Education Needs a Communications Overhaul

Some conservatives are saying it's time to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). It's a sign that the public may not understand the Department's role. That's a shame, but understandable. For the last three decades, people in education have been focused on talking to each other. In a frenetic attempt to outsmart each other, the conversation has gotten so wonky, so down right impenetrable for the average citizen that people are clueless about what the DOE actually does. This is dangerous for Arne Duncan, who is making some headway with programs such as Race to the Top. If the DOE goes under attack, there will be no movement of impassioned voters who'll rise up to defend it.

It's a prime example of what a failure to communicate causes. In a knowledge economy, can a failure to communicate get you sacked? It should. On the bright side, there are some rising leaders in education ready to speak plain English about what it takes to improve schools in America.

Meet Jessica Johnson. She's a turn-around expert at Chicago-based Learning Point Associates. Her recent testimony to Congress is served straight up, without a twist. (Disclosure: We helped Learning Point build its brand several years ago when it transformed from a wonkish think tank to a force for reform). The presentation is pure Jessica. Committed, succinct and simply smart. It's the kind of communication style that's possible when an organization's culture encourages people to stand up and stand out, rather than conform.

It takes courage to build a brand in the education arena. There are plenty of fretful PhD's in the wings willing to click their tongues in derision over something so utterly banal as branding. But now, more than ever, the entire education sector needs re-positioning if it hopes to rise above the morass of mediocrity in which it flounders.

Having quality schools in America is too important to be left to the dead hand of business as usual. This is a global knowledge economy, dammit, and 40 percent of Americans don't finish high school! Could it be more serious?

It's time for the leaders in education to speak plainly to the American public and ignite some passion for their mission. It's time to get out of the huddle and onto the field. And to promising young leaders like Jessica, I say... go long!