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Public Agenda Captures Voice Of the People

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New York

In the past 12 months, big things in education reform have come from a small office in Manhattan.

With the release this week of a widely anticipated report on the nation's attitudes toward public schools, Public Agenda will cap an extraordinary year in which the small research organization has found itself out in front of the reform debate.

Twelve months ago, "First Things First," a plain-talking report card on the reform movement from the American public, brought troubling news.

While turning up substantial support for higher academic standards, the report also warned that the public first demands safety, order, and basic skills. Without those elements, it concluded, many people are mystified by and resistant to the school reforms now in vogue.

Galvanized by the report's findings, state and federal policymakers, business leaders, foundation officials, school reformers, and grass-roots educators are now talking Public Agenda's language. Suddenly, "public engagement"--the need for educators to do a much better job of explaining and involving the public in reform--is on everyone's lips and has become one of the hottest topics at education conferences.

"If you were marketing a product, you would never go about it the way education reformers have--with no plan to get anybody to want to buy your product," said Susan Traiman, the director of the Business Round Table's education initiative. The Washington-based group of 220 chief executive officers from the nation's largest corporations helped underwrite the study.

"We really need to fully engage the public in both the debate and in developing the solutions," Ms. Traiman said.

Robert Koff, a program officer at the Danforth Foundation in St. Louis, another funder of the report, agreed. "Many school people just don't get it," he said. "There is a gulf as large as the Grand Canyon. The issue is how to bridge it."

'Cross Talk'

At Public Agenda's modest offices on East 39th Street here, with their scruffy carpeting and scarred walls, the small staff seems bemused at the impact "First Things First" has had since its release last year. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1994.)

At 20,000 copies, the report is by far the nonprofit organization's most widely distributed work.

After all, Public Agenda has been in the business of trying to bridge the gap between "leadership" and the public for 20 years. The goal, said Deborah Wadsworth, the executive director and vice president, is to help translate issues so that an informed public can make responsible decisions.

The new report, "Assignment Incomplete," probes more deeply the attitudes revealed in "First Things First." It was prepared as part of a three-year project Public Agenda has undertaken with the nonprofit Institute for Educational Leadership, based in Washington, to sponsor in-depth discussions of education issues in communities across the nation.

Founded in 1975 by Cyrus Vance, who served as U.S. secretary of state under President Carter, and public-opinion analyst Daniel Yankelovich, Public Agenda also has tackled criminal justice, foreign policy, the environment, and health care.

In every field, Ms. Wadsworth said, experts and ordinary people engage in "cross talk." Rarely do they stop and listen to one another.

"We have been struggling quietly in the vineyards for a lot of years to illuminate this gap between leadership and the public," she said recently. "Professionals have become a group of people, in any field, who increasingly feel as if they have the solutions."

What is disconcerting about the cross talk in education, Ms. Wadsworth and others at Public Agenda say, is that the public's message about schools is not new. Polls and surveys have shown concern about safety, discipline, and the academic basics for 20 years.

Part of the disconnect stems from the word "basics." To the public, it is associated with a solid foundation. But to many educators, the word has almost a pejorative meaning, conjuring images of rote, low-level learning.

"Reformers keep saying that basics aren't enough," said Jean Johnson, Public Agenda's director of programs. But the public, she added, has dozens of real-life examples that suggest students are not getting even that much education.

Public Agenda's reports, written in clear, concise language, are spiced with the voices of ordinary people. A Minneapolis father complains in "First Things First" that outcomes-based education is fluid: "You try to grab on to it and there's nothing there. It just kind of runs through your fingers and leaves a mess on the table."

A grandmother worries that her 12-year-old grandson cannot spell without a computer spell-checker. A Connecticut father shares his daughter's fears of the bullies who control the school bathroom. Workers tell stories of colleagues who cannot write a proper sentence.

Not 'Lunatic Fringe'

As Public Agenda staff members have discussed the 1994 report at more than 50 meetings in the past year, they sometimes have found audiences hostile. Educators seem irritated, for example, to hear that the public is fed up with cashiers who cannot make correct change.

