UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI EDUCATION STUDENTS

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Hillsborough County Schools’ Blog Problem is About Communication


Depending on who you read, blogs are either the saviors of communication for schools or big, fat electronic headaches. The reality is that they’re both, and we’re about to see why.

Hillsborough County Public Schools is a case I like to track – partly because the issues they face are common to most all school districts big and small, partly because the HCPS board and administration gives us a non-stop carnival sideshow.

And that carnival sells a lot of tickets. There’s a host of HCPS-related blogs that track the goings-on of the imperfect Tampa system. The St. Pete Times has The Gradebook; HCPS board member April Griffin has Sound Off and Be Heard; HCPS employees unofficially have The Wall; private citizen blogs include Es-Kay, Special Ed Motel, Casting Room Couch and PRO on HCPS.

Lots of daily discussion on those blogs – and that’s a new thing for school districts like HCPS. Most districts are famous among parents/taxpayers as a political black boxes. For better or worse, blogs shine a little light inside.

The Gradebook reminds us today that not every district is thrilled about new media. From “Comments vs. Content”:

“When talking to school board members from across Florida the other day, I heard many gripes that blogs, including ours, weaken our content by allowing untrue things written as reader comments to remain published as if they were true. They also didn’t like the hateful things that many readers say.” 

Indeed they don’t – in fact, they don’t like criticism much at all, legitimate or otherwise. Remember when HCPS begged for positive feedback because they were fed up with hearing things they didn’t like?

There’s no question that blog comments – like any discussion, live or electronic – include misinformation. That’s the reality of communication, and if HCPS isn’t comfortable with that, they need to get there quickly.

But it’s important to point out that negativity or inaccuracy in a discussion is most often a consequence of a poor, ineffective communication strategy. The more information you give the public – the more transparent, open and honest schools make the debate – the more accurate the dialogue.

HCPS board member Jennifer Faliero wrote an e-mail to The Gradebook with a handful of suggestions for improving blog relations:

“Two suggestions; the St. Pete Times establish policies governing the use of unregistered bloggers and force people to register and implement an approval process for live comments to be reviewed before going live. This can be done at home by a staffer for round-the-clock monitoring.” 

“Forc[ing] people to register” isn’t quite a warm invitation to debate – and her inability to see that such iron-fisted language is a turn-off gives a clue to why HCPS is in this mess to begin with. But Faliero’s out of her mind if she thinks that registration always commands one’s real personal information. The Times would have to institute an outrageously-invasive verification process to satisfy her request. And if one tries to post a comment that needs to be reviewed [i.e., a threat of violence] all the trackable information is there. Poor suggestion, Ms. Faliero.

But the interesting part is how Ms. Faliero thinks that the Times should make a staffer work, as she said, “round-the-clock” to fact-check, approve, monitor, and otherwise police blog comments. If anyone wonders why public schools aren’t models of efficient, cost-effective solutions to simple problems, there’s an example.

Ms. Faliero continues her logical mish-mash:

“The second involves you and taking a more active role in removing content you otherwise would not print.” 

To my knowledge, the Times does a fair job of removing the truly incendiary. If I’m wrong – and I might be – they should step up their efforts.

Even so, Faliero is confused. The Times isn’t “print[ing]” comments and they aren’t endorsing comments. The Gradebook, along with others on that list of excellent Tampa-area school blogs, lets the public weigh in on issues. They’re opening lines of communication that have been shut down for years.

In short, they’re facilitating public discourse and some HCPS officials can’t handle it. Welcome to free-market, First Amendment reality in the 21st century, Ms. Faliero.

A [growing] segment of the Hillsborough public doesn’t trust the district. That takes time to erase. But in the meantime, trust can be built by using these channels of communication rather than complaining about them.

If HCPS is concerned, they should read blog comments to identify the public’s interests and then address those concerns while correcting any misinformation. They could, as Ms. Griffin does, participate actively in the dialogue. They could invite blog authors to speak at public school board meetings.

… and HCPS officials with a genuine interest in solving Hillsborough’s problems could engage in blog comment discussion themselves. Just a thought, Ms. Faliero.

We hear from third-rate consultants frequently that “proactive” is better than “reactive.” Here’s a time when they’re right. Less seething, complaining, belly-aching, finger-pointing and intimating that the public is dishonest, ignorant and/or stupid – and more dialogue with the citizens you were elected to represent.

P.S — Rather than ‘register,’ I’ll tell Ms. Faliero and HCPS that my name is Matthew K. Tabor – she, and any others in the hallowed halls of HCPS can e-mail me at mktabor@gmail.com or call me at 607.821.1752. We can talk about blogs, new media and transparency in public service.

Matthew writes on school issues at Education for the Aughts and consults on graduate/professional school admissions and new media/communication. He is on the Board of Advisors for Educommunicators, a group dedicated to effective communication in education.

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December 10, 2008 - Posted by | Blogging, Current affairs, Education, Public Schools, Social Media, University of Miami | , , , , , ,

12 Comments »

  1. very interesting read. thanks.

    Comment by Michael | December 10, 2008 | Reply

  2. This article is extremely interesting…it reminds us all of the fact that social media and blogging is extremely important, even relating to education…I think there needs to be more outlets like this one to discuss current issues relating to our educational system

    Comment by Jordan Steinbaum | December 10, 2008 | Reply

  3. Michael and Jordan,

    Thanks for the kind words. I agree that how the public uses information is extremely important. 10 years ago it was static websites; now it’s more dynamic social media. In a few more years, we’ll likely deal with something different – but it’ll all be information.

    Hillsborough officials might not be comfortable with blogs, but for a host of reasons, the public is. And because of that, Hillsborough [and others in public service everywhere] need to get on board and at least understand better what’s going on.

