unions, I think there may be another factor working against those would like to build consensus around what needs to change in our schools: the word “reform.”
Reform has always had an aggressive, judgmental and negative connotation. Reform schools are where we send delinquent children. The Reformation was an attack on corruption within the Roman Catholic Church that led to splinter groups who formed the mainline Protestant churches.
Is it any wonder that many of the teachers working in our schools react negatively to the notion that they are in need of reform?
The strongest and weakest teachers receive most of the public attention, but most people agree that the average teacher is neither wrong, corrupt or even unsatisfactory. We know that most teachers spend their own money to make their classrooms welcoming for students and to provide them with supplies. I have known more than one teacher who kept healthy snacks on hand for the kids who didn’t get enough to eat at home.
No, the majority teachers aren’t in need of reform. Nor, typically, are the schools in which they work. But it is clear from the data on graduation and college admission and completion rates that they need to improve.
im·prove: verb 1. to bring into a more desirable or excellent condition.
State and local education agencies use the term “school improvement” quite a bit–they rarely apply the word “reform” to their efforts. These administrators and politicians understand that they are much more likely to get the necessary groups to buy-in to their efforts by focusing on the positive. Who couldn’t use a little improvement, after all? No one is perfect.
One of the lessons reinforced by the polling around the Chicago strike is that urban minority public school parents support teacher unions and are suspicious of the education reform movement. The education reform movement will never be truly successful if it fails to engage the very families it purports to help.
As Eduwonk notes, the “reform unionism” field is littered with the bodies of union leaders voted out of office after appearing too accommodating with management or school reformers. But reform unionism had a powerful pragmatic argument in its favor: Until the Chicago strike the political choice for unions looked like accommodation and collaboration or irrelevance. Last week Lewis added a third credible option to the mix – strident resistance.
Perhaps it is time for the leaders of the ed reform movement to regroup and consider a new name; one that doesn’t bring to mind the feeling of being rapped with a ruler.
Today’s Huffington Post blog by Larry Strauss addresses head-on the concern some teachers have of being replaced by technology. Anyone who has observed the link between technology innovation and downsizing in other industries would have to acknowledge this is not an irrational fear. Andrew Coulson’s Wall Street Journal Op-Ed lamenting the “teacher surplus” likely heightens this anxiety.
But, this notion of a virtual classroom without real human interaction is hard to embrace as a real possibility for the masses, because, for most students, the social part of school is what keeps them coming back. We’ve become so overwhelmed by the media’s hyped bullying coverage that we’ve forgotten that the majority of kids enjoy school, both because that’s where their friends are, and because they enjoy interacting with their teachers. Numerous studies have noted that students who have a strong relationship with at least one adult in their school are significantly less likely to drop out.
This makes complete sense. When kids are young, they are shameless about expressing their overwhelming preference to spend time with their parents above all other human beings. Once they enter school, those same kids start to shift their affection to their teachers. (Do you remember the first time you called your teacher “Mom?”) As they evolve into adolescence and beyond, some kids more readily express affinity for their favorite teacher than for either parent (though, we parents know they still really need us deep down inside.)
I am not alone in believing that technology can and should be doing more to improve K-12 education. But, the value of that technology will be realized in the hands of skilled teachers who develop emotional connections with their students. Teachers v. technology is a false choice. Teachers well-supported by technology is where we are headed.
The saying goes: don’t bring a knife to a gun fight. But, in communications, that is not always good advice. When it comes to the issue fueling talk shows across the country–women’s reproductive rights and services–the gunslingers are drawing damaging attention to themselves.
For decades, pro-life groups have worked steadily to erode access to abortions in a series of well-organized state-based legislative campaigns. Recognizing that the Supreme Court was unlikely to overturn Roe v. Wade and that national public opinion supported access to abortions, they made state legislatures in more conservative states their battlegrounds. This “knife” strategy has been extremely effective, because it kept the battle localized and didn’t mobilize opponents at a national level.
