Reaching the “Inadvertent” Audience

Because you are reading this now, I am assuming that you have a strong interest in education and may even be a wonk like me.  It’s great that you care, but, unfortunately, we are in the minority. Perhaps you can help us figure out how to reach and engage the “inadvertent audience,” the people who tune in for coverage of politics or the economy, stumble across an education story, and get hooked.  These “inadvertent viewers” might be part of the 80% of American households without school-age children; perhaps they are people who don’t spend much time thinking about schools and their role in our democracy.

Whoever they may be, they are critical, for reasons I will go into below.

Those folks don’t get a regular dose of education coverage, because there’s really no such thing.  That we know from a December 2009 report from the Brookings Institution, which pointed out that a mere 1.4% of the national “news hole” for television, radio, newspapers and the web was devoted to education.

Of that meager amount, about 30% focused on higher education, the rest on elementary, secondary and pre-school, but that number is inflated because, the report notes, much of that ‘education’ coverage was devoted to the hot ‘education’ issue of the day and its impact on schools. (In 2009, the hot issue was the H1N1 flu).

The number is further inflated because some outlets apparently count a story about gang violence, for example, as an education story because some of the gang members were in high school or because some acts of violence occur just off school grounds.

The leading outlets, like the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time and so forth, do not devote much space or manpower to national education issues. None of the four major television networks has a full time education correspondent.  (The Brookings Report does not point out that the PBS NewsHour has two, John Tulenko and yours truly, plus national correspondents like Tom Bearden who also contribute occasional reports about education.)

If we want things to change, we need to reach the “inadvertent audience” – but not just because it’s larger.  That group is important because the education community is small, insular, fragmented and fundamentally reactive, not proactive.  Let me address those in order.

Small: See above reference to number of households with school-age children.

Insular and fragmented: In 2009 there were about 5,000 education blogs, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there are 10,000 or more today.  Most reach a small audience and are probably preaching to the converted. That seems to be what’s happening on Twitter, as Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation demonstrated recently. Using Michelle Rhee to represent the right and Diane Ravitch to stand for the left, he calculated that only about 10% follow both, inferring that people gravitate to where they are most comfortable.  They talk to each other and yell about everyone else.  That’s not a recipe for moving the ball forward.

Reactive, not proactive: Educators rarely act; instead they react.  Imagine for a moment that the Newtown killer had burst into a rabbinical school or a convent and slaughtered two dozen rabbinical students, nuns or priests. Had he done that, the entire religious community–Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, et cetera–would have come together before the next sunset.  That coalition would have issued a strong statement condemning weapons of mass murder and demanding that the President and the Congress ban their sale and possession.

Now think about the reaction of ‘the education community.’  No coalition formed. Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund published a powerful clarion call for action within hours, and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers followed not long afterwards.  Otherwise, mostly silence or bland words.  That ineffectual response allowed the National Rifle Association to frame the debate on its terms.  Instead of debating the wisdom/folly of allowing weapons designed for mass killing to be legal, we find ourselves arguing whether principals should carry loaded weapons or not.

As I say, educators as a group are a timid lot, accustomed to reacting, not leading.

The “inadvertent audience” matters because many of those men and women know where the levers of power are, and how to operate them.  We need to figure out how to reach and touch them, because they need to understand that providing decent educational opportunities for all children is essential for the health of our economy and our way of life–even though the kids we are talking about are not their own children or grandchildren.

We cannot have a national conversation about the goals of education, about our dreams for our children and about our hopes for America, without them.

To be clear, I am not trolling for story ideas for the NewsHour but for something bigger, something I can’t quite get a handle on myself.

Your thoughts?

19 thoughts on “Reaching the “Inadvertent” Audience

  1. I don’t know about organizations. I do know that many who write online addressed the issue of Newtown immediately and followed up with additional related posts. I know I did. I also appeared on two different radio shows in Charlottesville VA as a direct result of the online writing I did.

    I saw many others who wrote about it. Their tweets and mine were heavily retweeted.

    One problem is that there is no one place to go to coordinate all this. It is, after all, not just an issue for education, it crosses many other lines as well.

    Further, much of our efforts had to be dedicated to pushing back against those whose suggested response was more guns in schools.

