How well do we prepare our students to succeed in the global economy? Do U.S. adults have the skills they need to be competitive once they are in the workforce? To answer these questions, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducts a variety of surveys and international studies to examine the condition of education in America, and learn what Americans of all ages, from pre-kindergarten to just before retirement, know and can do. These assessments also provide insights into how well America compares to countries around the world, including our primary economic competitors. In the process, NCES uncovers what practices here and in other countries spell higher achievement.
For more than a decade, Hager Sharp has helped NCES inform the public with its data insights. We have conducted audience research and helped recruit study participants; developed messaging, branding, and materials for various studies; and helped get NCES reports in front of policymakers and educators through effective media relations, conference participation, and outreach.
We’ve worked closely with NCES and the international organizations that sponsor the world-wide studies. We have gained such unique expertise that we were invited to represent the U.S. on an international task force on communicating international assessment results.
Our team’s experiences in newsrooms, on Capitol Hill, and in Cabinet-level agencies helps us identify compelling data stories and package them in ways that will generate headlines and get policymakers’ attention. We translate NCES’ technical information into easy-to-understand messages. The releases of International assessment results present a unique challenge, including coordinating worldwide embargoes that work for U.S.-based media.
We believe in the “relations” part of media relations, helping reporters ﬁnd the data they need all year round, not just asking for coverage on release day. We are known for telling it like it is – reporters rely on us to provide the facts. And we have worked with leading print, digital, and broadcast news outlets around the world to secure outstanding coverage of these studies, with datelines in global cities in every time zone, from Shanghai to New York. Release-day stories have appeared on the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today, and have led the evening newscasts of all three major broadcast networks.
We’ve also organized brieﬁngs and outreach for education thought leaders and policymakers to help them put the data to use. The ﬁrst day’s news coverage is usually followed by days of commentary that helps shape the country’s conversation on education.
We have helped NCES develop messaging about lessons learned from decades of participation in these international assessments. These narratives include insights which go beyond simple stories showing where the U.S. stands compared to other countries.
We’ve also conducted research with state school leaders, principals and teachers, and parents, to help create compelling messages about the value of participation in national and international studies. For example, for a new study involving lessons from early childhood education called the International Early Learning Study, we developed messages and materials for parents and administrators on the study’s value. We hope to learn more about how differing approaches to kindergarten here and in other countries help or hinder children as they prepare to enter elementary school.
Participation in all types of federal research is on the decline, so federal agencies must work harder and better target their communications to ensure valid, reliable data. We support NCES’ recruitment efforts and help ensure that any given study’s messages resonate with its intended audience. We conduct formative research—such as in-person and online focus groups and in-depth interviews—to test recruitment materials and gain a better understanding of the needs, preferences, and perspectives of people from different backgrounds.
Conversations with school principals helped us develop materials that would help principals quickly understand how speciﬁc surveys are relevant to their schools and their students, to encourage them to participate. Interviews with teachers from different kinds of schools also helped NCES encourage teachers to make their voice heard by participating in NCES research.
We help NCES get to where its stakeholders are: at professional conferences and trade shows. We developed a traveling booth for NCES, based on the idea of data as building blocks. NCES produces and works with reams of data to help improve education. The design features graphic data elements in a modern, progressive way. The cubes provide a refreshing alternative to pull-up banners and tablecloths, more surface space for messaging, and they collapse for easy shipping.
What’s in the booth, or on NCES social media channels? New materials are in the works all the time: study brochures in plain language, infographics, and multimedia materials such as videos.
Videos help us tell and show the story. For the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a special study of U.S. high school students taking advanced math and physics courses, we created an animated video to explain that while U.S. performance hadn’t changed over an entire decade, other countries were making gains and surpassing us. We also produced video content in support of recruitment efforts for the International Early Learning Study, to demonstrate to parents what it would be like for their child to take part in the study.
Schools are increasingly diverse. In fact, by 2023, nearly 30% of all students enrolled in U.S. K-12 schools will be Hispanic/Latino. The face of higher education is changing, too. And, though not as rapidly, so are the faces in the front of the classroom. With that in mind, Hager Sharp has developed outreach strategies and messages to help ensure NCES meets multicultural audiences where they are.
For example, we conducted formative research with Spanish-language audiences, to develop more effective recruitment and outreach materials. When focus group feedback showed that most photos weren’t reﬂective of real-life Hispanic/Latino families, we developed a bank of original photography that ﬁlled in the gaps—showing a diverse group of everyday people engaging in their children’s education. We took these insights even further by testing where images should be placed on letters and envelopes in order to have the most visual impact. The result of our multi-phased approach? A suite of recruitment materials that resonates with Hispanic/Latino families and is tailored to their needs.