How Stories, More Than Facts, Shape the Possibilities for Education Reform

Cross-posted at Education Week.

Many educators think that young people’s understanding of the world is built by enabling them to accumulate a growing pile of important facts.  But communications experts have long known that stories trump facts every time.  Stories are explanations of how the world works.  The most effective stories are those that connect to our emotions.  Once a person embraces such a story, that person tends to embrace facts that fit the story and reject facts that don’t.  This truth explains a lot of politics, because the stories we pay the most attention to tend to be tribal.  My tribe embraces this story and yours embraces that one.  There’s a strong connection between tribes and stories because stories explain how the world works.  I reject your facts because they don’t fit my understanding of how the world really works.  I know my story is right—my whole tribe believes it and my whole tribe rejects your story. So, if I reject my story by accepting your facts then I am not just embracing your story, I am also betraying my tribe.

At some risk, I will illustrate my point by telling two stories that ought to be familiar to you:

The first story

The professional educators have captured state policy on education.  Instead of using our tax money to educate our children, they are using it to line their pockets.  The proof is that, over the last few decades, the cost per student of our schools has skyrocketed but student performance has not improved at all.  Where we should be seeing improving student performance, all we see is escalating costs, hostility to innovation, ballooning unfunded pension systems, rotten teachers who can never be fired and unrelenting opposition to school choice, which is the only real way out of lousy schools.  When confronted with these facts, the teachers, their unions and bureaucrats only join together to protect their jobs, salaries and benefits and the system that provides them these things, without regard to what the students really need.  Things will get better only when the unions are broken, parents and students can choose better schools and we can fire the worst teachers.

The second story

Over the last few decades, the proportion of low-income and minority students in our schools has been rapidly escalating, to the point that more than half the students in our public schools are low-income and the majority in a growing number of states are from minority communities and many come from families in which English is not spoken.  Drug use among parents, especially the parents of children from low-income families, is off the charts in some states.  In many schools, most of the students are living with only one parent and many parents are in jail.  The society has dumped all of its accumulating problems at the doorstep of the schools. It is a miracle that student performance has held steady and not fallen.  All that charters do is take students and money away from the schools and students that need that money the most.  Teachers in many states are being paid salaries that qualify them for welfare, or at least require a second or even third job.  Taking away the pensions they have been promised is a crime.  Teachers back their unions because their unions are their only protection against a society that has turned their back on them.

George Lakoff and other communications experts talk about the way people frame issues in the same terms that I have just described the stories they tell each other.  The way I frame an issue will determine whether I am ready to listen to your “facts.”

There are at least two reasonable ways to respond to this analysis if you are trying to get someone or some group of people to do something: either figure out how they frame the issues and then make a pitch that fits their frame or try to change the way they frame the issues.

Not all frames are equal, though.  If you want to change the way people frame the issues, one of the most effective ways to do it is to scare them.  Tell them a scary story about people who are out to cheat them, take their jobs away, murder them or just dismiss them and their way of life.  Do this effectively, and people will be more than willing to ignore the facts, turn their backs on values they have long embraced and trust people to lead them whom they would never otherwise have trusted.  Fear is a powerful motivator, and very effective in the hands of effective storytellers.

But there are other frames.  Some are grounded not in fear but in our better angels.  These are frames of hope.  They hold out the prospect of a better life for all, if only we will work together.  They paint a picture in which everyone sacrifices a bit now so all will do better later.  These are frames of not just hope, but also of trust, because no one will sacrifice now if the result of that is simply that their neighbor takes advantage of their sacrifice to grab as much as possible.  To make a narrative of shared sacrifice work, I have to trust my neighbor.

Years ago, watching educational policymakers and advocates come together repeatedly to address persistent problems in public education, I realized that, even though all of them thought the system was broken, none of them thought it could be fixed.  So, they came to the table resigned to working within a broken system.  Each one approached the table making the arguments they had always made, hoping to get a little bit, but not prepared to give up much of anything.  These endless rituals always ended in some form of stasis, like a Japanese Noh play in slow motion.

