By Kate Emanuel/Ad Council and Nadya Chinoy Dabby/The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation
Let’s put aside all the controversial issues brought up in Waiting for Superman—the new documentary that gives a gut-renching commentary on our education crisis. Things like teachers unions, charter schools, tenure and in Director Davis Guggenheim’s own words “the folly of adults”.
Instead, we’d like to focus on the “what can I do about it?” question. That’s the most vexing challenge of education reform. So much systemic reform needs to happen at the federal, state and district levels…and things like changing how teachers are paid (like significantly higher salaries for good teachers) and tenure can’t be solved by you or me.
In addition, what makes messaging around education particularly tricky is inertia and cynicism. When polled, most Americans agree that education is vitally important. But when asked about their local school, most think it’s fine.
There’s also a collective mentality that failing schools are beyond saving. Most people assume that the problems are intractable, and that, sadly, low-performing schools—and therefore students—aren’t “fixable,” either because parents don’t care enough, or simply because the students are too poor.
The Ad Council, along with The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, tried to figure this all out. We tried to see how you could persuade adults—especially the three-quarters of adults in this country who don’t have school-age children—to care about education and do something about it. We wanted to understand the most motivating way to frame the issue. And once we’ve got the public’s attention, what do we want them to do?
In our research, we broke down the monolithic public into five different segments: The Complainers, The Satisfied, The Tuned Out, The Tuned In and the Concerned Can Doers. (Like any good marketer would do, we established demographic and psychographic profiles of each segment.) We focused on these last two—The Tuned In and The Concerned Can Doers—because they were mostly likely to care enough about education to do something about it.
And our most compelling message? The most typical ways of framing the crisis—global competitiveness, achievement gap, “education benefits everyone”—didn’t really nail it. The most motivating message balanced urgency with hope, arguing that these extraordinary times call for an extraordinary education. It communicated how remarkable people are creating a new vision for excellence in public schools. That progress isn’t only possible, it’s happening.
And that brings us back to Waiting For Superman. Davis Guggenheim has said that this movie was the hardest he’s made, by a factor of 10. But he also makes a hopeful point: Right now, there are successful schools across the country—both traditional public schools and public charter schools—where low-income children are excelling and exceeding expectations, against crazy odds. And while it’s not rocket science, it does take an awful lot of work from a very dedicated group of adults who absolutely, completely believe that with the right teachers and the right support, each and every student can do well.
That should be a source of inspiration and action for us all. With education, finding a perfect “ask” isn’t easy. Maybe it’s as basic as helping out at your local school, doing regular homework sessions with your niece/neighbor/etc., following the debate around your local education issues, or combating the idea that “those” kids can’t learn. And maybe it’s even more that that — actively voting for local and state leaders who support successful, proven school models like those in the film. No one has the definitive answer, but at this point is indifference or inaction really an option?