"Everyone is confronted, every day, with evidence that the basics are not being mastered," Ms. Wadsworth asserted. "These findings absolutely ring true."

Steve Farkas, the director of research for the organization, believes "First Things First" touched a nerve because it came as reformers were becoming increasingly concerned about their inability to bring about widespread change. Some had dismissed the mounting criticism as coming from a "lunatic fringe," Mr. Farkas said, when in fact "most people have fundamental disagreements with the reform agenda."

In focus groups conducted for "First Things First," for example, the suspicion about education reform as ignoring the fundamentals was the same, regardless of the community.

"When you're getting the same reactions in Birmingham and Minneapolis, you've got to listen," Mr. Farkas said.

Theodore R. Sizer, the director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, based at Brown University in Providence, R.I., called Public Agenda's work "very constructive, but also necessarily very limited."

"They do not have anything to compare," he said of the public's attitudes about schools. "So the question is, 'Do you like the present [schools] or don't you?' We're bereft in this country of a wide variety of schools that are educationally varied."

Richard P. Mills, the New York state commissioner of education, counts himself as one of Public Agenda's biggest fans. For months, he carried a summary of "First Things First" in his planning book to remind himself to listen before talking.

The public's frustration over discipline and the basics "is old news to everybody except the people who are not paying attention, who are so sure they have it right," he said.

"There is a great danger in being a true believer," Mr. Mills cautioned. "The public has to give permission to make the kind of radical changes we are talking about, and is quite ready to do it if you engage them."

Not a 'Booster'

Once Public Agenda agrees to work with a client, its staff takes sole responsibility for devising questions, designing research, and reporting the results. Clients must agree to allow the findings to be made public.

The organization takes a nonpartisan approach, Ms. Wadsworth said, striving to be neither an "uncritical booster" of the public nor dismissive of its concerns.

Public Agenda also sponsors national issues forums that bring people together town-meeting style to discuss public-policy questions and a range of possible solutions.

In addition to "First Things First," Public Agenda has examined workforce preparedness, attitudes toward education in Connecticut, the politics of education in four school districts, and the divide between the various players in education reform.

The organization is now conducting a major national survey of American teachers, due to be completed in December. It has also completed a study of public support for professional development at the request of the National Education Association's National Foundation for the Improvement of Education.

A study of public attitudes toward the schools in Missouri, partly underwritten by the Danforth Foundation, also is in the works.

Nationwide Impact

Around the nation, "First Things First" is having an impact:

  • The American Federation of Teachers this fall launched a campaign for safety and the basics that was heavily influenced by Public Agenda's findings. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.)
  • The Business Round Table has overhauled its agenda for school reform to emphasize safety and discipline and underscore the importance of the basics.
  • In Ohio, a statewide coalition of more than 80 organizations has organized to generate grass-roots support for school change, using the report as a catalyst for discussion.
  • In Missouri, committees writing academic standards have rewritten their work in jargon-free language and put the basics "front and center" in every discipline, said Annette N. Morgan, the chairwoman of the House elementary and secondary education committee there.
  • U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has changed the way he talks about the need to improve schools, advocating what he calls "the basics plus."

    "He's talking much more in terms the public understands and easily connects with," said Jennifer Davis, a special assistant to Mr. Riley.

  • In Edmonds, Wash., teachers give presentations for parents and community members that ask them to do complex mathematics problems that are easily solved by the district's elementary students.

    "The basics look different from what I learned and from what parents in the audience learned," said Sylvia Soholt, the community-relations manager for the district. "Only when we challenge that assumption do we have them see the need for change."

Given the depth of the divide between the public and its schools, however, some observers worry that the flurry of interest in public engagement may translate into nothing more than slick public-relations campaigns.

"Public Agenda has done an excellent job of laying out the concerns," said Andy Plattner, the communications director for the National Center on Education and the Economy. The center's New Standards initiative has worked with Public Agenda to foster public understanding of its system of higher standards and performance assessments.

"The question is, will anybody actually listen and change their behavior?"

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