“I don’t know how to help my kid with his homework… What’s a ten frame? I don’t have time to figure this out AND make dinner.”
In Spring 2014, Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS), the eighth largest school district in the United States, experienced a similar phenomenon to what was occurring in schools across the country: frantic calls from Tampa parents –expressing concerns about their child’s “strange” new math homework. Nearly all 50 states adopted and implemented the Common Core State Standards, but the transition had been difficult. Facebook postings warned of the dangers of increased high-stakes testing, while major news networks questioned the rigid “federal oversight” of the standards, despite the fact that they were neither developed nor mandated by the federal government.
As far as educational change is concerned, the shift to Common Core had occurred expeditiously, and Florida districts were left with little time to thoroughly examine how the transition would be experienced or understood by teachers, much less parents. And the forecast wasn’t looking much better for the soon-to-be-adopted Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which to date have not yet been adopted in the state.
Faced with this challenging reality, Larry Plank, the Director for K-12 STEM Education at HCPS, was searching for ways to explain the importance of these new, researched-based, academic standards to parents. The HCPS mathematics team began hosting informational sessions in the evenings to ease increasing parental concern. Unable to keep up with demand in a district of 211,000 students, parents continued to express frustration.
Responding to the national discourse on the subject, as well as the experiences of individual partners like HCPS, 100Kin10 organized a Solution Lab–a coordinated, network-wide effort to support partners to collectively address a shared challenge–to help partners collectively tackle the challenges of managing the transition to the Common Core, NGSS, and other college- and career-ready standards. With his team tirelessly working in Tampa to combat the same problems, Larry was grateful to learn about the partners’ consolidated effort, calling it “a perfect solution.”
Through the Solution Lab process, partners realized they needed help to better communicate the standards to teachers and parents. The very words they were using seemed to be causing more confusion and anxiety. Expert help was needed. Partners pooled their resources to retain Dr. Drew Westen–an expert on neuroscience, psychology, and communications–to research and develop messages that would help relieve the misunderstandings they were having with parents and teachers.
Over the course of 9 months, Dr. Westen did deep background research, held six focus groups with parents, and conducted dial-tests with 1000’s of parents, registered voters, teachers, and administrators to design the most effective messages. Using these messages, a user friendly toolkit was created to support partner efforts to explain and implement the standards. The toolkit, Plagiarize This, provides a wide variety of sample content and message themes. More than that, it offers an approach to relating with teachers and parents.
“You have to acknowledge parents’ and teachers’ negative experiences and perceptions while also describing the purpose and promise of the standards in ways in which they best understand. You need to empathize with them, connecting on the basis of shared values,” Larry observed. The HCPS team and other partners were intrigued by Dr. Westen’s insights. “I’m a science teacher, not a marketing or messaging professional. We learned that there is indeed a science to messaging.”
In fall 2015, 100Kin10 held a Bootcamp to launch the toolkit and train partners to use it. Two members of HCPS’s team, Tammy Dery, Supervisor of Middle School Mathematics, and Shelley Fritz, Elementary Mathematics Department, attended the New York City Bootcamp. 100Kin10 asked partners to bring samples of their current communications materials for real-time feedback from Dr. Westen and other communications experts. At first, it was scary sharing her sample letter in front of Dr. Westen and the large group, but Shelley found the honest, direct feedback to be extremely helpful. The letter was good, but Dr. Westen told her how to make it even better by avoiding certain trigger words and tapping into her audience’s values. “After that, I began thinking what is the parent going to think when they see this?“
Shelley and Tammy also realized that HCPS educators were using too much “fancy, professional” jargon that parents couldn’t understand. Bootcamp marketing experts advised: “Just talk to parents in a normal way. Leave out your acronyms.” Small changes went a long way toward creating a bridge of understanding. “Even the email subject line matters,” observed Tammy.
Thanks to resources awarded through a 100Kin10 Funding Competition hosted by the Carnegie Corporation of New York for work building on Dr. Westen’s messages, HCPS has now adapted Plagiarize this toolkit wording to strengthen their own parent-facing communications: everything from emails, letters, blogs, and videos to in-person mathematics workshops. Connecting Academics and Parents (CAPS) workshops are frequently held at individual elementary and middle schools throughout the district, all “designed to empower concerned parents to support their child’s mathematics learning.” For parents that want to even dig deeper, HCPS also co-hosts larger, district-wide, off-site Parent Universities, where parents are engaged in the learning process by tackling math problems in classroom-like settings and learning with the same tools utilized by new standards.
Thanks to partners’ collective effort, Shelley and other HCPS team members are ready when parents ask about high-stakes testing; they now know how to explain the value of the new standards. For example, Shelley says, “there’s a great message about focusing on high standards and high quality teaching, and I reference that to explain it’s not all about the tests. Learning is a process, and we want to look at how all students are learning over time, to keep track of progress. This is essential to preparing American students to compete in the international marketplace.”
“Now, parents nod in agreement,” Shelley says, “for thousands of parents, the new messaging is working. Parents are more understanding of new teaching methods and are better equipped to support their kids’ learning process at home. Everyone is speaking the same language.”
As Larry puts it, “we believe that parents are a child’s first and most important teacher. We’ve always strived to form rich partnerships with parents. Now we have the common ground to do so as a district of 16,000 educators.”