It occurred to me that there was an alternative to this formalized dance.  Suppose, I thought, one could create a table at which these players could not find their accustomed place?  Suppose, in other words, you could put a proposition on the table that, for each player, offered the promise that they could get much more of what they wanted than they had ever imagined getting, but each would also have to give up more than they had ever imagined giving up to get it?  I have, ever since, tried to create such tables.  Doing it requires that the players give up their narratives.  New stories are required.  Giving up the old stories and embracing the new ones is not easy. It takes time.  It is a social enterprise.  The players have to make sure that the other players at the table are also giving up their stories.  Those players have to go back to their tribes to get their tribes to start telling the new stories about how the world works now and how it will work in the future.  Trust needs to be built in a widening gyre of networks, at a time in which trust is in short supply.

Let’s go back to the two narratives I shared with you above.

Imagine that those who embraced the first narrative could be persuaded to offer the teachers a big raise and more professional autonomy if the teachers would ditch compensation schemes that treated all teachers the same, irrespective of performance, in favor of career ladders like those found in virtually all professional service firms, in which compensation is closely tied to increasing expertise and value to the firm?  The teachers would have to give up their determined opposition to compensation based on performance, but they could gain compensation on par with other high-status professionals and the kind of professional autonomy that those high-status professionals have.  The critics would have to give up their focus on getting rid of bad teachers but would get a system that rewards teachers who are great teachers and leaders of other teachers.

Imagine that the critics could be persuaded to support changes in state policy that would put more funds behind children growing up in concentrated poverty, strengthen early childhood education and greatly improve wrap-around social and health services for students in high-poverty neighborhoods, but, at the same time, the state would insist on putting in place restrictions on the way districts could spend their funds from the state so that funds intended to improve the performance of students growing up in poverty are spent in ways that reflect the best research on effective ways to spend that money?  Here, too, we see a hand extended to those who believe that teachers are being asked to deal with the problems left on their doorstep by a society that has abandoned its children, but, at the same time, another hand extended to those who want more accountability for the way their tax money is spent.

The reality is that there is some truth in both narratives, but both narratives are cartoons which greatly oversimplify complex truths, stories that are very appealing when told to friends in my tribe, but deeply offensive when told to members of another tribe.  Worse, these stories make it nearly impossible to find common ground.

I am a creature of the radical middle.  What I have just described is not a way to force a compromise with the Devil.  It is a way to think about how to get to conversations in which people who have long vilified or grudgingly tolerated the other side begin to listen, in the hope that, finally, a middle ground can be found that is not simply a muddle but is instead a creative solution that enables the tellers of all these tales to win.

That is the work of the National Center on Education and the Economy.  The enormous advantage we have in doing this work is the fact that a growing number of countries are modelling the kind of education systems in which all the actors can win.  We don’t have to argue from theory.  We can argue from evidence.

I have to confess that we make our case in both ways; we argue from fear and we argue from hope.  My standard “Hell and Damnation” speech is full of statistics showing that the United States, for a century the world leader in education, is no longer, that it, in fact, now has what is probably the worst-educated workforce among all the advanced industrial nations.  I describe how this happened and then show how our failure to keep up with the growing crowd of nations whose students are greatly outperforming ours is threatening our economy and our democracy and is throttling the opportunities for a rapidly growing fraction of our citizens to enjoy a decent life.  That’s the scary part.  Without that part, the other part does not work.

The other part is the speech of hope, the speech about the buoyant future the United States could have if we are willing to learn something from the nations that have gotten so far ahead of us.  What I have found is that few Americans are interested in learning from others in an arena in which we were for so long number one unless they are made to see how far we have fallen behind and how much depends on catching up.  But it is equally true that, if one’s aim is genuinely to make things better, it is no good scaring everyone to death unless one can give them hope, point in the direction of a solution to our problems that is both gleaming and practical.

What I have just described is NCEE’s approach to education reform in the United States. Yes, it is built on a lifetime of study of education both in the United States and abroad, and a deep respect for the data and for quality research.  But it is also built on a distinct take on social change—how it takes place and what it will take for people to embrace different stories about how the world works and what it will take to improve their lives.  Many researchers think that change is a function of putting new facts on the table.  Would that it were that simple.