Over the last year, some pro-life supporters brought their knives to the national forum. First, there was the heated congressional debate over federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Then, it appears one influential conservative group pressured Susan G. Komen for the Cure into cutting its funding for Planned Parenthood. In both cases, pro-choice organizations and women’s health advocates roared about the perceived attack not just on abortion funding, but to women’s health funding, particularly for low-income women. And, in both cases, they effectively rallied grassroots support to retain their funding.
The current debate about insurance coverage for birth control is one where both sides pulled out their big guns. The Obama administration decided to mandate zero co-pay coverage from all employers except for churches or official places of worship. This riled the Catholic Bishops, who’d been readying their weapons for months in anticipation. As a result of savvy strategic planning, they won an early concession from Obama who realized he did not want to be embroiled in a fight with men of the cloth in an election year.
At the same time, a law made its way through the legislature in D.C.’s neighboring Virginia that mandated vaginal probe ultrasounds for women seeking abortions. The degree to which this law insinuated the government between a woman and her doctor captured national attention, leading to a public retreat by the sitting Republican governor.
But, the real excitement came when Republican presidential not-quite-frontrunner Rick Santorum harnessed his bully pulpit to express his opposition not just to forcing religious employers to pay for birth control, but for birth control in general. This was capped off last week when Rush Limbaugh branded a Georgetown University Law student a “slut” and “prostitute” for advocating for insurance coverage of contraceptives by all US employers and universities.
In the span of one year, the debate shifted from abortion to birth control. In the span of a few weeks, it shifted from the boundaries of religious liberty to something reminiscent of the 1640s.
Pundits on both sides have speculated about whether it was Obama’s plan all along to lure the social conservatives into a birth control debate. The reason they think it might have been is because they sense, and a few recent polls bear out, that the Republicans may have just lost the women’s vote. Advertisers and Republican party officials pressured Limbaugh to apologize. George Will is now encouraging the party to shift its focus to congressional races.
I have spoken about this battle with women from all parts of the political spectrum, from the red state in which I grew up and from the blue state in which I currently reside. The one thing about which we all agree is that we can’t believe the presidential election has turned into a fight about birth control and a debate about whether the GOP is waging a war on women. But it has. Because when someone pulls out a gun, everyone pays attention.
For a play-by-play of the current debate, click here: http://dyn.politico.com/tag/BirthControl
On the Chinese sweatshops, outrage is beginning to percolate. How dare they?! We didn’t know! Actually, we kinda knew, we just didn’t want to know, so we looked the other way. It has been public knowledge for some time that Apple’s ability to produce such beautiful devices in record time with astronomical profit margins was related to their China-based manufacturing. We may not have known exactly how bad the conditions were, but deep down inside, we knew they had to be pretty awful. Steve Jobs closed Apple’s corporate philanthropy shop when he rejoined as CEO. He was never shy about the primacy of well-designed products and profits above social issues.
Google has been in the crosshairs of government agencies and privacy organizations around the globe for years, and we’re now surprised that they are doing what we always suspected they were or would do? They are currently motivated by their need to compete with Facebook–the current uber-player in “helping” people disclose personal information to the masses (also known as advertisers and data aggregators). Is that really so bad?
At least with Google and Facebook, no one is getting hurt, and we get to use their services for free. Well, not exactly. According to law professor Lori Andrews, many people are being denied everything from employment to mortgages to health insurance based on what they search and share online. And, because of our lack of online privacy laws in the US, there is no requirement that those companies share their reasoning or prove its relevance. Those economists were on to something: there is no such thing as a free lunch.
How did we get here? Does the American consumer really value fast new versions of cool technology and free, efficient search and communications vehicles more than we value human dignity, privacy or even human life? Are we so busy between work and family that we’ll accept any fine print tradeoff a company puts past us? To some degree, yes.
But, the blame is not entirely ours. Facebook has been rightly criticized for being downright tricky in its attempts to create more sharing outside people’s network of “friends.” In addition to trying some of Facebook’s old tricks with Google+, Google’s promises to anonymize data after a set period of time have always been marred by questions about the quality of their eraser. Apple only released its full review of its China operations within the last few months.