    Oh and John? You are somewhat wrong on one thing. Most of the real activists in education follow those on “the other side” if for no other reason to know what they are doing. For example, Michelle Rhee follows me on twitter. I am on the list for both Fordham’s stuff and Diane Ravitch’s blog. And anyone on the lists put out by Education Week and a variety of other sources see a wide range of opinions. Heck, even Jimmy Kilpatrick’s Education Views picks up stuff by me and stuff in Valerie Strauss’s blog.


    • My point is that the Ed associations did not come together to act as one. Did anyone try? I spoke to or communicated by email with about 10 leaders and checked web sites of 4 others. No evidence of any effort to develop a group stand. Remember what had just happened! Read the NAESP statement. That group lost one of its own. The statement is about 800-900 words long and guns are mentioned in second to last sentence, as I recall. (I am in airport on phone, so my numbers may be off by a bit)
      Re you and Twitter, you are in Petrilli’s 10%


      • Education “communities” can’t seem to act as one because (at least as I see things from living in Los Angeles using LAUSD as an example) there is no ONE. LAUSD is a collective of many groups and subgroups who do not see eye to eye. We have a Superintendent (graduate from the Eli Broad Academy so has “other” interests besides those of the children), The School Board (5 of the 7 elected with Broad and other Charter org donations so also having “other” interests), the UTLA (United Teachers of Los Angeles), AALA (Associated Administrators of Los Angeles), SEIU (Service Employees International Union which is a sub-division in itself encompassing Food Services, IT, Clerks, Classroom Aides, Mechanics, Transportation Staff, Maintenance, Purchasing, etc.). How do you get these folks together in one room to make a unified statement?


      • On the massacre of children? How can they NOT come together to speak with one voice? And did anyone even try? That’s my point


      • Ms. Luchini left out parents from her list of the many groups and subgroups in the LAUSD. And actually, I think that omission is indicative of the problem. I am a public school parent with no other stake in public education except that I want my 3 kids to receive a great education. In my experience, after hearing Dr. Deasy speak at different forums and having him visit our school, our Superintendent values parents and does put children first. The problem I’ve encountered is that the directors at our local Educational Service Centers (we have several, because our system is so large) provide very limited opportunities to engage parents. The folks at my ESC keep parents at arms length. And school administrators also vary in their tolerance of parents.

        After Newton, Superintendent Deasy released a statement about the events at Sandy Hook quickly, which was emailed and sent out via phone PACE message to all LAUSD families. Local media reported on the measures that were being put into place here to keep children safe. As a parent, I appreciated these efforts. I would like to see the conversation continue, and more of the different factions come together to find common ground. I would like to see our School Board address parental concerns, such as safety, more consistently. One problem is that of our 7 current School Board members, only one is currently a parent with children in the system. Union-backed Board members hold a majority on the School Board and they do seem to prefer to focus on issues that concern adults, not children. But Ms. Luchini is right to point out that LAUSD is so fragmented and so unwieldly, with so many special interest groups each clinging to their agreed-upon talking points, that real conversations rarely take place here. Which is a shame.


  2. John,

    I’ve been having some luck in the last couple of years talking to audiences specific to other professional sectors. For the most part, this has meant groups I have easy access to, and who are interested in hearing me talk because they know me personally. I’ve given talks at Google and Yahoo, for example. And I’m doing a couple similar talks this year, one here in North Carolina in May and something more formal in Nashville in September.

    For the most part, I have been speaking to professionals in the technology industry. But I have noticed, in some of the consulting work that I’ve done with my wife over the last few years in the financial services industry, for example, that as soon as I mention that my main work is in education, people would rather talk about that than what we have on the agenda.

    I never realized how “hot” an issue education is until people I didn’t even know started peppering me with questions about it. I’m still talking with people at length about “Waiting for Superman”, for example. (And sending many of them to the recent work you’ve done on Michelle Rhee and DC.) As education issues hit the news, people seem to want to talk about them even more.

    My takeaway from this is that those of us who work in education really do have an audience waiting for us in other sectors of our society. We may just not reach out to those groups very much or think that they would be particularly interested in our experience. But as time goes by I’m realizing that what you are referring to here as the “inadvertent audience” is a lot more interested in education than I would have thought.

