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Putting the Public Back Into Public Education

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When will educators and policymakers apply the heels of their hands to the center of their foreheads and say, "It's democracy, stupid!"? In his Commentary ("Beyond Public Engagement," March 27, 1996), S. Paul Reville complains that "[p]ublic engagement is seen as the sine qua non of education reform." In truth, public engagement is the sine qua non of democracy. While public education is in jeopardy, the greater threat is to our democracy.

Our democratic institutions are caught in a vicious cycle that leaves us so self-conscious about our polarity that we cannot deliberate or converse with each other in responsible dialogue. Evidence of this hits us between the eyes every day as we witness incivility in boardrooms and violence in the streets. We are not modeling for our young people that the essence of democracy is civility and persuasion. We have no time, no will for serious talk. We seek the public's opinion through surveys and polls that never really let the public finish its sentence. The experts relentlessly question: Why do we have to ask permission to do what we know is right? The public counters with: Why can't you ask first? Rarely do policymakers involve the public in deliberation of alternative choices argued with equal authority and persuasiveness.

Robert D. Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital, asks, "Whatever happened to civic engagement?" His answer cites evidence related to changes in social interactions and civic associations. "High on America's agenda should be the question of how to reverse these adverse trends in social connectedness, thus restoring civic engagement and civic trust."

There may be no public education to reform if we do not first create opportunities for serious talk with the public about serious issues. Mr. Reville worries about "leading reform groups and national foundations" that have been "quick to jump on this bandwagon" of public engagement. Perhaps these groups have come to understand the need for an important new approach to public policy, one that espouses an ask, tell, and pursue approach. Ask the public what its students should know and be able to do, tell the public what schools are doing to increase student learning, and pursue genuine dialogue that reconnects the experts with the public.

An imaginary police line has been drawn around public education today, as if it is the scene of a crime. Every procedure, tradition, and practice is on the table for careful scrutiny and close examination. Like it or not, the public is the jury delivering the verdict through its vote for legislators, school board members, and district budgets. Our democracy depends upon our schools inculcating the habits and manners of civility, propagating the fundamental values necessary for the maintenance of a democratic political system, and teaching the boundaries of appropriate behavior. Public engagement is a way of putting the public back into public education. Public education is the chief underpinning of our democracy.

Jane W. Urschel
Director of Government Relations
Colorado Association of School Boards
Denver, Colo.

To the Editor:

S. Paul Reville's Commentary is mostly right on the money. Having played a prominent role in helping educators realize the importance of engaging their public, we would be the first to recognize that public engagement is a necessary but not sufficient condition for school improvement to occur.

As we constantly remind our clients: "Your messages matter, of course. But the substance of your reform matters even more." Unless school people can provide persuasive evidence that children in their schools are learning more, it is doubtful that the public will be much engaged. The public has told us, rightfully, that without demonstrating progress toward improved student achievement, schools offer them nothing to buy into. And no amount of public relations or smoke and mirrors will disguise that reality.

At the same time--and this is where Mr. Reville underplays the constructive role of public engagement--no matter how good a school-reform initiative is, it cannot be sustained without public support.

It is not a question of either substantive reform or solid public engagement. Districts need to do both.

Adam Kernan-Schloss
Andy Plattner
A-Plus Communications Inc.
Arlington, Va

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