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Saturday, June 3, 2006

New Teacher Academy Ignores the Obvious

Friday's (2006.06.02, p.1) Madison Daily Leader leads with a story about next week's New Teacher Academy taking place at Dakota State University. The purpose of the three-day event: to keep new teachers in the profession. State Secretary of Education cites the well-known (in education circles) statistic that nationwide, 50% of teachers leave the profession within five years.

O.K., hold it right there. Pop quiz: Imagine you are the Secretary of Education and you wanted to address new-teacher retention. Which of the following do you think would persuade more teachers to remain in the profession?

(A) Celebrate the accomplishments of new teachers;
(B) Reflect on new teachers' progress and influence on student achievement;
(C) Examine core propositions of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards;
(D) Develop professional relationships to achieve common educational goals;
(E) Participate in activities that demonstrate a commitment to the teaching profession;
(F) Receive more pay.

If you answered (F), you aren't thinking like a true education administrator. Such individuals don't get to their positions of power and influence with straight talk and common sense. They get there by proposing and lauding make-work mumbo-jumbo like options (A)-(E), which come straight from the Department of Education's description of the New Teacher Academy.

This story doesn't completely ignore the issue of teacher pay: Tom Hawley, dean of DSU's College of Education, notes (in column 5 of a six-column article) that new teachers "can go into the private sector and make a larger salary." Hawley says that through the New Teacher Academy, the state wants to be "proactive and try to keep the best and brightest teachers in the classrooms in South Dakota."

Actually, it sounds like the state is simply trying to find ways to make itself look good by throwing federal grant money down another hole. If you want to keep new teachers on the job, don't cut into their vacation with more mindless academic activities (the same sorts of tedious, content-free classes we already have to sit through to meet our overly burdensome and talent-discouraging certification requirements). Say "Good job, here's a check. Want to stick around for another year?" Handing out checks wouldn't look as good on an education administrator's resume as a fancy seminar, but it would achieve the goal of teacher retention a lot more directly and efficiently.

As Expected, Slogan Underwhelms

Friday's (2006.06.02) Madison Daily Leader reports that the employees at CommissionSoup have come up with a new slogan for Madison: we may replace "In Touch with the World" with (brace yourself) "Discover the Unexpected."

I wish I could get paid for sitting around and thinking up slogans. Apparently, I wouldn't have to think of anything terribly creative or even representative of the town, product, or service I'm trying to promote.

This new slogan fails in two ways. First, it fails in terms of content. "Discover the Unexpected" -- what unexpectedness does Madison offer? How many people have driven to Madison and exclaimed, "Wow, I never expected to find that in Madison?" I love my town, but I will admit that it is a typical small prairie town: farm and manufacturing jobs; some small shops on main street struggling to compete with the big stores out on the highway and in Sioux Falls; lakes with bullhead, walleye, and the wily carp; and a majority of high school graduates who can't wait to get out of town for their college education and better job opportunities elsewhere.

Even if a visitor with an eye less accustomed to Madison's native wonders than my own were to visit and find something unexpected, the slogan still fails on a second level, as a unique and competitive identifier of our fair city. The slogan fails to set us apart from the other communities with whom we are competing for tourism dollars and economic development.

Test the slogan this way: could we slap that slogan on any other town and still have it make sense? "Discover the Unexpected... in Brookings!" "...in Mitchell!" "...in Ramona!" The slogan makes as much sense applied to any other town as it does to Madison. Any town could claim to have unexpected treasures. Potential visitors comparing slogans to determine their next family vacation or major business investment would learn nothing about Madison from "Discover the Unexpected."

Compare the proposed slogan with another slogan, one enjoying perhaps the greatest top-of-mind awareness of any current metropolitan tagline: "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." Not only does the slogan mention the city by name (by somewhat catchy nickname), but it captures a defining aspect of the city's character, something that no other city could legitimately claim. ("What happens in New York stays in New York?" Heck no -- New Yorkers think their city is the center of the universe and want everyone to know what happens there.)

By this standard, even our current slogan, "In Touch with the World," sells the city better than "Discover the Unexpected." "In Touch with the World" fits with our local university's mission and our technological knowledge base. It promises businesses and new residents something specific and useful: connection with the broader economy and culture. "Discover the Unexpected" leaves people wondering whether the slogan is promising unexpected economic opportunity, simple distracting oddities for tourists, or maybe just a fly in your soup at Nicky's.

If Madison really wants to succeed in the arena of metro-slogans, it should make an effort to compose a slogan that reflects specific competitive advantages of this community over its neighbors. Of course, if Madison really wants to succeed in general, it should stop wasting time and money on marketing and focus on real economic improvements.