    I think what I want to begin doing is just volunteering to talk about education, or to lead open discussions, just about anywhere people give talks. For example, my local Chamber of Commerce would like me to come in some day so I’m sure I’ll do that at some point. And who knows how many other organizations in my community might actually want to hear a talk on education? I’ve just never thought of offering this.

    But after reading your piece here, and considering the experiences I’ve had in the last couple of years in particular, I think I’m going to make more of an effort to reach out to groups of people outside of education. Maybe some kind of proactive effort like this is not only needed but would actually be welcomed.

    Ultimately, education is everyone’s issue. So if I believe that, I guess I ought to get out there and be open to talking to everybody about it.

    Thanks for bringing this up.



  3. In my experience, suburban and rural newspapers have a great interest in covering local education stories. They’ve found that many of their readers are extremely interested in what’s happening in local schools. This includes not only parents, but also many older people who have attended local schools.
    Many urban areas also have community newspapers. I’ve found these papers are very interested in local education stories.
    Finally, our experience is that many urban communities have radio stations reaching out to people who do not speak English. We’ve been able to work with those stations.

    We have two bi-lingual staff (Spanish/English and Hmong/English) and work with a number of bi-lingual or multi-lingual educators. This helps us reach a variety of communities.

    It’s one thing to reach people with information, and another to mobilize them. Perhaps mobilizing is a subject for another day.


    • The issue is not local coverage, although I think a lot of that is pretty superficial, given the demands on reporters. The larger question is how we get a national conversation about the purposes of education, what we want for our children, et cetera. That requires the ‘inadvertent viewer/reader’ or so it seems to me.


      • John, you started out talking about how to reach folks not professionally involved in education, and I suggested that many suburban and rural papers discuss education issues. You dismiss much of this as “pretty superficial.” I read a lot of rural and suburban papers in Minnesota and respectfully disagree.

        Maybe what happens in Caledonia or Cambridge or Little Falls or Long Prairie Public Schools doesn’t matter a lot to people in NYC. But it sure matters to the folks in Caledonia, Cambridge, LIttle Falls and Long Prairie. And by the way, Long Prairie has developed a program by which many of their students are earning an AA degree before they graduate from High School. Little Falls has decided not to purchase secondary textbooks but buy i-pads (and teacher training) instead. So maybe what’s happening in Long Prairie and LIttle Falls (and similar places) would be valuable for people around the country to know about – even in NYC.


      • I certainly am not disparaging the heartland, but I do read some local papers (was in Danville, KY) earlier this week), and the local coverage generally speaking, from what I have seen , rarely digs below the surface and rarely provides a larger context. Those reporting on education, unless they are connected to colleagues through the Education Writers Association and use its listserve to stay current, are not in a position to provide that context–they don’t know enough. And, if they do, their editors might not give them the space to explore ‘big’ ideas.
        I’ve seen superintendents snow communities with their ‘new’ ideas because no one outside was aware that this ‘new’ thing had been tried elsewhere, and so on. And I don’t think many communities have figured out how to discuss the goals of schooling and other big issues. Sure, parents talk, and educators talk, but I am worrying about reaching outside those circles and getting those folks involved.


  4. It might be instructive to look again at John Dewey’s The Public and its Problems for additional explanations for the concerns you raise (appropriately), and for some reasons for mild optimism.


  5. Exactly what is it you would like the inadvertant audience to do? The mantra of every school district, chanted by Board members, professional staff and parent groups, is local control, no unfunded mandates and send money. I can tell you first hand, there is no superintendant who likes to have his Board members (interesting choice of words, his Board members – Board members forget too easily the Supt is the ONLY employee of the Board (at least in NY), go to local, state or national conventions for fear of what they will learn. Governance of education has been left to local control.

    The inadvertant audience has learned that after 12 years (for single child families) of trying to make change it is mostly like knocking your head against the wall. The fallback position is to learn all you can about issues that affect your child, try to find others in a similar position (although it is hard to find others when you are advocating for your child) and fight individual battles.

    When their children graduate their attention turns to other matters. They are grateful to have navigated the educational system and moved on or are trying to heal the wounds of that experience.

    School Board members without children in the system or more often than not trying to control costs or have some other singleminded agenda.

    You might think superintendents wouldn’t tolerate this. They don’t, but they fight different battles.

