Politics and the Dallas ISD ‘Power Words,’ Ctd.

This post pains my heart. You see, D Magazine is partnering with DISD to put on The Big Read — a partnership that was tricky to establish, in part, because of this critical story I wrote about Superintendent Mike Miles and his pricey communications chief, Jennifer Sprague. The Big Read will be a huge success, I can say with confidence, because from our side the effort is being led by the indefatigable, unflappable Krista Nightengale. Still, though, life would be much easier if we just moved on and forgot about this whole “power words” foolishness at DISD. And yet …

It looks to me like Sprague has once again given us all occasion to question whether she is up to the job that Miles has given her. I’ve been through the same Merrie Spaeth training that Sprague and certain other DISD brass recently went through. I found it immensely helpful. Of course, I’m an editor for a midsize city magazine. Which is to say, I tend toward hermitism. Most of the communicating I do is with a keyboard. Spaeth tried to teach me how better to stare into a TV camera and answer difficult questions. (Please don’t hold my past and future performances against her; I’m clearly a horrible student.) Sprague, on the other hand, is the head communications person for the second-largest employer in Dallas. One would at least hope that her training with Spaeth was a few levels above mine.

That hope, though, is hard to maintain when we are presented with this pamphlet of talking points that Sprague distributed to principals and vice principals around the district. From the looks of things, Sprague’s takeaway was that district leaders need to memorize some zingers. Okay, I’m not being charitable. I’m sure Sprague got more out of her Spaeth training than that. But even so, a competent communications executive working for a large public institution would surely foresee how such a buzzword-promoting pamphlet would be received. Right?

I asked Merrie Spaeth about the matter. She says that Sprague “adapted some of our methodology and used it in a way that it was not intended to be used. I’ve asked her not to do that again.”

Let’s hope this lesson sticks. And I look forward to a hugely successful Big Read.


  • mm

    Spaeth is behind “swiftboating”, and had a hand in this handbook. Methinks she’s getting off easy here.

  • LM

    All large organizations develop key messages that they ask their leaders to follow. DISD leaders need to be speaking with a similar voice. I don’t think the pamphlet is that big of deal.

  • Roy G

    Agree with L.M. It’s not as big of a deal as everyone is making it out to be. If the feedback says that some principals aren’t communicating well with parents, then the training was needed.

  • Sybil’s Beaver

    Shouldn’t a $185k a year communications director have already to been to communications classes of the likes that Spaeth offers? Why are we spending even more money to send a highly paid person to learn how to do what they were paid to do?

  • Samantha

    If principals aren’t communicating well with parents, having a list of catch phrases and buzzwords to spew at them isn’t going to help. They need to be taught to listen to parents and respond with something that is actually helpful, relevant and useful to the parents.

  • Daniel

    Sybil’s Beaver nails it. I would add that whatever they paid Spaeth should have gotten them more than regurgitated pablum from the Toastmasters Club.

  • ll

    agree with Sybil and Daniel. For $185,000 she should be competent enough to be teaching the class not taking it. And given Spaeth’s record — maybe we will be swiftboating the parents.

  • At the Dallas ISD board briefing today one of the documents reveals that Seagoville’s enrollment dropped from 348 kids in the 9th grade to only 200 kids in the 12th grade (a common problem across all of DISD, I’m not picking on Seagoville). This is a loss of 42.5% of the student body in 4 years. How does Miles expect his “happy words” program to help solve that problem? We don’t need empty words, we need solutions. I am very disappointed with both Miles and Sprague. Perhaps Sprague should concentrate on providing transparency for the district rather than regurgitated platitudes

  • LCM

    Daniel – From what I’ve seen from Sprague so far, she could benefit greatly from Toastmasters. I can’t get the earlier video of her “briefing” the school board out of my mind. Whoa and oh. Now this list.

  • Long Memory

    You’d think from the whole buzzwords story — by the way, wouldn’t a more accurate term be “talking points”? — and the reaction herein that the DISD communications czar is in over her head. Imagine my surprise.

  • Edward

    Sounds as if Sprague needed to generate some “busy work” to show that she was actually doing something.

    This is typical of people in over their head: create a lot of stuff so you look busy, when in actuality you don’t have a clue what is going on.

    It has to be depressing to experienced PR people in Dallas (and probably Dahlander specifically) who could probably do Sprague’s job 10x better for half the salary.

    Miles has been completely off-base with the salary doubling. The only way you can possible justify it is when you actually hire the cream of the crop, people who are leaders in the field. You can’t pay double and then hire the intern.

  • Genuine Teacher

    Of course, “LM,”–or should we say, “Trustee Meyer?” Trustees won’t consider this a big deal because they do not see the problem from a chair on a podium. For those of us in the classroom, the ones who deal with parents and students every single day, THIS IS A BIG DEAL.

    First, one of YOUR lackeys–whom, exactly, hired a woman who has made a career move by impugning the reputation of a medal awarded veteran in such a nasty way that it has set a new low in national poltics? If it was a “gift,” will someone please tell us who paid for it? Was it one of the two PAC’s formed this year to “change Dallas schools?” And is Spaeth upset that her “methodology” of non-answers was made public, or is it really that it was not used correctly? Please, do tell.

    Secondly, one of your hires thought it was okay to –as you have been hear to say before, “speak with a similar voice.”

    In the media, that is called, “damage control.”

    In teaching, we call it Brave New World “double-speak.” We have seen it and heard it all before. Teachers ar enot bitter or cynical, just experienced, and it galls people that we do have insitutional memories of ridiculous attempts in previous administrations.

    We understand you don’t want teachers or principals going off the reservation, saying things the DISD will have to clean up after. What we are upset about–what is A BIG DEAL to us, is that you think we need to have indoctrinated, inculcated principals who are zombies for the administration on Ross Avennue. Some of us have been told that we have to memorize the Five Basic Core Beliefs—as if memorizing something which BASICALLY INSULTS TEACHERS (#3 BELIEF) AND DOWNGRADES OUR EFFORTS TO THAT OF TEST PREP (#1) is in any ways motivational to increase learning.

    We have been down this road so many times, we had to shoot our horses and continue on foot. We have seen programs–and “experts” come and go, year after year, decade after decade, all the while—nobody listens to us. Why should you? We are nobody to you, just college educated, professionally trained educators. We are treated with disdain by every administration, blamed for every ill and derided in private conversations you think we never hear.

    But we do. We have friends everywhere, and they snitch you all out…. Sometimes, we are only feet away at a party, meeting, church or school event.

    Many of us will leave DISD soon. We have had enough. Another district, another set of kids, will get our experience and love. Another principal will get our hard work ethic and show us appreciation. Another community will get REAL answers, not canned responses from their campus leadership.

    Sadly, the kids who need it most, thanks to all this kind of bull hockey, won’t be getting it. Good job. Swift-boating schools before parent teacher conferences.

    Maybe we should pass the word to have all parents call the Suprintendent’s office for ANY AND ALL questions about ANY problem. If they don’t get an answer in 24 hours, they should call the media. Maybe if 3700 has to listen to frustrated parents who can no longer get real answers, they will be so bogged down by the calls, they will leave us alone so we can teach. We can help them along by giving them the details on leaky pipes, A/C problems, non-working cameras, long lunch lines, lack of supplies, overcrowded classrooms and so on.

    $185K and this is what we get? New “buzzword?” — Ridiculous.

  • Louisa Meyer

    “LM” above is not a post I made.