This is the speech I intended to give at the Southern Education Foundation Public Education conference this weekend. . . .

I intended to give this speech at the Southern Education Conference I attended this weekend, but as I was rehearsing and practicing it occurred to me there was in inherent irony in delivering a canned speech about interactive media. I was going to tell my audience that the difference between social media and traditional media and messaging is that social media is a two way conversation. With Social media you engage your audience and speak with them, not at them, and here I was creating a static delivery without allowing myself to be influenced by all the presenters and folks I had met while I was at this conference of talented, caring and committed folks. That seemed wrong on so many levels, so I winged it. I incorporated a few of my points and remarks, but cut out all the examples about myself and my accomplishments. (I think I did, but I don’t really remember since I just spoke from the heart and let my audience’s reactions guide where I went next.) I hope nobody minded, but in case anyone was wondering, this was my official speech (although I edited out a few things I don’t want the “bad guys” to see documented). Many folks told me this was more suitable for a blog entry than a live presentation anyways so now it is one. . .

 

I am known as the Crazy Crawfish. My real name is Jason France. I’m here today because of an education blog and persona I created called “Crazy Crawfish.” I use my blog to expose the wrongs and dangers of the privatization and education reform movement in my state and across the nation.

I’m also a father of two public school children, and a former Louisiana Department of Education employee. For the most part, I’m just an average person, but I’ve been able to harness the power of social media to champion public education issues in my state. I fill a void. I chose the name “Crazy” because I’m not afraid to fight mainstream thought, and “Crawfish” because everyone loves crawfish where I come from (usually for eating admittedly) – and I wanted something that was easy for folks to remember and hard for folks to attack.

Since launching my blog about 18 months ago I’ve been able to use it to establish a network of current and former state employees, researchers, teachers, parents, whistleblowers and fellow bloggers, who help with research and use blogs, tweets and Facebook shares for disseminating information and recruiting others to our cause. Right now I am coordinating with a dozen folks researching and documenting content for numerous future blog entries. [topics redacted]

I started my blog after leaving the Louisiana Department of Education. My role in the department was collecting, analyzing and reporting education data. When our new Superintendent, John White, was appointed in 2011 one of his first actions was to remove existing historical data. We came to learn this was done so he could tell us stories of triumph. In his stories public schools are always bad and privatization is always good. What he didn’t count on was us exposing his stories as just fairy tales.

Before John White came on board, the department of education accepted bad reviews and reports and tried to use them to identify problems and to improve outcomes for children. This openness was used against us by Reformers. With the new leadership, our mission changed. Our new mission was to suppress honest reporting and to encourage privatization at any cost. Results no longer mattered. All that was important was that we become unconditional cheerleaders for his policies and agenda. Many of my colleagues who stayed were fired.

I had a closer look at the data and the failures of these policies than most. I started my blog after reaching out to local media, legislators and government agencies to inform them of what I saw, and discovered no one was reaching back.

I’ve covered hundreds of topics, but like to give you some examples of how my blog has a made a difference.

Many of you may be familiar with VAM, or Value Added Modeling. This is a teacher evaluation system that uses student test scores to evaluate teachers’ performance. The data used for Louisiana’s system is fraught with errors. The premise behind the system is flawed. And as it turned out, Louisiana’s system was corrupted on the inside for political reasons.

One of my contacts secretly taped conversations between John White and a state legislator conspiring to rig the teacher evaluation system by awarding select teachers in his district “bonus points.” This was not a victimless crime as it intentionally skewed the formula in favor of politically connected teachers to the detriment of others. I worked with this staffer to release the tape through a more prominent blog in my state. This led to the issue being picked up by local reporters, White’s interrogation before the House, and resulted in the Louisiana House of Representatives voting to delay the implementation of teacher evaluations introduce legislation calling for an external audit and review of the process teacher evaluation process.

Through the blog I also exposed and explained how the restructuring of our state education funding formula took money away from disabled students and reallocated it to charter schools and vouchers. This formula was repeatedly rejected by our state legislature, and until it was finally determined in our courts that those changes were unconstitutional.

My blog has also exposed how national data collection companies like inBloom are weakening privacy protection for students. I explained how these companies have lobbied the US Department of Education to weaken FERPA to allow them to bypass federal student privacy laws and exploit this information for their own purposes. The blog helped unite people and led to many parents and students giving passionate testimony at our state board of education which attracted the attention of the local and national media.

Word of the reaction to inBloom in LA spread nationally and I was able to partner with Leonie Haimson of Parents Across America to use Louisiana’s decision to pull out of the inBloom to help start a national domino effect; one that caused many states to pull out and one that left very few states willing to admit publicly to a relationship with inBloom.

A mistake I made early on was thinking I could just write great content (or content I thought was pretty great) and people would magically find me and be blown away by my awesomeness. I had good intentions, a flair for putting words together, and snarky personality that amused but for the better part of year I had fewer than a few dozen followers. A good day for me was a page view total in the double digits. But “Social Media” is called social media for a reason. To get people really invested in you and your work, you have to interact with them on more than just a superficial level. (I don’t mean posting half-naked pictures of yourself on Instagram – You’re gonna have to just trust me on that one)Tell them part of your life story and why you believe the way you do, so you become a person not just a source.

It wasn’t until I started commenting on Diane Ravitch’s blog and supporting other people’s work with helpful comments and information that backed up their work that I really started draw attention to my own work. I see many foundations and groups that send out mass e-mails but never respond to me when I ask them questions or try to interact with them. If that’s what you’re using social media and e-mail for, to give but not receive, you might as well turn your info into a newspaper insert or post it on an office bulletin board. If you are using social media but you are not interacting with your followers and fellow bloggers, you’re doing it wrong, and they will not help you. It does not matter how many followers you initially attract or buy. If you don’t treasure them and respond to them, they will not respond to you when you need them and they will not stick around. While you don’t always have to agree, you need to listen and acknowledge what they are telling you. You have an advantage over traditional print, and TV shows. The advantage you have is something they can’t match: Empathy.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I’m just an ordinary dad and former DOE employee who decided to do what any other person can do – start a blog about things that are very wrong. As my blog following has grown, I’ve sometimes regretted choosing a silly sounding name for the serious issues I often discuss. However I’ve been told by my supporters, that they were glad I chose the “Crazy Crawfish” persona because it was accessible to them, catchy, fun and easy for them to find me or refer me to others.

I’ve discovered that social media can be the catalyst for uniting other people out there who may be fighting alone for a cause. The truth is none of us can do it alone. We are outnumbered and outspent by phenomenal amounts of money from special interest groups and individuals. This money is buying influence with our own local, state, and federal policy makers to work against our common interests.

Social media is a powerful tool. It’s fast, mostly free, and it can reach many people outside our normal social circles and backgrounds. With Social media we can expand our touch and influence beyond those that already agree with us and help us unite those that do. All of us can contribute to this fight with our voices, our passion and the truth – which money can’t buy.

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