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Brush Up on Political, P.R. Skills, Reports Tell Reformers

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School-reform advocates need to hone their political and public-relations skills, a pair of new reports conclude.

A study of four school districts by the Public Agenda Foundation found that "good faith'' efforts at school reform usually degenerate into turf wars in which stakeholders advance their own special interests. The study says reformers need to come to grips with the politics of school change and to master the art.

Meanwhile, a handbook from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development urges reformers to polish their communication skills, especially when it comes to fending off critics.

The P.A.F. report, "Divided Within, Besieged Without: The Politics of Education in Four American School Districts,'' is the result of numerous interviews with administrators, teachers, parents, business leaders, and others in four unidentified communities.

The authors say they were discouraged by the "poor communication, widespread suspicion, and outright anger among the factions'' in the four districts.

"In conversation after conversation, talk about long-term goals descended almost immediately into talk about local politics, local disputes, who did what to whom, and how to prevent it the next time around,'' the report says.

'Reform du Jour'

The biggest problem is that no faction seems to be looking out for the common good, the report says.

A superintendent of a Western district said, "We've got so much power in special interests that it's very difficult for anyone to be responsible for the big picture.''

The reform process is rife with distrust, partisanship, and a "this too shall pass'' attitude about the latest "reform du jour,'' the report adds.

As one teacher in a Northeastern district put it: "Every three to five years the think tanks are trying to change the traditional concepts of education. It requires a lot more work on the part of teachers.''

Into the Fray

The report concludes that stakeholders in the reform process cannot afford to keep their distance from the rough and tumble of politics.

"In this age of soundbites and gridlock, politics has gotten a bad name,'' the report says. "The challenge is to keep politics from descending into pettiness and parochialism.''

"There is a critical need for a different kind of political process, one that allows the general interest of communities to prevail over the narrow interests that currently dominate,'' the report adds. That process must include more communication among educators and parents and the business community, it concludes.

Responding to Critics

The A.S.C.D. handbook basically is a guide to good district communications policies, with an emphasis on responding to critics of restructuring efforts.

When under attack from outsiders, district officials should "let board members and others know there is no battle between the education system and the community, but that there are differing points of view,'' says the guide, "How to Deal with Community Criticism of School Change.''

The booklet lists "red-flag'' terms for reform strategies or concepts that have met resistance around the country, including cooperative learning, outcome-based education, and self-esteem curricula.

The list includes an "educators' definition'' side by side with the "critics' definition.''

For cooperative learning, for example, the critics' definition is "kids teaching other kids with no active role for the teacher.''

The guide recommends that educators focus on results when discussing restructuring efforts, not on the means used to achieve those results.

The report is available for $6.95 per copy, plus shipping and handling, from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1250 North Pitt St., Alexandria, Va. 22314; (703) 549-9110.

Copies of the report on school district politics are available for $10 each from the Public Agenda Foundation, 6 East 39th St., New York, N.Y. 10016; (212) 686-6610.

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