Friday, November 16

Persuading Publics: Who Are You Talking To?

national drop out rate
The Ad Council recently launched a new PSA campaign in support of education. The campaign, which promotes, attempts to reach parents and reaffirm the importance of consistent attendance in class because of a startling but not surprising fact: nearly 7.5 million students (K-12) chronically miss school.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing at least 10 percent of school days in a given year, which is about 18 days. The hope of the Ad Council and U.S. Army is to bolster awareness that absenteeism and performance goes hand in hand. But one wonders whether the message will reach the right people — it's the same message they've been promoting for years.

Why good ideas sometimes miss the mark. 

It's an important message and a well-meant campaign. But there is some psychology missing from the creative strategy. Their own research alludes to it — students who attend school regularly in their early years are more likely than chronic absentees to read well, obtain higher test scores and graduate.

The key words, "early years," tell part of the missing story. Parents or other role models play a critical role in defining the importance of education well before children make a conscious decision to skip school. The first spot attempts to convey this point directly, despite taking a slightly cavalier approach.

The other factor, unaddressed in this spot or the other one that simply attempts to cleverly quantify the problem, is whether or not the children in question have developed a love for learning. And if they do love to learn, we probably need to understand what interferes with their desire to go to school.

It could be any number of factors: peer pressure (friends that don't value education), family pressure (parents who equate kids that care about education as an attempt to be "better" than them) or economics that require students who would be in school to either work or babysit for younger siblings.

There are also psychological pressures, ranging from the belief that they aren't smart enough or that education won't make a difference other than fostering dreams that won't come true. There are more stories and chronicles a few of them outside of the campaign.

Unfortunately, none of the new ads really address the problem. They only address the symptom, a frightening statistic that people feel powerless to change. Except, we can help change it — even if the organization seems to mostly drive volunteerism and donations. Here is a list of ideas.

What education really needs is more engagement.

As an instructor and also someone with an expressed interest in our education system, engagement is the key. In fact, one of the best programs created by is the mentoring program because it truly addresses the need. According to the organization, kids with mentors are 52 percent less likely to skip school. That's a powerful number with the potential to cut 7.5 million absentee students in half.

It's also challenging in its scalability. Anyone who has school-aged children might already feel overwhelmed by the amount of homework they help their children with, making mentorship less obtainable. However, it does provide a direction to think about. There are three primary factors.

1. Students have to develop a love for learning. This is teacher driven, but some homes can reinforce the idea. If they don't have a love for learning, it's ten times harder to instill the value of education.

2. Students cannot have their education derailed outside of school. It isn't fair for parents to pit school needs versus home needs. This is parent driven, and probably the best place to think about a campaign — one that still attracts volunteers and donations but shows the consequence of parental decisions.

3. Students need to be engaged in more ways than school. It's patently proven that schools that introduce music programs see an uptick in school performance. It doesn't have to be music. It could be any special interest activity. It works for two reasons. It instills self-confidence (something they can do) and keeps them too busy to engage in activities that put them at risk. This is organization driven. If not part of the school, then offered through any number of after-school organizations.

People tend to cut all the statistics along socio-economic status, but I've never fully believed it. There are no socio-economic boundaries in kindergarten. Almost all children are excited to go. Almost all parents are proud of their child's first day. Maybe what people need to start focusing on is what changes in the dynamic between first grade and fourth grade, which lays the foundation for the rest of their education.

But more to the point. I'm bullish on the good work of, but found the latest round of ads one off for effective. Laying a problem bare isn't enough to be effective. It has to change behavior. A different concept, such as one student taking two different paths in life, might better drive the message if the primary drivers are parents. The spot above, while clever, shows the problem without a solution that overrides parental denial. And even then, the real problem is a combination of all three outlined above.
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