In the environmental space, American consumers have demonstrated a willingness to choose, and in some cases, pay more for green products. So much so, that “greenwashing” emerged as a problem earlier this century. As the fog of ambivalence starts to burn off, technology companies may find there is more money to be made from selling us on their virtue than they can make in profits from vice.
Finally! The communications solution to our national obesity problem. Knowing what we do about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of campaigns focused on smoking, seatbelts and sunscreens, what should we do to combat our country’s growing waistline and resulting health care costs?
First and foremost, we must name our enemy. No more talk about “there is no such thing as bad food.” There is. Twinkies. Ben and Jerry’s. Dr. Pepper. Popcorn chicken. Doritos. These are all foods with no redeeming health benefits or with drawbacks so huge that they outweigh those benefits. That’s not to say people can never eat these foods, but we all need to acknowledge that they are BAD for us, so we should treat them as the guilty pleasure that they are. Like reality TV.
Why must we do this? Why must we antagonize the nice people at Hostess and KFC? Because if we have learned anything from our political process, it is that being against something is a much more powerful motivator than being in favor of something. Most agree that it was the anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives that drove pro-Bush voters to the polls in key swing states and got him re-elected. There are many many other examples of this.
But, just as importantly, we need to simplify this process for people. In some instances, looking for healthy signs is enough (whole grain, fresh produce). But, the low-fat craze of the 90s taught us that we can be tricked into eating foods that are, on the whole, worse for us by appealing to our obsession with one factor. It is only a matter of time before Fritos starts marketing a whole grain variety.
How will we do this? With an expensive and creative communications campaign combined with some regulatory action.
The anti-smoking campaign worked because it was funded by massive amounts of tobacco settlement money and it was multi-pronged. It included on-the-box warnings, public health education, smoking-cessation programs, and regulations restricting people’s ability to smoke in public or places of employment.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s annual budget is three-quarters of a billion dollars, with the majority going to state and local law enforcement grants to support combined enforcement and advertising campaigns such as “Click-it or Ticket.”
The current efforts to promote sunscreen use are flailing, likely due to the fact that they rely on traditional marketing alone. In spite of the multi-million dollar industry promoting SPF, tanning beds remain minimally regulated, and Hollywood continues to glamourize the golden glow.
If we are to be successful in the fight against obesity, we need to consider the following:
-Tax junk food, sodas and sweets and use 100% of the proceeds to fund programs designed to make nutritious food more available, affordable and desirable; to fund physical education classes in schools; and to fund community-based solutions that show results.
-Eliminate sugar sodas and junk foods from schools.
-Put warning labels on junk food with clear indications of the recommended daily serving of that item.
-Develop a star-studded PSA campaign to promote healthier choices.
-Market home cooking to the masses.
If we are serious about fighting this epidemic–and our rising health care costs say we should be–it is time to take serious action. The kind of action that will mobilize thousands of food industry lobbyists in opposition. The kind of action that will cause Sarah Palin to rant about government intrusion into personal choices. The kind of action that will save lives.
The big healthy eating news in July was McDonald’s announcement of the Happy Meal health makeover. Okay, perhaps makeover is too strong a word. More like putting on a nice new lipstick. Good ‘ole Ronald is cutting the size of the fries in half and adding in fresh fruit. There has been a lot of speculation about why they are doing this. In my experience, corporations are motivated by 3 factors:
1. Consumer demand (current or anticipated),
2. Profit margins, and
3. Regulatory/legal pressure.
How have these three played a role in the other issue campaigns I mentioned last time: smoking cessation, seatbelts and skin cancer prevention?
Let’s start with smoking. There is no such thing as a healthier cigarette (though the tobacco industry made a lot of dough via the insinuation with “light” cigarettes). So, the only healthy alternative to smoking cigarettes is not smoking cigarettes–clearly bad for the bottom line. And, given the addictive properties of nicotine, consumer demand was unlikely to be dramatically impacted by anti-smoking communications campaigns alone.
