Illinois Loop
Your guide to education in Illinois
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The Illinois Loop website is no longer updated on a a regular basis. However, since many of the links and articles have content and perspectives that are just as valid today, we are keeping this website online for parents, teachers and others researching school issues and solutions.
Broken links:If you encounter links that no longer lead to the desired article, it's still often possible to retrieve them. Most of the linked items include a sentence or more from the original. Copy a section of that text, and type it into Google surrounded by quotes. More often than not, Google will find the article at a revised location.

  • To learn about expenditures for specific PR companies (e.g., Unicom-ARC) or on behalf of pro-tax-hike organizations (e.g., "Save Our Schools", "Community Partnership for Education ") associated with school districts, go to the "Campaign Disclosure" section of the website of the Illinois State Board of Education. Expenditures can be searched in a variety of ways, though you may need to do some exploring to discover them all.

  • National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA):
    Here is a wonderful series of reports from the NSPRA Conference, Minneapolis, July 9-11, 2001 prepared by Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency. These are gems -- well-researched and in-depth, and fun to boot!

  • PR and the Public Schools; Before announcing bad test scores, inspire community pride by George A. Clowes, School Reform News, October 2001

  • How Schools "Manage" Parents, School Reform News, October 2001. This is a review of the book Parents and Schools: The 150-Year Struggle for Control in American Education by Temple University history professor William Cutler. The review starts by asking this compelling question: "Why is it that parents who give a mediocre grade to public schools in general almost invariably have a favorable impression of the performance of their local public school?"

  • Here is an additional review of Parents and Schools: The 150-Year Struggle for Control in American Education by William Cutler. This review also starts with questions: "Why aren't schools more responsive to parent and taxpayer demands for improvement? Is it because they are a monopoly and they just don't care? Is it because they are increasingly influenced by unions and put member interests ahead of the public interest? Or, is it, as the schools claim, because they can't do better given their resources? William Cutler's new book implicitly raises another possibility: Is it because they aren't making a good faith effort to change? If history is a guide, the answer is yes. Cutler shows that schools and parents have been at odds for a very long time. Instead of acting to fulfill the expectations of parents and the public, the schools have historically sought to shape and reshape the views of parents and the public to suit their own ideas about education's aims and purposes." Note: This review is also available as a PDF document.

    Schools, Teachers, Parents and the Community


  •  

    The Spinmeisters
    Come To Town

    by Kevin Killion
    First release: October 25, 2001


    Schools Discover PR

      A new element is being added to the battle between the education monopoly and education reformers. The same tool used by marketers to sell soap, tobacco, and automobiles is now being used to convince your neighbors that everything is just fine and dandy at the local school -- except that much more money is needed. Schools have discovered the world of public relations!

      The residents in a community are usually first introduced to this new element when the district announces it has contracted with a "research company" hired (we are told) to conduct, tabulate and report a "community survey".

      Even a casual observer might find it curious that a school district would look all the way to St. Louis, say, to find a research company, when there is no shortage of solid, credible market research companies in Chicago. After all, Chicago is the home of the American Marketing Association, and thousands of market research professionals work in this area.

      As these "surveys" are done, parents might also find it a little odd that so little is asked in detail about what parents actually expect in curriculum, or what parents think about the curriculum or curriculum changes, how parents feel on such issues as phonics versus whole language, or how parents feel about the issue of endless "projects" versus substantive, coherent content.

    The Hidden Agenda Behind "Community Surveys"

      The formula behind a typical so-called "survey" behind a PR campaign for higher taxes was spelled out with great candor at one of the sessions at the 2001 conference of the NSPRA, the National School Public Relations Association. Yes, there IS such an organization, and by all measures it's growing rapidly.

      At a session entitled "Getting Voter Approval the New Fail-Safe Way," a manager for one large school district and the PR head for a state school board association jointly shared their experiences in running hundreds of successful school levy and bond campaigns. This conference and this session was covered in reports by Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency. Excerpted from his reports, here is what happened at that session:

      Campbell and Magmer suggested an early survey of all potential voters in order to learn where they stand on the levy. The yes votes are noted and divided by how frequently they vote. The no votes are questioned further, to determine if emphasizing a particular aspect of the levy's purpose moves their vote to yes. If so, these people are also noted. Those who can't be moved ("Men over 60 are death on wheels for most measures," Campbell said) are discarded and never referenced again. This is crucial to what follows. ...
      To read more, and for the full details on the NSPRA conference, see the links at the bottom of this page.