    Comment by Matthew K. Tabor | December 10, 2008 | Reply

  4. […] are a few lines from my piece titled “Hillsborough County Schools’ Blog Problem is About Communication“: “A [growing] segment of the Hillsborough public doesn’t trust the district. That […]

    Pingback by Hillsborough County Public Schools and the Blogging Problem — Education for the Aughts - American School Issues and Analysis | December 10, 2008 | Reply

  5. Matthew-

    This is a fantastic article! Very assertive but with evidence to back up your claims… you have a great grasp on the subject and are clearly passionate about it!

    It does really speak to the fact that while many hallow Social Media/Blogging as a completely perfect solution to many problems, it can actually be more of a catalyst to problems than a solution. This, of course, is providing the administration is, shall we say “cognitively lacking,” to the point where they allow this to become an issue!

    Great read! Thanks for your contribution and your passion about the subject!

    -Andy Zweibel
    andy@andyzweibel.com

    Comment by zweibz7 - Andy Zweibel | December 11, 2008 | Reply

  6. Andy,

    I agree that every change in communication brings challenges. At the least, it isn’t easy to keep up with new media channels. Having said that, it’s an elected official’s responsibility to understand how the public is communicating. They don’t have to engage in it themselves, but they do have to understand it – and not treat the public with contempt. Faliero and others at HCPS miss those last two points.

    Comment by Matthew K. Tabor | December 11, 2008 | Reply

  7. The reason that the Hillsborough County board does not like blogs is that the blogs pierce the wall of secrecy that the board and administration throw up to deprive the public of information about how the schools are run–or more accurately misrun.

    It doesn’t take one long to learn if he or she attends board meetings why the board and administration hide information. What is going on behind the scenes is the ethos of greed and hunger for power. The students and teachers are last in the line of concern for the board and administration. Both run the schools to benefit the board and administration with tax money attached to the number of students the school has. The students are the money crop. The board and administration thus use students and teachers to attract state tax money that the board and administration need to continue the racket that benefits themselves. When one cites Ms. Valdez’s $50,000 in trip money for a single year and Ms. Elia’ $300,000 in salary, he or she has reached pay dirt. These bloated figures are particularly vile when one knows that thousands of poor children in the district can’t participate in class activities because they lack supplies to do so.

    The board’s meetings pantomines. They supply the semblance of government without letting out any information that the public needs to know. The consent agenda rides by with a rubber stamp from the board that lets Ms. Elia run the show. There is no discussion of the important issues on the podium; hence, Ms. Elia has been able to create two jobs for buddy Hamilton with the board not even bringing the issue to the floor for discussion.

    Meanwhile, if a teacher or even lunch-room worker asks a question or expresses an opinion about how the board and administration operate the schools, the teacher or worker gets targeted and hauled into Professional Standards on the frailest excuse so as to build a case to fire the wretch and cut out any criticism.

    I believe the Nazis operated this way in their suppressing of information. The first thing a dictator does is shut down the press. The board and administration would be amenable to that move in my opinion, not to mention outlawing citizen blogs. Citizens should be suspicious of public institutions and their leaders that want to shut up the public. Without the First Amendment, we cease to be a democracy. lee drury de cesare

    Comment by lee drury de cesare | December 12, 2008 | Reply

  8. Lee,

    I think it’s a bit simpler than all that, but I may be wrong.

    Comment by Matthew K. Tabor | December 14, 2008 | Reply

  9. Any institution that is financed by public money should be forced to be transparent in how they run things.

    For years, school boards and such haven’t had to do this or finding such information has taken quite an effort by Joe Taxpayer. Blogs and other such communication medium are the perfect, free way to do this and should be utilized.

    I’m tired of the bullshit excuses about how people aren’t comfortable with new/social media, that the internet is full of child predators and that anything online is somehow worth less than a teacher giving a lesson from a three-year-old text book with five-year-old information.

    The public communicates differently now. It’s the education system’s responsibility to stay ahead of that.

    If I was in k-12 school right now I’d be PISSED knowing that I could learn much, much more online if I only had access to it. I’m tired of students always knowing more than their teachers, being more technically adept and adapting to new technology. GET WITH THE TIMES PEOPLE.

    Comment by Tyler Hurst | December 14, 2008 | Reply

  10. “I’m tired of students always knowing more than their teachers…”

    Me too. That’s why I want better teachers.

    Comment by Matthew K. Tabor | December 15, 2008 | Reply

  11. As a journalism teacher in Hillsborough County, this topic interests me on many levels. For 16 years, I’ve advised newspaper staffs, and my students create an outstanding print product; however, I am training them for a dying medium, and it’s difficult to predict exactly what type of industry they will enter after college.

    I also served as a community columnist for the Tribune last year where I often wrote about school-related issues. The columnist program was cut recently, but many of us will continue to serve as community bloggers beginning next Monday. Today, a co-worker asked if I had permission from the district to blog. I said, “I’m sorry? Did I abandon my First Amendment rights the day I became a teacher?” Sometimes I wonder if I will be asked to sign a loyalty oath.

    Every freedom we enjoy as Americans has a negative byproduct. This is especially true of our right to free speech and free press. I’ve read blogs that perpetuate rumors and spread libelous accusations. However, the good outweighs the bad. Blogs provide a forum for public discourse that can lead to powerful change if we (as educators, journalists and citizens) are willing to listen.

    Comment by Christie Gold | December 18, 2008 | Reply

  12. Matthew, I did a session this summer on this topic with Vermont administrators. I think you did a nice job with this post and will use it in some future workshops here in Iowa. I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks!

    Comment by Scott McLeod | December 18, 2008 | Reply


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