DAILY INSIGHT: Keep the information simple

By Steven M. Baule, CIO Advisor

It isn’t uncommon today for community members to inform themselves from short sound bites or bullet points. At a recent school board meeting a parent argued that the Board shouldn’t make budget cuts because—although the superintendent articulated in a local newspaper that state funding was being reduced about 5 percent—one of the newly elected state representatives had released a statement that the state didn’t have a revenue problem. The parent said she didn’t know who to believe. By delving a little deeper into the facts, I learned that the state rep’s point was that the state had adequate revenue coming in, but wasn’t able to spend within its means. In other words, the state needed to cut away some of the fluff, redundancies, and waste within the budget. The concerned parent heard two dichotomous statements and didn’t know who to believe, or apparently where to go to find out the facts about the budget situation.

Even when the school or district goes out of its way to provide the staff and/or community with information, today’s news consumers are looking for sound bites—not white papers. Maybe that is why Twitter is so popular; 140 characters seems to be the size of the news story many of our stakeholders are looking for. It becomes of paramount importance to make sure that your district is putting out information that is as straightforward and unequivocal as possible. This is particularly true for the IT staff as it isn’t uncommon for parents, community leaders, or even staff to look at technology as a place to make cuts since education seems to have worked fine without technology for hundreds of years.

Let’s look at an easy example. We continually hear that high school graduation rates are too low and we want 100 percent of students to graduate prepared for work. That is a noble ideal and one we should actually work towards since each student who doesn’t graduate high school is bound to make $400,000 less than his or her peers with a high school diploma. However, most measurements of graduation rates don’t account for those who take more than four years to graduate, special needs students who receive certificates of completion when they reach the age of 22, or those who obtain an alternative diploma. If we look at the historical data, the high school graduation rate in the U.S. in 1870 was only 2 percent. It took until almost 1940 for the country to begin graduating half of the students enrolled in high school. Compulsory education in 1940 in most states didn’t require students to enroll in high school, special education didn’t exist, etc. There were many factors involved. The graduation rate peaked at about 79 percent in 1969. Since then the graduation rate has gone down as bilingual education, special education, and many other programs have expanded the number and scope of students in schools. The point being the issues surrounding high school graduation rates are many and varied. Unfortunately, a single sound bite or even a group of them cannot adequately inform the public or even staff as to the real issues and variables that impact high school graduation rates (which are much lower than I wish they were).

Similarly, with technology issues, a parent or community member may not understand why—if they pay $25 a month for Internet access—a school district could pay $2,500 or even $10,000 for the same access. To them it is the same Internet access. The variables in scope, bandwidth, WAN connections, etc., simply aren’t issues that they understand or are interested in learning about. So it is imperative that school leaders are clear and concise when they speak to the public at meetings, in the press, or via the district’s communication avenues. Always try to provide the public with the means to the larger, more complete, message, but realize that the sound bit is where most will stop. So make sure those 140 characters of information are clear and concise. If you are interested, you can follow my district’s tweets at @NBCUSD200 and let me know how we are doing.

Steven M. Baule is superintendent of North Boone CUSD 200 in Poplar Grove, IL. He has written several books on aspects of library and technology management and planning.