Like Democracy, Reform Is Not a Spectator Sport
As Presidential candidates crisscross the nation on tour buses talking about a "new covenant'' between individuals, communities, and government, Americans are putting the power of community organization to work for education.
In Kentucky, after two years implementing comprehensive, long-term school reform, it's becoming crystal clear that serious reform requires more than changing schools. It requires profound social and political change as well. The scope and nature of reform in the Kentucky Education Reform Act--which includes higher taxes, performance assessment with high new standards, decisionmaking school councils, and family-resource centers--pushes responsibility more than ever before to the school and local levels.
That shift in the focus of responsibility makes conditions in local communities--the quality of democratic deliberation and the environment that shapes children's lives--all important. If democracy is going to work well within schools, for example, it needs to work in communities, too. At the same time, the family and community conditions that sabotage learning must be eliminated if schools are to help children reach high academic standards.
Put simply, if education reform is to be successful, we need to improve the democratic process, sharpen civic skills, and build community consensus and support around the broad needs of children and families.
This means bringing citizens back onto the public stage--as voters, discussants, problem solvers, and activists. Americans are feeling more and more disconnected from the political process. They're tired of being ignored and having the things they care about neglected. They feel powerless. They're angry. This attitude makes radical school reform, like Kentucky's, a hard sell--it runs against the political grain.
In this political climate educational bureaucracies can foil reform through simple inertia. Reformers, therefore, might do well to remember advice from Tammany Hall's George Washington Plunkitt not to be like "morning glories, who looked lovely in the mornin' and withered up in a short time, while the regular machines went on flourishin' forever, like fine old oaks.'' School reform, like democracy, is not a spectator sport; it's what we make of it.
Today, we have little alternative but to find ways to better involve citizens in the process of education change. Either we can wait for citizens to revolt against the public schools--such as the recent political battle in California to place a comprehensive private-school-choice agenda on the state's ballot--or we can tap the power of citizen action to support necessary shifts in American public education.
In Kentucky, the citizens' movement behind school reform is a premier national example of democracy in action. Citizens' groups and parents' councils are mobilizing to help introduce sweeping changes brought about by the reform act.
The Kentucky reform law was designed to help the state move out of the shadows of traditional school politics and practices and into the 21st century. For years, Kentucky has ranked last among the 50 states in the percentage of the population who are high-school graduates and in the percentage of the population who complete the 8th grade. The legislated reforms bring together in a systemic program many changes states and school districts have dared to implement only on a piecemeal basis.
A year after the reforms were introduced, the state has trained thousands of educators and parents to implement aspects of the law and elected more than 500 decisionmaking councils; started to close the funding gap between rich and poor districts; introduced performance-based assessments in grades 4, 8, and 12 and mixed-age classrooms in pilot elementary schools; expanded preschool education; restructured the state education department; developed a plan to create a statewide technology network; and extended the school year.
Our independent, volunteer citizens' group--the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence--is helping build support among citizens, parents, and the business community to embrace the reforms and the hefty tax increases that pay for improvements. Today, community committees that are our citizens' voices for reform have been organized covering 50 school districts out of the total 176 that will be organized by 1996.
Also significant is the business community's leadership and support. Kentucky businesses, for example, are seriously considering policies that support their employee-parents--ideas like parent education and time off for school conferences. Gov. Brereton Jones has signed an executive order to support state employees' involvement in schools and school reform. Business leaders are helping reform become a reality in classrooms through the Partnership for Kentucky School Reform.
One of the problems of engaging grassroots support for education change is that both school citizens and community citizens bring to the dialogue different viewpoints and perceptions. Our focus-group research indicates that responses to the reform act are generally positive, particularly where parents and teachers have personal experience with the changes. But the same research also shows that citizens and teachers have differing views and expectations about the roles each plays in educating children. Teachers want more from parents, parents want more from teachers. Citizens and teachers also disagree about the extent of needed change and about appropriate education practices.
National research by the Public Agenda Foundation reflects similar dissonance. In questioning policymakers and the public on what needs to be done to insure educational excellence, the foundation discovered a huge gap in perception. Experts stress the high-level skills required for 21st-century jobs while the public "seems to yearn for the little red schoolhouse of the 19th century, with its emphasis on basic skills and traditional values.'' These differences complicate the process of building community ownership for reform.
The public also is impatient for results, proof that their tax investment is paying off. But changes take time to implement and quantifiable results are slow to emerge, even under ideal conditions. Politicians and voters, however, get impatient fast. The political clock runs faster than real time.
That's why it is essential to make parents, voters, and business people more active partners in change. By taking part in school-based decisionmaking as members of school councils, for example, they can see the challenges close up. Quick fixes aren't so attractive to people participating in the process; they've seen the complexities themselves.
What we are starting to capture in Kentucky is available in most states. But reform leaders must lead the way to bring long-neglected issues, such as encouraging family-friendly policies and community-centered activities, to the top of the local agenda. Here are some ways communities can take greater responsibility for school improvement:
- Analyze, with citizens' research, what is happening to the community's children.
- Create family-friendly practices and policies in the workplace and school.
- Develop incentives to encourage young people to "want'' to do well in school.
- Identify barriers between schools and parents in the community. If time is a problem, consider flex-time for leave for school events.
- Find ways for parents to help and support each other to set higher expectations for their children. Let's make it acceptable to talk about and demonstrate personal responsibility, hard work, honesty, craftsmanship, discipline, and pride in accomplishment.
- Engage young people personally in community projects (a local Peace Corps), since taking personal responsibility is an important way to learn and grow.
- Forge explicit connections between school councils, other parents, and the larger community.
- Train people to conduct public forums that encourage thoughtful, not superficial, public judgments. In this and other ways, we can learn and then practice skills of democratic participation.
- Bring students into the discussion--help them "practice'' their democratic skills, too.
- Help local school boards redefine their roles in a decentralized system and encourage good people to stand for election.
- Publicize school-council elections to the whole community and encourage interested parents to run.
Successful school reform requires fundamental changes that go beyond the schools themselves. We need communities where civic business is conducted well and more local efforts where citizens take responsibility for the broad education of all the community's children. We need families committed to school excellence. We need democratic deliberation and community interaction in which citizens reach public judgments through informed discussion, tolerance, and mutual respect. Only by mobilizing this democratic leadership and creating an environment for debate and consensus building can we bring about the schools our children and communities need and deserve.
Robert F. Sexton is the executive director of the Prichard Committee
for Academic Excellence, a Lexington, Ky.-based citizens' group
advocating long-term education change.