    When you try to energize groups, they need something to rally around, some concrete actions to take. Often, they can be focused for limited amounts of time and become frustrated when it is clear that results will take time. Improving schools can happen quickly when leadership is commited to it and has the support of the various constituencies.

    People are interested in education. They talk about it. They don’t know how to effect change. They don’t even agree on what to change or what changes are needed. And again, there is no one size fits all solution. Some schools need to be “closed” and started from scratch, some nudged a little farther along a path.

    I think you need to identify the message and then it will e easier to find and energize an audience. It is probably the movers and shakers and they have egos to feed. They know what causes to get involved in and how much they are willing to invest. The discussions are passionate, the solutions diverse.

    The audience might be the individual teacher and suggesting that his/her professional life in the classroom could be improved by what seeing what you have to offer.

    I would be interested in any effort to move this forward, to keep the dialogue open and continuing. After this blog and the responses, the idea shouldn’t die as we move on to the next blog, here or on 10,000 other sites. I think it might be the actual audience needs to be better informed about education and the role they can play in changing it for the better. Too often they feel their options are limited because their children are hostages in the system. You don’t want to rock the boat you are in, no matter how leaky it is.

    Hmm. Maybe I wrote this with too little sleep.


  6. If you find the answer to your question, John, please let us all know because, similarly, efforts to organize and mobilize the 99% against the tyranny of the 1% seem to be for naught as well, despite potentially impacting an even larger number of disparate groups than public education.

    Maybe social media experts could be consulted to learn more about what makes what often seems like trivia go viral, while critical, controversial issues are frequently put on the back burner –especially when mainstream media is owned (and seem to be censured by) corporate America. Maybe some of the folks from the secret world of data crunching, who helped to re-elect Obama, could provide insights on how to reach the “inadvertent audience” as well.


      • Prior to the election, I had received a lot of cryptic email messages from the DNC etc. about their “secret” solution to winning the election. I suspected it was related to data crunching, but even after reading a lot about it from Google searches, I’m not very clear about the actual tactics used. What I personally experienced was that I somehow ended up on a lot of lists that regularly emailed me asking for monetary contributions. So, I don’t know if this was just about reaching people for financial support or also about educating voters and changing perceptions.

        When you look at the tenacity with which voters continue to elect Republicans to the House, I think there is a serious Democratic failure in getting the message out about how the GOP is for big business, not workers, including info about their alliance with ALEC and corporate sponsors that are out to privatize public services, such as education, to the advantage of for-profiteers and non-profiteers over the interests of children, families and the public good.

        What Petrilli and Merrow failed to mention is that corporate sponsored “reformers” have purposely concealed their agenda by using euphemisms to describe their organizations, so that they sound like they are all about children, families and education, such as “StudentsFirst”. That has made it challenging for people unfamiliar with the euphemism minefield to identify what groups really stand for and who sponsors them. Hence, many people are trying to locate like-minded individuals and groups on Twitter, etc.

        It took me awhile to figure out the nomenclature and the true causes supported by organizations, and, like Ravitch, I ended up getting on the StudentsFirst membership list as a result of their stealth ads. I believe we are both a bit more sophisticated than the average person on education matters, so I don’t think you can fault people for trying to navigate their way through intentionally deceptive practices, in order to locate people who are concerned with sharing the truth about what’s really been going on in public education, because mainstream media has not provided help with this.


  7. Before I made a career change to become a teacher (and take a 50%+ pay cut!), I would count myself in the group that was interested in education. I thought education was failing terribly in America, as most of the news I read about education was negative: drop out rates, child molester teachers, terrible unions, achievement gap, no-accountability, low multiple choice test scores, violence, China will take over America because of Shanghai’s great test scores (but failing to forget Shanghai is just a small part of China), etc…I had counted myself in the pro-Rhee, no-excuses, these teachers are just lazy group, unions are the problem. So I decided to jump in and fix it myself. I became a public school teacher in a low-income school. A few years later, I realize it’s a bit more complicated than what I had thought.

    I think the public generally believes the American education system is failing, but at the same time they believe their local school is great (I can’t remember the study that shows this). The media has a hard time conveying what is going on in our education system because it’s way too complex to report on. Instead, newspapers focus on what’s easy to understand: child molester teachers, standardized test scores “80% of students failing!”, Rhee “Holds people accountable by firing!”, charters “no unions!”, “strike shows union cares only about itself!” It sends the message that education is simple.

