Few people would disagree that Secretary DeVos's tenure is off to a rocky start. Much of this is not her fault; working for President Trump is proving to be a challenge for just about everyone, all the more so in a field where he is so widely despised. Some sort of restart is clearly needed.
To get ideas about what that might look like, I reached out to five friends, all of them public relations professionals who work in education. They have served Democrats and Republicans, previous Administrations, and officials at the local, state, and federal levels. Here are their thoughts. We’ll start with a few who asked to stay off the record.
I’d suggest a couple of things:
- A very different listening tour that is less public (although partly public) where she actually listens instead of just pipes up when she hears what she wants. Have her publicly wrestle with things that don’t fit in her world view.
- Embrace common accountability for all schools, which is the only bridge from where she’s been to where she can potentially have credibility.
- Do her homework. She seems very Trump-like as she makes statements or does visits. I suppose homework includes better staff who have the temerity to push her, not just facilitate what she wants.
Secretary DeVos needs serious, intense media and presentation training. She is not ready for prime time and as such is prone to what I would call "brain freeze." She has never been in the spotlight, and so she went from philanthropist to a serious politician overnight with no real training. In order to gain the confidence she needs, I recommend lots of dry runs with professional feedback and time spent with experts in the field who do not have a vested interest in her decisions, but who have the history and perspective she needs to hear in order to trade in her taking points for real understanding.
Jason Smith, Managing Partner, Widmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners Co.
One thing I know from twenty years of education communications: My PR tools can’t fix your policy problem. Secretary DeVos’s challenges with a number of constituencies—the civil rights community, teacher unions, or reformers who aren’t hypnotized by the allure of vouchers—aren’t the result of a messaging gaffe. The bear jokes were entertaining, but that’s not her problem. Her problem is the public’s perfectly logical reaction to her policy point of view. If the secretary wants to elicit more positive responses from the public that pays attention to schools, she will need to revisit her policy platform: a full-throated endorsement of the principle of public schools, a clear understanding of the nuance and research around choice, and a renewed emphasis on universal accountability measures that can’t be gamed by state or local leaders.
Patrick Riccards, aka Eduflack, Chief Communications and Strategy Officer, Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation
First, offer a strategy. A budget is not a strategy. In the absence of knowing what Secretary DeVos intends to do, we are all making assumptions based on the budget. School choice is but a piece of that strategy. Without it, DeVos's opponents are driving the narrative.
Second, staff up. It's been three months since her confirmation. We still don't have a nominee for under secretary, deputy secretary, or assistant secretaries for those areas we most care about.
And third, get out of the bubble. DeVos's speech at Bethune-Cookman was an important step in this regard. She owns the bully pulpit. Use it. And use if for more than friends like charter schools or GSV-ASU. Go to ISTE next month to talk innovation and ed tech, just as she did at GSV. Talk higher ed and student loans at SHEEO in July. Go to NGA to talk to the governors about ESSA implementation. If one is particularly bold, ask for a speaking slot at AFT. Use it to emphasize the areas of agreement and the value of meaningful disagreement.
Right now, the Department of Education simply isn't engaging in public engagement. It isn't that they aren't good at it, it's that they aren't doing it at all. Stop playing only defense. Stop letting opponents define the terms of engagement. Stop retreating. Use the bully pulpit. Speak on important issues like career and technical education, community colleges, and early childhood education. Expand the reform discussion to include teacher prep and higher education accountability. Use the one hundred days of summer to prepare a bold plan for improving education, to be launched at the start of the school year.
Peter Cunningham, Education Post
In a phrase I would say, “Swim where the water is warm for now.”
- Be honest about who you are and who you aren't. Like Arne, she was not an educator, but unlike Arne, she never ran a school system. Be up front about it.
- Understand the job: it's more than choice; it's accountability, student loans, Pell Grants, IDEA, equity, protecting civil rights, etc. Show people you know that the job involves all of these things, even if they aren't your areas of expertise.
- Know the field. Before you say something, you should at least go down the list and ask how it plays with the unions, the civil rights community, the Hill, the White House (and maybe even right-leaning think tanks). At least think through how they will react.
- Finally, choose your battles. Her education budget is like a machine gun firing in five directions. Pick one or two problems to solve.
And now a few action steps:
- She needs to give a big level-setting speech (she should have done it in March, but she didn't) that basically lays out her theories and her beliefs and her hopes and also acknowledges all of the stuff I said above. September or late August would be a good time. Don't do it in Washington. Find a state like New Mexico or Tennessee that is trying hard to improve.
- Keep visiting schools of all kinds and talking about quality. If the protests continue at traditional schools, then lean towards charters for now. There are Republican communities in America. (Swim where the water is warm.) Eventually she will get to more challenging places, but do not stop. Keep going right back at them and show them that she isn't afraid. People want to be heard by people in power. She has that power. Go there and listen and reflect on what she sees.
- Call out educational injustice—around SPED, AP access, grad rates, and other outcomes. Local control does not require her to give up the federal bully pulpit. Use it. But be balanced. We have a charter quality problem. She should be honest about that.
- Invite her critics in to meet. Let them vent. Listen. Give them a path to engage. Deescalate. She will get points for listening and having an open door.
- Do one-on-one print media interviews with reporters and bloggers. Stay off television for now, unless there's a particular reporter who wants to really do something in-depth.