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Controlling Misinformation in School Communities: A Vital Strategy

Rumor has a knack for spreading, often faster than truth.

We’ve all been there: Some nugget of misinformation about a recent school board decision or new policy — a proposal that was floated, but never seriously considered — finds its way from a closed-door meeting into the public record, usually via a poorly sourced online news report or social media.

The district’s email inbox is flooded with messages from concerned parents and other stakeholders. By the next morning, every critic in town is lining up to question the sanity and direction of the school system’s leadership.

A new report from out of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Journalism puts its finger on the challenges wrought by today’s always-on, Internet culture.

“Within minutes or hours a claim can morph from a lone tweet or badly sourced report to a story repeated by dozens of news websites, generating tens of thousands of shares,” writes journalist and author Craig Silverman. “Once a certain critical mass is met, repetition has a powerful effect on belief. The rumor becomes true for readers simply by virtue of its ubiquity.”

Silverman is, of course, describing the gaping chasm of credibility — or lack thereof — that faces journalists in the age of online media. But he could just as easily be talking about the challenges that school district communications officers face when misinformation about the system, or its educators, surfaces for public consumption.

The issue isn’t that the information gets out — rumors swirl with the wind in America’s public schools — it’s that, thanks to the speed at which news travels, the situation can quickly spin out of control.

A cautionary tale
Just recently, Joshua Starr, whose four-year tenure at the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland realized significant gains in high school graduation rates and SAT and Advancement Placement scores, resigned amid pressure from the local school board.

News reports indicate that Starr’s departure was hastened, at least in part, by a perceived lack of communication. Though Starr wrote in an open letter to the board that community engagement was among his top priorities, a handful of stories covering his departure called into question Starr’s ability to communicate effectively with the county’s elected leaders. A report in the Washington Post categorized Starr’s leadership style, according to one board member, as “remote and dismissive.” Other reports cited an inability to effectively close the county’s minority achievement gap.

Whatever the reasons, Starr’s fall from grace as the leader of the 154,000-student district was swift. Whispers of Starr’s impending demise first surfaced online in the final days of January. Less than two weeks later, he was out of a job.

Not alone
AASA estimates that the national average superintendent tenure hovers right around six years. A more recent report from the Council of the Great City Schools found that the average tenure for superintendents of large urban districts is closer to 3.2 years. That’s down from 3.6 in 2010.

The decline in national superintendent tenure could be attributed to any number of factors; public perception in the age of new and social media is one.

In Florida, members of the Hillsborough County School Board, which oversees operations for the nation’s eighth-largest school district, recently voted 4 to 3 to terminate the contract of longtime superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

The news came as a surprise to Elia, who earlier this year was named 2015 Florida Superintendent of the Year. (Elia was also a finalist for national superintendent of the year.)

A column by Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews said one of the strikes against Elia, a former reading teacher, was that she did not effectively communicate with stakeholders. Despite these concerns, Mathews praised Elia’s tenure, lauding her reputation as a strong manager and a transformative educator.

Such challenges are not exclusively the domain of large school districts; smaller school systems also struggle with stakeholder communications —and often for very different reasons.

These challenges point to the need for a new approach to communication at the highest levels of school district leadership. They also demonstrate how quickly even the most promising careers can unravel when rumor and misinformation are allowed to spread.

Getting there from here
Despite an unquestioned commitment to education, the reality is that most superintendents do not enter into the role with a great deal of political or communications experience. (As leaders, you aren’t heavily coached. In most cases, you’ve never answered to an elected board.) It doesn’t help that the way in which people communicate with one another and their local school districts has changed dramatically in recent years.

The key is to develop a way to stay ahead of the conversation and to ensure that the board, and the local community, supports your vision. Stakeholders at every level have to stand behind your decisions. If there is misinformation out there about you, or about one of your initiatives, use the tools and resources at your disposal to set the record straight.

If you remember one thing, it should be this: The difference between being first to know about a problem in your district and being late, or last to know, is everything.

Want to learn more about how to sniff out problems in your district before it’s too late? Let’s Talk!