I wouldn't normally encourage anyone to spend any time in the comments sections of our esteemed local periodicals. It's of course hilarious that some of Memphis' most talented attorneys are chomping at the bit to get in up to their eyeballs with these commenters, but we'll have to see how Judge Mays comes out on that open question.
But something interesting is happening in the comments section of the Commercial Appeal. Here's the first article (Oct. 22) where I noticed commenters engaged with a commenter named "AchievementCommunications". The Commercial Appeal keeps a "user profile" on commenters that lets readers see all of the comments that a particular commenter makes on any article they commented on. So I took a look at "AchievementCommunications"'s user profile, and sure enough, it looks like they are the real deal and actually employed by the Achievement School District. This ASD employee actually gives a surprising amount of personal identifying information. For instance:
On March 5, 2012 at 9:16 a.m.: "I personally worked with Chris in Houston and my 6th grade class had 35 students in it, and yet, was still expected to perform with my students." Hmmm.
Looks like AchievementCommunications doesn't post much, and many of the posts contain the boilerplate charter language. You know, the usual.
Here's an example from March 5, 2012 at 9:23 a.m.: "At the Achievement Schools, we are going to build a world-class organization for teachers. In fact, one of our goals is to become an employer of choice in education and be validated as one of Tennessee's best places to work. We accomplished this with our work in Houston and hope to bring some of those same lessons here. At the Achievement Schools, our teachers will be working on big challenges and will be surrounded by great colleagues. They will have managers that invest in their developments and they will have a lot of fun serving our students. We are excited to recruit the top performers in Memphis and from around the country to focus on what we feel like is the most compelling job in education: creating a system of schools in Tennessee that perform in the top 25%."
But in the Oct. 22 article about the low MAP scores (linked above), AchievementCommunications made clear that his/her role is at least partly one of containment. Commenters apparently objected to a government official being paid to monitor and respond to comments on a media website - like this one: "I like your spin, Mr. State-Funded ASD PR Machine. Thrilled to know that our tax dollars (taken directly from MCS) are being spent so that a PR person can monitor and respond to posts on media sites. If you're working after your usual hours, they really should pay you overtime."
After a second attack by the same commenter on another article, the ASD eventually responded here with this: "[T]hese are interesting thoughts. Our approach is to be a part of the conversation happening online. We find this kind of conversation rich and important. It helps us learn and it helps us clarify misunderstandings and misconceptions. In fact, we are cost evangelists. Our support team is light and flexible and 100% of the money gets sent to our schools first. Our principals decide which services benefit their students most and then pay back into those services. Does that help clarify? If not, you can email me at [email address] I can help explain that model. We feel like keeping open and honest lines of communication with the community is incredibly important."
Let's not take our eyes off of the ball here.
What the ASD is posting is not as important as the fact that they ARE posting. Everyone knows that the commenters hide behind their handles for a reason. Best case, they are provocateurs (even better - with some inside knowledge). Worst case, they are trolls. I've only seen a few people post under their real names - Ken Hoover (Germantown schools guy) and Kenya Bradshaw (TN Executive Director of Stand for Children) come to mind. So I guess I admire the ASD's honesty and willingness to own their comments. Have to give them that.
But I have to agree with the commenter that wrote: "I understand having a PR department. We don't want teachers and principals losing instruction time responding to media requests. I'm not even opposed to a true PR professional working with media to try to place positive stories. However, this is something else entirely. Every dollar that this individual is paid is a dollar not being expended on student achievement. And that is a conscious decision made by the ASD. And that is a big difference between the approaches of public education and the charter mindset. The charter mindset is as much about positive PR and directing public discussion in a "purposeful" way as it is about what actually happens in the classroom. And they are willing to spend the money to do it, and are allowed to do it because they do not have the same level of public oversight and scrutiny to which traditional public education (and their budgets) are subjected. Disgraceful."
So AchievementCommunications is not a trained PR or marketing lackey - by his or her own admission, s/he was a classroom teacher in Houston for at least some period of time. So maybe the ASD is just making up their PR plan as they go along.
But this Houston transplant is not bad at propaganda. Just from the excerpts I've posted, the talking points are clear. They're also not bad at deflection. They'll reply to part of a comment or part of a question, without getting to the meat of the disagreement. But what they really want to do is take dissent offline. They offer their email address along with the opportunity to fully flesh out the important discussions taking place. For those commenters that take them up on it, it just might keep their complaints off of the comments section (where they can't egg on other troublemakers) and it definitely keeps the ASD's more detailed response from having to be publicly aired.
But maybe the ASD PR department doesn't like being called out by the commenters. AchievementCommunications hasn't commented on an article since October 25. And the heat is up since the ASD announced that it was taking over 10 more schools. Those articles, with some very unfavorable comments, are still pending a response from AchievementCommunications. But maybe the ASD has changed its policy on worktime internet usage and/or governmental supervision of online comments.
So that leaves the ASD with just its usual PR plan.
What do you mean that you haven't friended the ASD on Facebook yet?