    UNICOM-ARC: When Your District Needs Hired Guns

      Here in the Chicago area and elsewhere in Illinois, one of the PR agencies that pops up frequently is "UNICOM-ARC". This St. Louis firm has been hired by school districts in the Chicago area, including Adlai Stevenson HS D125, Antioch D34, Antioch Community HS D117, Barrington D220, Bensenville D2, Butler D53, Carpentersville D300, Deerfield D109, Downers Grove D58, DuPage HS D88, Elgin U46, Glenbard HS District 87, Glen Ellyn D41, Glenview D34, Gurnee (Woodland) D50, Gurnee D56, Highland Park D112, Highland Park D113, Hinsdale Township HS D86, Hinsdale-Clarendon Hills D181, Kenilworth D38, Lake Park Community HS D108, Lake Zurich D95, Lemont-Bromberek D113A, Libertyville/Vernon Hills HS D128, Lincolnshire-Prairie View D103, Lincolnwood D74, Lockport Township D205, Medinah D11, Mt. Prospect D57, Naperville D203, North Palos D117, Northbrook D27, Palatine Township HS D211, Park Ridge-Niles D64, Riverside-Brookfield HS D208, Roselle D108, St. Charles, Schiller Park D81, Skokie D69, Skokie (East Prairie) D73, Skokie D73.5, Wheaton-Warrenville D200, and Woodstock D200, as well as in a number of school districts downstate including Belleville Township HS D201, Belvidere D100, Collinsville D10, Columbia D4, Decatur D61, O'Fallon D203 (in St. Clair County), Olympia D16, Rockford D205, Springfield D186, and Waterloo D5.

      It's most revealing to do a little checking around on this "UNICOM-ARC" company.

      Turns out that UNICOM-ARC is no run of the mill "research" company. In a description of itself that UNICOM-ARC posted on a directory of union shops (maintained by the Union Label & Service Trades Department of the AFL-CIO), they say,

      We are all-union communications and public relations firm that specializes in serving labor, non-profit and community-based organizations. Unicom-ARC is experienced in media outreach, planning campaign strategy and developing effective messages through focus groups and polling ...
      The bulk of their business comes from school districts who hire them for the explicit purpose of spiffing up their image as a prelude to passing tax hikes.

      We can quickly realize that when a "community survey" is conducted, parents and teachers should NOT expect UNICOM-ARC to deliver an unbiased report on what the town really wants wants -- that's NOT what they were hired to do, and it's not what they do for a living.

      Take a look for yourself: here is the UNICOM-ARC website.

      Note!

      Since this page was originally written, Unicom-ARC has become much more careful about how much they reveal on their own website. The quotes we show here were indeed on their website at the time this was originally written.

      Here is their own statement of what they do:

      Since 1970, our INTEGRATED approach has helped the UNICOM•ARC team build an 80% "win" record in 118 election campaigns and develop a well-earned reputation for taking on difficult and complex issues and turning them into success stories.
      This bit is revealing:
      Using research as a guide we implement the most effective strategies to reach out to the target audience and build better understanding or awareness of an issue or product. This is best achieved by letting your audience "discover" firsthand the challenges you face or the advantages of your product or service, then engaging them in meaningful two-way dialog at a grassroots level.
      (Note: the extremely revealing quotes above around the word "discover" are theirs, not ours!)

      UNICOM-ARC's pride over the "accomplishments" of its head of their educational division is described this way:

      Dan Burns, Executive Director of Education Communications, UNICOM•ARC

      As the long-time Director of Communications and Planning for the Rockwood (MO) School District, Dan was widely regarded as one of the top school communicators in the nation. During his tenure there, the District passed 13 bond proposals totaling $240 million (including the largest school bond proposal ever passed in the St. Louis County area) and three successful operating levy increases.

      Here, UNICOM-ARC is very proud of what they did in west suburban district 300:
      In November 2000, UNICOM•ARC helped the District pass an $88 million bond issue (which required a 33-cent tax increase)... The campaign was preceded by a lengthy public engagement process, facilitied by UNICOM•ARC, in which more than 3,000 District residents participated in the creation of a the plan which was eventually approved by voters.
      On the same page they also report winning awards at the recent conference of the NSPRA, the National School Public Relations Association. UNICOM-ARC presented one of the sessions at this spin-fest, and here is the official description of that session from the conference program book:
      Promoting a facilities or operations plan created "top down" by district officials is becoming increasingly difficult. This session will outline a groundbreaking process to engage the public to "discover" the challenges you face, and then create and support a plan to meet your needs.
      Once again, the quotes around the word "discover" are theirs, not ours!

      (For much more detail on the events of the NSPRA conference, follow the links near the bottom of this page to the reports from the Education Intelligence Agency.)

      Of particular interest, take a look at UNICOM-ARC's web page on "case studies":

      Community Unit District 300 in western suburban Chicago had lost three times in a row at the polls with plans to deal with explosive student growth and severely aging facilities. ... District 300 had to deal with a vigilant anti-tax group who opposed all ballot initiatives, along with a series of unpopular administrative decisions that led to a complete lack of trust of the District by the public. ... Utilizing UNICOM•ARC's award-winning model for public engagement, the newfound FACE Committee held planning meetings in every school building, brought in architects and financial planners, and created a new plan ... With the momentum from that process behind them, the FACE leaders then led the election campaign for an $88 million bond issue that residents approved in November 2000.

    School Perceptions, LLC

      "Don't wait until you fail a referendum ..."

      That's the pitch from another public relations outfit, "School Perceptions LLC" from Slinger, Wisconsin. SP stands ready to sling a professional PR image around your community, just as they've done for some "150 schools across the country". In Illinois, they've been hired by a number of school districts including Antioch D34, Northbrook D30, Schaumburg D54 and Sunset Ridge D29.