Enter government action. First, taxes. There is a clear link between smoking rates and the cost of cigarettes, particularly among underage smokers. When states started taxing the bojangles out of a pack of smokes, consumer demand declined. The feds also increased regulation on marketing: warning labels on packages, no broadcast ads, and less smoking in movies. When proof of the damage caused by second-hand smoke emerged, governments started limiting smoking in the workplace and public spaces. Finally, the states sued the pants off the tobacco companies for lying about the health-risks and addictive properties of cigarettes. Of note, the requirement in the settlement that the industry make payments to the states for state agencies to spend on smoking cessation and prevention programs proved genius for big tobacco. Though most states spent that money as intended in the early years on effective communication and education programs, budget demands soon sucked that money into other unrelated line items. Nonetheless, we have a lower smoking rate in the US today than we did before this combination of public policy and persuasion shamed Joe Camel.
Seatbelts is a more nuanced issue. Technically, it is possible to drive a car without your seatbelt on and cause no harm to anyone. Having lived in Massachusetts–even today, a surprisingly anti-seatbelt state–I know people who have done it. The challenge is that those low-likelihood, high-hazard car wrecks are a killer (often, literally) if you are harness free. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has done a lot of research on this topic, and they found that the secret sauce for increasing seatbelt use is primary seatbelt laws (you can get pulled over and ticketed for not wearing your seatbelt) + broadcast advertising reminding people that they will be pulled over for not wearing their seatbelt. In the states with primary seatbelt laws, usage rates average about 10% higher.
Finally, skin cancer prevention. Growing up in Florida in the 1980s has earned me many a biopsy in the interest of melanoma prevention. Those will scare anyone into buying stock in SPF 70. Plus, who doesn’t know about the risks of sun damage these days? So, it was surprising for me to learn that in the US, skin cancer rates are on the rise. Similar to the obesity epidemic, skin cancer prevention is complicated by the fact that people actually need some sun exposure to be healthy. Ironically, the Vitamin D produced by sun-to-skin contact can help prevent some cancers. Of course, the real challenge to lowering skin cancer rates is that most people believe they look better with a tan. Long-term, sunscreen fanatics age better, but see previous comments about instant v. delayed gratification.
What’s to be done about the sun? The good news is that there is an entire industry behind sun protection, and anyone who has been to a drug store knows it is a crowded field. Where there is an industry, there are big marketing dollars. Perhaps they could collude to copy some of the old tobacco tricks like using product placements in movies. Maybe Neutrogena could outbid Smartwater for a Jennifer Anniston endorsement of Helioplex SPF 100 to see if she can start a trend by abandoning her perma-tan. In the meantime, the FDA has stepped in to regulate the labeling and claims made by sunscreens, so those who do use them are clear about what they are or aren’t protected from.
Which lessons learned from these three problems can be applied to our obesity epidemic? The third and final installment is coming soon…
Yes, this is the title of a book by political wordsmither Frank Luntz. While some on the left are aggravated by Luntz’s use of language for conservative gain (he coined the term “death tax” to replace “estate tax”), if you can put your politics aside, the man makes some good points.
Specifically: “it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” This breaks down further to “what’s in it for me?”
Two different talk shows on the Seattle-area NPR affiliate KUOW brought this point to life this week in their coverage of the proposed $20 car tab fee to help keep the current level of bus service. Yesterday, The Conversation was trying to generate listener interest with the following question: Should drivers have to subsidize bus riders? I was driving in my car (by myself) to work, and my immediate reaction was “Hell, no!” Our licensing and tag fees are outrageous to begin with, and I’m not signing up to pay more. Particularly since I have never ridden on a King County bus and possibly never will.
This morning, Weekday host Steve Scher asked the official behind the fee proposal this same question. King County Executive Dow Constantine responded that this isn’t about subsidizing bus riders, it is about supporting the road system–something drivers already do. He then explained how much more congested the roads would become if people who ride the bus today started driving. Suddenly, I found myself very much in favor of paying $20/yr to limit the traffic I encounter during MY commute and feeling grateful to the bus system for making MY life easier.
Kudos to Dow Constantine for his deft use of language to reframe a driver tax as a traffic-limiting investment. He clearly understands that if you want me to pay without a fuss, don’t appeal to my sense of civic duty. Show me what is in it for me.