Blog   |   E-Newsletter   |   Donate
EPFP Alumni Stories
Blog Home All Blogs
Search all posts for:   


View all (38) posts »

Cross-Boundary Leader: Jason Smith (DC EPFP 97-98)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Thursday, November 5, 2015


Cross-Boundary Leader

Jason Smith (DC EPFP 97-98)

Jason Smith is managing partner at Widmeyer Communications (a Finn Partners Company), where he oversees Widmeyer Education, the agency’s PreK-12 practice. Since joining the company in 1996, Smith has worked with many leading education organizations and foundations, including the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and ExxonMobil’s education initiatives. He also served as the project director for the rollout of the Next Generation Science Standards, and works with several clients to maintain support for Common Core. Prior to joining Widmeyer, Smith worked in the public sector practice group for Towers Perrin, an international management consulting firm, where he worked with school superintendents and state education agencies. He also worked in the offices of Rep. Virginia Smith (R-NE) and Sen. Terry Sanford (D-NC).

The Importance of Communication in Education

In 20 years of working in education communications, one of the biggest changes I’ve seen in the field is how education leaders now recognize the importance of communications in their work. When I started in this field, education issues didn’t play out in the public the way they do now. Relatively few folks thought much about public opinion on education issues. A lot of this changed with curriculum wars in the late 1990s.  They awakened a much broader swath of general population to the idea that public opinion could have influence over what’s going on in public education.

The challenge with this, of course, is how to effectively communicate what the education sector is doing. The education sector has the tendency of being “small-c” conservative, reticent, and reserved about early adoption of strategies. At Widmeyer, we’ve always had to strike a balance between being knowledgeable about the cutting edge communications strategies, but not forcing it upon clients who aren’t ready.

The significant growth of digital communications over the past decade or so has radically changed how people communicate about education. With so much information -- including schools’ performance data -- now available online, the general public knows so much more about education. This has led to the popularization of the public education discussion. Now we are all more aware of global education rankings and there is a more vested interest and opinion in the conversation.

The volatile public reaction to Common Core is without precedent, and is an example of how social media can elevate an otherwise esoteric topic like academic standards into a critical public interest issue. People who have no direct connection to public education have joined the Common Core debate and have taken a stance on the issue. In 2008, the Broad and Gates Foundations spent $60 million to try to make education a core issue in the presidential campaigns. Looking back, it seems like a quaint notion to remember how we used to wish people would talk about education in political campaigns, when Common Core and testing are now major political topics at the national level.

A critical lesson for education leaders emerging from the Common Core fight is the importance of conducting opinion research and testing messages. We learned the hard way that our intuition often leads us astray when we speculate how parents and teachers will respond to what we believe are compelling messages.

Hot Topics in Education

Race is quickly becoming the biggest issue in education today. We are finally no longer afraid to talk about the role race plays in education, and why so many communities of color are forced to attend sub-par schools. We’re now talking about re-segregated schools and about the lack of diversity in the reform community. I really applaud what Secretary Duncan has done to draw more attention to this issue.

Another major issue in education is the growing schism in the Democratic Party between the reformers and those who want to maintain the status quo. The historical alliance between unions and liberals has evaporated. Politically, we now see some extraordinary examples of strange bedfellows, such as far-right populists and far-left progressives both advocating for eliminating annual testing in ESEA reauthorization. Political alliances are in flux, and I think it will be a long time before we see how that settles out.

And of course, the role of technology in schools remains a topic of great interest, primarily because we simply haven’t seen the results we’ve been promised for such a long time. So many initiatives began with fanfare and good intentions. We are working hard to find ways for classrooms to adopt technology to help students, especially students who are struggling. Yet we confront major failures in education technology—like what we’re seeing in Los Angeles right now—that set the movement back. We clearly aren’t going to stop using technology in schools, but its promise proves more elusive than its advocates wish.

Cross-Sector Leadership and Challenges

Cross-sector leadership is important in education because student success often relies on support from the public health and social services sectors as well. They play a big role in the overall equation of what a child needs to succeed—it’s much more than just what happens in a classroom. My team at Widmeyer does a lot of work with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which approaches child welfare issues through the multi-sector lens of academics, health, and economic security. All three need to be in place for a child to be on a promising path to a productive and rewarding life. In education, we need to remember to look across sectors in order to do what’s in the best interest of a child.

Leadership Lessons Learned

The best leadership lesson I’ve learned is the power of servant leadership. The most important contribution I can make to my organization’s success is make sure each member of my team has the resources and support she needs to be effective. That support takes many forms. Sometimes, it’s simply expressing my faith that a young staffer can handle the job we gave him. Other times, it’s to make sure we’ve provided the necessary professional development, or given a staffer the technology she needs, regardless of whether others think it’s a perk she’s not yet entitled to. But always, it’s working hard to make sure everyone on the team knows I want them to be successful, and believe they will be.

Another critical component of effective leadership is understanding how to encourage the creative conflict that makes us better professionals, and to be OK with being wrong. I insist my team speak up when they disagree with my suggestions, and I change my mind frequently when they push back with points of view I hadn’t considered. I have no use for the so-called “Yes Men” you find in many organizations. 

EPFP Experience and Value

EPFP had a huge influence over my career. As someone who never went back to get an advanced degree, it’s the closest I came to public policy grad school. The relationships I built with the Fellows in my cohort were incredibly important, and I’m close with several of them still today, almost 20 years later. At Widmeyer, we’ve sent half a dozen folks through the program because we know the value of what Fellows learn, and whom they meet.



This post has not been tagged.

Share |
Permalink | Comments (0)
Contact Us at 4301 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 100 | Washington, DC 20008 | 202-822-8405 |

Membership Management Software Powered by YourMembership  ::  Legal