Learning to play media game will help schools

Print More

This may sound like odd advice coming from a news publication, but Schools CEO Arne Duncan needs a spin doctor.

Since taking control of Chicago Public Schools last summer, Duncan has been a breath of fresh air for sound education practice. He’s done away with the punitive aspects of intervention, launched a research-based reading initiative and shifted how school academic progress is measured. Duncan and his team are asking the right questions, says Peter Martinez of the University of Illinois at Chicago. For instance, what is CPS spending on staff development?

But if you haven’t been following his actions closely, you would never know any of this.

Duncan’s predecessor, Paul Vallas, is an expert at using and often manipulating the media to his advantage. He is a natural, voluble speaker who relishes press conferences and the rough and tumble of debate (as long as no one criticizes him). When he was CEO, he often lingered to answer reporters’ questions long after the official interview was over. That’s one reason why the public believed CPS had turned a corner even though test score improvements were only marginal. Vallas took criticism for it, and rightly so. Still, all the positive press resuscitated the public schools’ battered image.

Duncan and School Board President Michael Scott have largely shied away from the media. Scott discontinued former board President Gery Chico’s practice of meeting with the press before regularly scheduled board meetings. Journalists liked those meetings because they got a preview of the next day’s events, easy access to top administrators and a chance to write advance stories for the next day’s newspapers. Duncan and Scott prefer working the community to working the media.

In a December editorial, the Chicago Tribune excoriated Duncan for being a no-show on the public stage when it comes to articulating his education policy. In a written response, Duncan promised to do better. “Informing the public of our many initiatives surely is an important task, and one on which I will work even harder in the months to come.”

Months later, more of Duncan’s deeds—such as closing failing schools—are making news, but absent an underlying theme that would tie them together and rally public support.

Good public relations skills, while carrying the risk of appearing self-serving, are important tools for strong leadership. Coupled with sound policy making, they can engage and reassure a public that routinely wants quick solutions to tough problems. This administration needs to get better at public relations, or it risks losing support for crucial initiatives. Reality dictates that delivery counts just as much as content.

Duncan likes to think before his speaks. He prefers the steak to the sizzle. But sometimes he’s visibly uncomfortable with public speaking. That’s a problem that can be fixed by hiring a seasoned public relations consultant to help work out the kinks.

Duncan needs to communicate his vision and his mission clearly, so that educators, parents and the general public will understand how his latest initiatives—many of which are subtle and will take time to show results—figure into his overall plan to fix the schools. What’s your mission, Arne? A little spin never hurt anybody.

We are pleased to report that Catalyst and The Chicago Reporter, our sister publication, have won the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in newsletter journalism for the “Chicago Matters” series published last spring. Congratulations to writers and reporters Dan Weissmann, Elizabeth Duffrin and Maureen Kelleher of Catalyst and Mick Dumke, Sarah Karp and Brian Rogal of The Reporter.