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Monday, March 7, 2011

Tap, Tap, Tap --- ?,?,?

Who hasn't sung the Happy Birthday song? Everyone knows Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Songs like Row, Row, Row Your Boat and Mary Had a Little Lamb are also on the lips of nearly all of us before we leave third grade. As we progress through school we commit additional songs to memory, like The Star Spangled Banner, or America the Beautiful. Yet, as familiar as these songs are, we require a cue or context in order to identify them.

Let me cite Dan and Chip Heath's book, Made to Stick, once more to demonstrate a point critical to the objective of this Blog entry. The authors refer to a simple exercise called Tappers and Listeners to explain what they refer to as the "Curse of Knowledge." They used a reservoir of 120 common, universal songs like those noted in the previous paragraph to challenge the ability of listeners to identify the title of the song as it is being played by someone tapping out the tune on a tabletop. The listeners predicted before hand that they expected a 50% success rate. However, in actuality, listeners only guessed correctly on 2.5% of the songs.

The outcome was puzzling to the tappers, since it was an easily recognized song and they were tapping out the tune in a clear fashion. Even repeating the song failed to appreciably increase the level of success among listeners. It was baffling. Try it with someone to check for yourself.

But, think about this. When a tapper taps the song they are hearing the song in their head as an accompaniment to their tapping. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that internal tune – all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of bizarre Morse Code. The Heath's contend that the source of the tapper's frustration regarding the listener's difficulty in identifying the song is that once we know something we find it hard to imagine what it was like to not know it.

I've shared this at a recent faculty meeting as a reminder that teachers must avoid ending up like the tappers. They are fully aware of, and intimately acquainted with, the objective of their lesson and if they don't properly introduce the objective in a context of value and meaning and relevance, then they may experience the same disappointment as the tappers had when the listeners couldn't recognize a simple song that "everybody knows!"

That's not the point of this Blog entry though. Instead, I want to address an area where public school educators often victimize themselves. We assume that everyone in the community we serve knows what we do each day. That belief may be enhanced because nearly everyone has gone through school themselves and school staff then imagine that experience will be enough for others to figure out what we do.

We entered this profession because of a passionate belief in the virtue and value of transforming others by imparting knowledge and skill - who can argue with that? So we take for granted that the general public shares in this opinion. We therefore presume that everyone understands, accepts, and appreciates the noble endeavor of school staff committed to growing young minds. That is the tune we are humming in our head as we tap, tap, tap. And, when the public can't identify the song - as in voting down annual operating budgets, or attacking the rights of collective bargaining, or denigrating the mission and performance of public schools - we are left bewildered and disappointed.

There are many reasons that the general population may not identify the song we are tapping. First, statistics reveal that approximately 1/4 of the public have a school age child attending public school. That is surprising compared to what the same ratio was twenty-five years ago. Families are smaller, or there are no children in the home, or the children are too young or have grown up and graduated from school, or the children attend an alternative educational setting. For example, the rise of Charter schools, together with the number of private and parochial schools, provides an increasing option for parents as conscientious consumers shopping for the best service for their child's future. Add to this equation the source of the fastest increasing alternative - home-schooling, and you can see how only about 1/4 of the housing units in any community have a direct connection with the local public school.

It's a challenge to elicit a majority vote affirming the annual school budget, especially during a depressed economy, if only 1/4 of the housing units have children in school. It's clearly not enough to expect that delivering a quality instructional program will in turn convince voters in the community to financially sustain the teaching and learning process when the vast majority of people eligible to cast ballots have no direct contact or communication with the school.

I believe there are two key leverage points that require attention when attempting to enlist people to express confidence in the efforts and purpose of the public school. The first rests with ability of the school leadership to define and differentiate expenses and investments. The second is recognizing the need for schools to market their services and successes to those people without children in public school.

It is essential that those taxpayers without children attending public school understand how an effective and efficient school contributes to value in the immediate community. For example, housing values are often impacted by the perception potential buyers have on the local school. Whether the buyers have children or not they can appreciate that the re-sale of the house, in the form of supply and demand, may be influenced on the quality of the school.

At an expanded level, regardless of whether or not a housing unit has a child attending public school, we all pay the cost of ineffective schools which experience high drop-out rates that subsequently inflate unemployment levels (particularly during a depressed economy) and the numbers of people dependent on tax supported social service programs like welfare and medicaid.

If a person views schools in terms of spending and expenses, then it's easier to pull the lever down on a No vote on the school budget - especially if the person doesn't have children in public school. However, if a person recognizes that a productive and successful school adds value to the community, local and otherwise, then they may be more inclined to support the school budget by voting in the affirmative.

Similarly, in order to reach the homes of people without children attending public school, we must utilize multiple methods of conveying our purpose and our product. We can't limit our interactions with this target audience on one day of the year - the day of the budget vote - and expect their approval. It's difficult right now to manage meaning in communications when much of what the public reads in local papers, or hears on the radio and television, about public schools is often negative; such as budget reductions, lay-offs, and program cuts. But schools must be convincing, creative and committed while shaping the message and meaning of their viability as an economic engine preparing college and career ready graduates who will become productive citizens and taxpayers that in turn deliver benefits to others.

Public school education represents a significant factor in our nation's quest to maintain a competitive edge among the members of the world community. Public school education merits an earnest investment if we expect to remain a global leader.

One things is for certain - we can't keep on tapping out tunes, louder and slower, in a futile effort to get the listener to understand what we now and hear inside our heads (schools) if we expect to earn their investment.  

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