      They make it clear what they can do for your entrenched school administration: "Our pre-referendum survey will help you build ownership and support ..."

      SP was started in 2002 by a Bill Foster, who SP says "is highly sought-after by districts when they consider referendum planning." Foster is the author of a very revealing article published by the Illinois Association of School Boards - perhaps it was too revealing as it has now been pulled off of the IASB website. In the article, "Biased Survey Beats Unbiased For Influence", Foster notes that traditional surveying isn't enough: "To gain that public support, in my opinion, school boards must master the art of community engagement. ... the process of building ownership in solutions and gaining support for a referendum includes much more than a traditional sampling survey." Foster says, "a small number of people have a great deal of influence over what others think and how others behave. It follows that these same people also have a great deal of influence over how others vote." For that reason, Foster encourages districts not to use a random sample which, he says, "may only reach 2 to 4 percent of the community. With this strategy, you will miss most of the influentials in your community." Instead, Foster advises districts to survey everyone in the community. He says, "The influentials, by their nature, will rise to the task. ... A survey that is available to everyone in your school community will automatically be biased toward this select group."

      SP promises money-hungry districts that SP's "Community Engagement for Operational and Capital Referendum Planning" has one overriding goal: "Bringing your community together to make difficult decisions" which, we presume, means the "correct" decisions.

      Enforcing Groupthink

      SP's services aren't limited to spinning a story for the uninformed citizenry. Oh, no. They also have a "product" to help weed out teachers who aren't complying with the fatwas of the curriculum police. They call it their "Professional Practices Inventory."

      SP shows how the honchos can use PPI ...

      ... to gather data from teachers on what strategies they use and their level of proficiency in different areas
      Or, to put it another way, have they been properly drinking the Kool-Aide served at your teacher in-service sessions?

      SP asks,

      Would you like to know what the teachers in your district are saying? What strategies are they using, and which ones do they struggle with? ... The inventory ... help[s] your teachers develop new instructional strategies.
      Let there be no doubt: The PPI questions are consistently skewed in favor of modern fuzzy-wuzzy ed theories. Answering each item in the constructivist way indicates "mastery," while low compliance indicates a need for more "training." So, are your teachers working in the fields of happy constructivist theory? Here are a couple of examples.

      SP's demo of PPI asks teachers to what extent they comply with the statement,

      "I use multiple intelligences to understand each student and address his or her strengths."
      Note that they do not ask teachers for their opinions on statements such as
      "The 'Multiple Intelligences' fad ranks right up their with other pseudo-science crockery such as aura-reading and Chakra-tuning."

      SP's PPI demo also asks about this: "I am sensitive to the cultures represented by my students, and plan for their diversity." (We have to wonder: what teacher would disagree with that, thus inviting the bigwigs to let loose another round of diversity consultants? Aaaaccck!)

      Some other loaded statements in a demo PPI questionnaire include:

      • My students work collaboratively with one another because I continue to reinforce collaboration skills.
      • I guide my students in constructing their own understanding and assuming their own responsibility for learning.
      • I adapt lessons so they are suitable for the many learning styles and experiences of my students.
      • I teach my students to be critical thinkers and creative problem solvers.
      • I use constructivist approaches in my teaching, linking new ideas to familiar ones.
      • I integrate content across disciplines in a natural way for my students.
      • I understand the strategies of inquiry and discovery learning and know when to use them.
      • I lead my students to use inquiry and post questions to help them construct their own understanding of the concepts.
      • I develop age-appropriate lessons that are developmentally appropriate for my students.

      SP does throw in this statement, as sort of an after-thought:

      • I understand the major concepts of the subjects I teach and can explain them to my students.
      Whoa! How did that get in there?

    Paying for Your Brainwashing

      Who is paying for all this spinmeistering on behalf of local districts? In many cases, it's the taxpayers, through their local school boards who claim that hiring of companies like UNICOM-ARC is for the purpose of "research" (which is legal) rather than political action (which is not). In other cases, it's a "community" group that fronts for a tax hike, soliciting "donations" from residents or local businesses.

      It's interesting that as school districts and boards are squawking louder and louder about money (even in exceptionally well-larded districts), they see no problem with spending dough on public relations gimmickry rather than on engaging the community in honest discussions of the kinds of schools they want -- the kind of discussion that could lead to genuine community support.

      More and more, the voters are wising up. In response, tax hike proponents are being more cautious in their PR efforts. From the Chicago Tribune, March 9, 2002:

      "You have to be real careful about looking too slick and too clean," [the co-chairman of a Naperville campaign] said. "You want it to be citizens selling the referendum to citizens. You don't want it to be Madison Avenue selling it. People get suspicious."
      Even UNICOM-ARC is aware that there are limits to polished campaigns on behalf of skyrocketing tax hikes. From the Chicago Tribune, March 9, 2002:
      "In more and more communities, there seems to be more opposition that is cropping up ... they are much more organized than they were 20 years ago. They are networked," said Rodney Wright, president of UNICOM/ARC...
      Dear readers, welcome to the network!

    How To Learn More About Schools and Public Relations

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