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Beyond Public Engagement

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There's a new religion in the education-reform movement these days. It's known as "public engagement." It is a faith that is hard to quarrel with because its tenets seem so self-evidently correct. Proponents assert that children's education, generally, and public education, as an institution, will improve only to the degree that the public is actively involved and demands change and improvement. Public engagement is seen as the sine qua non of education reform.

This new faith is spreading rapidly. At virtually every significant education-reform gathering I attend, the public-engagement mantra is being chanted. Followers brandish various "bibles" published by the opinion-research group Public Agenda. These studies, based on samples of several thousand Americans, purport to show how the public is "really" feeling about education and education reform. By and large, the news from Public Agenda is not promising to those of us concerned about the future of public education. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1994, and Oct. 18, 1995.) In reaction to that news, we conclude, understandably and appropriately, that the public needs to be more involved in public education and, in particular, more engaged in shaping the changes broadly lumped together under the banner of education reform.

I don't take issue with our need for greater public engagement in education and reform. Indeed, it would be impossible to conclude anything else when looking at the dismally low current levels of support and involvement of parents and citizens. It can also be shown, convincingly, that greater levels of parental involvement typically lead to higher levels of student achievement. Public engagement, as we have known for some time, is undeniably a good thing for education and something we all must do considerably better. However, I am concerned that our newfound enthusiasm for public engagement is often naive, overstated, and advanced with such zealotry and unquestioning faith that we do not look beyond public engagement. I also worry that leading reform groups and national foundations have been so quick to jump on this latest bandwagon that they may be abandoning longer-term but less glamorous reform strategies. Reform is a long-term endeavor requiring patience and persistence, not "seed grants" and sound bites.

Here are several concerns I have about an overemphasis on public engagement:

(1.) Public engagement is necessary but not sufficient to achieve the kind and scope of change that is required to vault our schools into the 21st century and ensure that all children achieve at high levels. Here are some examples that point to just a few of the most obvious components of a well-rounded reform program:

Without a cadre of first-class leaders who have far-reaching vision and the persuasive powers to move large numbers of people to achieve the vision, reform will go nowhere.

Without a well-prepared, highly developed, and motivated faculty, schools cannot realize their aspirations for all children.

Without students who are well fed, housed, dressed, and cared for, there can be no hope of high levels of educational attainment.

Without student engagement, that is, students who are ready and willing to assume responsibility for their own learning, there can be only minimal gains in performance.

(2.) If over-reliance on public-engagement strategies causes distraction and delay of the reform agenda until reformers can cultivate widespread public involvement, we may be hesitating too long and wasting a lot of precious energy in trying to overcome many citizens' long-standing resistance to involvement in public schools. This does not mean we shouldn't try. The Massachusetts group Alliance for Education, has, for more than a decade, worked on building public support and involvement in education as one, but only one, of our key strategies. We can't put all of our eggs in the public-engagement basket, because there is too much else to be done and that basket has historically proved very fragile.

(3.) There are avenues now for public engagement, and reformers shouldn't be so presumptuous as to forget the role of representative government, especially local school boards, as a key, if underutilized, mechanism for involving the public. Any public-engagement strategies should underline and reinforce the role of democracy in translating the public's interest into policy and policy changes.

(4.) Be careful. We might get what we wish for. If in spite of the obstacles to achieving widespread public engagement, we were to succeed, many reformers might not be so crazy about the results. For example, public opinion differs so widely on many issues in public education that there may be little consensus for any change, let alone sweeping changes. In fact, some might argue that the public now has the schools it wants, a system that is largely a throwback to the 19th century. In the same fashion, it can be argued that what some people call gridlock in Washington is no more than the government effectively translating the myriad of public interests accurately, so that a stasis results, and there is little popular will for change, particularly in the absence of strong leadership and clear vision. In short, public engagement does not necessarily translate into a mandate for change or even into a conviction that the schools can and should do better for all students.

I believe in the necessity and power of public engagement, but I don't subscribe to the religion that seems to say that public engagement alone is the answer to all the challenges facing public education. To be effective, education reform must be broad and comprehensive. Systemic education reform requires a vision and a long-term commitment of resources and energy. Reformers, foundations, and politicians need to be urged to "stay the course," to "keep the promise" of transforming, sustainable change in our schools. Everyone in education must work harder at getting the public, especially the parents, more involved, but we need to realize that the job of education reform is much, much bigger than simply public engagement.

S. Paul Reville is the executive director of the Alliance for Education in Worcester, Mass., and the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. He is a member of the Massachusetts state board of education.

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