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Engaging The Public

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Public educators and reformers are walking a fine line. To achieve the changes they believe are desperately needed in public education, they must convince the general public that America's schools are in dire straits. Yet, disenchantment with schools is increasing, and even more criticism of schools may so alienate the public that they will abandon the public system altogether and turn to privatizing public schools or using vouchers to pay for private schools.

The challenge to reformers is complicated by the fact that most parents are more interested in the basics and order than they are in innovation. The public generally would be satisfied if schools could be restored to what they were 50 years ago. Only when they are sure that schools are orderly and are providing a sound basic education will people consider supporting substantial education reform.

The task before national, state, and local reformers is to bridge the gap between their vision for public schools and the expectations of the public. And they must do so without sounding so alarmist that citizens will give up entirely on public education.

Reformers and educators must engage a larger public. They must involve parents and taxpayers at every level in an informed discussion of the nature and purpose of schooling and the community's expectations for its children. That discussion must be in language that the public understands, not in the jargon that dominates the dialogue of educators.

The public has lost considerable confidence in public education, and it will be no simple matter to rebuild its trust and support. Recent surveys suggest that the window for improving public education may be closing. The privatization movement, vouchers, and charter schools are gaining momentum as alternatives to traditional public education. Voters nationwide are rejecting local funding initiatives and supporting tax limitations. A growing proportion of the population has no children in public schools and is less likely to have the philosophical commitment to public schools that previous generations have exhibited.

In the following essays, Deborah Wadsworth and Robert F. Sexton write about closing the gap between what "the experts" and parents know. But Ernesto Cortes Jr., in his essay, insists that is not enough, arguing that for school reform to be successful in the long run, parents must become the experts, not just agree with them. And Beth Dilley gives concrete examples of what Grand Rapids, Mich., has learned about drawing the entire community into school-improvement efforts.

Each author writes about meeting the people where they are. Until their fears about the fundamental safety and competence of public schools are allayed, people simply will not be interested in supporting such reforms as authentic assessments, outcomes-based education, and programs to develop higher-order thinking.

The challenge, then, is to persuade communities that they should learn about their own schools--where the schools are, where they should be as a new century dawns. The task of the reformer and the policymaker is not to mandate improvement in schools--a futile occupation if there ever was one--but to inform, engage, and empower the public to ultimately become the experts and take responsibility for building the schools their children need and deserve.

See the next article in this special report,

Deborah Wadsworth, Nov. 22, 1995.

This special Commentary report, one in a series examining crucial issues in education, is being underwritten by a grant from the Philip Morris Companies Inc.

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