    But I have found that many of my non-educator friends are interested in education. The vast majority of America went through K-12 public education, so everyone has an opinion. Typically, they ask me about Waiting for Superman, Rhee, unions. When I tell them the nuances, they tend to be surprised about how complex it is. For example, they all love hearing about how charters are so successful and get terrific test scores because they don’t have lazy teachers or unions to deal with. Then I tell them that the KIPP school featured in Waiting for Superman has an extremely high drop out rate / push out rate / whatever you want to call it, and lower levels of SPED and ELL students. I ask them, “Is it better to stratify a low-income neighborhood, and for some charters, to kick out difficult students so easily?” Then we have a more interesting conversation and weigh the pros/cons.

    They ask me why unions only care about adults and not children. They cite the child molester teachers. Then I tell them my union holds conferences and spends tons of money and time on human rights issues, instructional professional development, and more….all related to children. Then they ask why that’s not conveyed in the media. I tell them, which article is more appealing to you as an editor of a newspaper “Union protects child molesters!” or “Union holds conference on how to better teach special needs students!”

    You would think that educators themselves would like to talk about education more, and to a certain extent, we do. But I always remind people that teaching is simply a difficult job (50% quit within their first 5 years I keep reading, and it’s more in low-income neighborhoods) Teachers simply don’t have the time to advocate for teaching because…we’re teaching. And now that the media has painted such a dark picture of teaching, morale is at an all time low according to the MetLife study that was released last year. I don’t know why people would want to consider this as a career anymore. It’s really sad for me to write.

    Having formally been a non-educator, educators are the problem person, to an educator now who believes the answers aren’t so simple…it’s been an interesting journey. I hope you continue your reporting Mr. Merrow and that media outlets realize it’s your type of reporting that we need more of.


  8. Sometimes I have focused it down to temperaments, too. Educators are largely loyalists, and they rise through the ranks to be administrative loyalists and leaders who want the status quo. The people who are more INTJ or ENTJ are there, but until you establish a distributed leadership network you will have difficulty hearing that voice. Most teacher associations/unions suffer from this same dilemma. Rocking the boat take a real passion or innovator.


  9. One of the Replies refers to “those who work in education”, I would suggest that they are not necessarily educators, and that would include superintendents, principals, education conference lecturers, and curriculum specialist. Those “who work in education” have an agenda to push that often isn’t associated with the “best practices” for our students’ learning. Yet, those are the “experts” who are most often listened to and honored. Those who are educators, those in the classroom, are the ones who take the blame for poor test scores or other questionable measures of actual learning. They are the “educators” which Mr. Merrow refers to a timid. I ask you, Mr. Merrow, why should public school teachers and administrators speak up when you and the other “experts” in education are constantly tell our communities teachers are the problem. It is safer to remain silent and continue educating students.

    If you are going to reach out to the “inadvertant audience” I would suggest to start this education process at the local level. But, more importantly, bring the teachers into the conversation. Believe it or not, the teachers in your community, whether New York City or small town Utah know how to create learning in their students. I am not sure how best to draw them in as morale is low, as mentioned in another response, and teachers over the years have been intimidated, but actually listening to teachers and making them part of the process will encourage them to seek change. Today, they would rather lay back, be safe in their classroom, don’t rock the boat.

    My suggestion for one possible way to draw teachers in, as noted in another reply, is through local newspapers. Invite teachers to write news articles about important aspects of current education issues for publishing in the local paper. Articles might be about Cooperative Learning, or Reading Instruction, or IEP Development, whatever the teacher has experienced or has a passion about. These could be published on a weekly education page in the paper. They would inform the public about what is going on in the classroom directly related to learning. Once the conversation gets started, it can and will expand statewide and nationally.

    As you suggest in your blog, community in America is breaking down. We tweet with those we agree with even if they exist only on ethernet. We don’t even know our neighbors next door. Those neighbors are the ones we have to make the effort to reach out to to change anything. It has to start locally. Maybe what you could do is create a way to compensate teachers for taking their time to promote education on a local level. Bill Gates where are you?


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