Education Opinion

Not for the Timid

By Hayes Mizell — January 22, 2003 11 min read
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To improve public education, communities, like school systems and schools, need to be brave and bold.

We live in an age when school systems and schools are the object of families’ great expectations. Families expect schools to work for their children. Their expectations are specific. If Johnny is talented or Susie is a quick learner, families expect schools to challenge them. If Tommy is a slow learner, or if Betty has a more serious disability, families expect schools to address these needs. If Jesse has problems at home, or if Ruth has to receive medication during school hours, families expect schools to understand, adjust, and respond to these children as individuals.

Such expectations are appropriate. In fact, educators complain when families are not sufficiently attentive to the needs of their children. And schools’ efforts to respond, whether they are by choice or by requirement, are commendable. Most educators, like most families, care deeply about the children in their charge. But while families are able to focus all their love and attention on their own children, educators face every day the challenge of focusing on individual children who come to school from many different families. This is reality. This is life. The expectations of families are essential for good parenting, and the challenges to educators are part and parcel of the vocation they chose.

Communities, too, have great expectations of schools. But communities include many families who either do not have school-age children or who choose to educate their children in ways other than sending them to public schools. In most communities, these families are in the majority. What they know about the public schools comes primarily from three sources: relatives, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and workplace colleagues; the local news media; and teachers and administrators who work for the local school system. Relatively few members of the wider community have direct, current experience with the public schools. For others, their understanding of the schools is an amalgam of correct information, misinformation, impressions, nostalgia, skepticism, and wishful thinking. This is reality. This is life.

Most communities believe public education should be better than they perceive it to be, though most families think the schools their children attend are good or better than the public perception. Both are right. Public schools do a much better job than most people give them credit for, but public schools and the students they serve should be performing at much higher levels. It would be wonderful if more schools acknowledged this, and aggressively pursued reform. Unfortunately, they have been slow to do so.

Most communities believe school reform is necessary, even if they are not quite sure what reform means or what it will require.

Communities have not done much better. Most communities believe school reform is necessary, even if they are not quite sure what reform means or what it will require. Many communities support reform so long as educators and other people’s children bear the brunt of it. Some communities respond positively to civic leaders who make school reform their mission, but few communities have made the effort to join with educators to develop and subsequently support a substantive reform agenda. Among those that have, fewer still have had the patience to remain focused on reform through all the advances and setbacks that are part of any meaningful change process.

But school reform that results in significantly higher levels of performance by both educators and students will not occur if only a few elected officials and education and business leaders demand it, understand it, support it, and monitor it. Without broad-based support by the community as a whole, school reform will either be short-lived or have limited effect.

What, then, is necessary for communities to become more active partners in the reform process? First, they need partners in the person of education leaders— school board members, superintendents, and principals—who candidly identify the weaknesses of their school systems and schools. Not all education leaders recognize shortcomings, and many would do well to listen more to what their communities try to tell them. Communities are not always right, but their day- to-day encounters with schools can be very instructive. For communities to be engaged in reform, they first have to experience that education leaders are making the effort to listen to and learn from them.

In the same vein, communities have to act as though they believe education leaders will respond and act in good faith, even if previous experience gives them little reason for such hope. Developing this level of trust is not easy for either party, but there can be no partnership until there is deep, sustained communication. This takes a lot of work. Often it cannot occur without the help of a neutral party. Organizations such as the Collaborative Communications Group, the Harwood Institute, Public Agenda, and others can provide this type of assistance. But they can only help launch and facilitate a process of civil discourse. It is a community’s responsibility to build on these experiences by creating and sustaining venues in which citizens and educators will not only share information about difficult education issues, but also proceed to develop and execute plans to resolve them.

In some cities, local education funds try to negotiate the fault lines of understanding, support, and reform between communities and school systems. Their experiences, however, are mixed. One school system may be willing to collaborate so long as the local education fund generates new funding and, in effect, compensates for the system’s tepid community relations. Another system may value a local education fund for its capacity not only to mobilize community resources, but also to generate practical projects that demonstrate the benefits of reform. But when a local education fund believes one of its community obligations is to be a strong advocate for reform, with the critical analysis and monitoring that implies, the school system may take offense.

A second factor to keep in mind is this: Communities cannot support what they do not understand. Too few citizens have consistent access to reliable sources of comprehensible information about what is working in public schools, and why, and what is broken, and why. Outside of major media markets, there are seldom newspapers and television stations that either invest in substantive education reporting, or provide their news staffs the time necessary to understand and report on complex education issues.

Communities have to act as though they believe education leaders will respond and act in good faith, even if previous experience gives them little hope.

The result is news that focuses on the comings and goings of superintendents and principals, conflicts among education leaders, test scores, school construction and maintenance, and warm and fuzzy class projects. Almost never are there stories explaining how one teacher of traditionally low-performing students is enabling her class to perform at much higher levels than the students of other teachers. Rarely do local news media help citizens understand why a particular literacy curriculum is successful, or why another is still in use even though it appears to have no positive effect on achievement. And when was the last time a news organization sought to help its public understand the impact of standards, assessments, and accountability requirements on teachers’ instruction and students’ learning?

If the challenges of such reporting are too daunting for local media, then other groups must fill the vacuum. Some community organizations seek to play this role by conducting independent research and publishing special, in-depth reports on important education issues. Other groups, such as the League of Women Voters, study an issue for an extended period, and share their findings with the community. In one city, several churches collaborated to create an organization that publishes an independent, nonsectarian, nonpartisan “community journal on public education.” This weekly Internet- based newsletter is made available at no cost to the community and provides documentary information and analysis of school system news not found in local newspapers. In another city, citizen-leaders organized to learn more about middle schools. For nearly two years, they met with school officials, visited schools, organized community discussions, and ultimately published a report to the community. These are examples of how communities have sought both to fill the information gap caused by the inadequacies of local news coverage, and to develop a deeper understanding of education issues.

There are situations in which a community’s efforts to improve its communications with school officials and learn more about the challenges facing educators and children do not result in the actions necessary to improve schools. In the final analysis, school board members, superintendents, central-office staff members, principals, and teachers are the people responsible for making reform happen. Communities can do many things to be constructive partners in the change process, but when all is said and done, educators are the stewards for the public schools. In the best cases, and in spite of many limitations imposed on them, educators respond to their community’s concerns. When this is not the case, communities have little recourse except to take action.

They can, for example, become political and seek to change the voting majority on the school board. In one city, citizens recently elected three of four board candidates who ran together as the “Clean Slate.” The candidates committed themselves to a three-part “pledge” and to a seven-point statement of principles. One of their pledges was to “establish one goal for the school system: Within three years, every child, in every school, in every part of the county will achieve at significantly higher levels.” Joining two board incumbents with similar mind-sets, the three members now constitute a voting majority and recently elected a new chairman of the board.

Of course, communities are not homogeneous. They are, in fact, composed of smaller units, such as neighborhoods, school attendance areas, and single-member voting districts. People living in these smaller communities may have common interests and concerns, but their particular needs may not be those of the community at large. It is often difficult for them to take political action to improve their schools, either because they are not organized for that purpose or because they do not participate in broader coalitions that can help them gain a more powerful voice. In these cases, community organizing can mobilize citizens into a group that specifically seeks to improve the education of their children.

The expectations of families are essential for good parenting, and the challenges to educators are part of the vocation.

A recent two-year study of five community organizations concluded that community organizing adds value to school reform efforts by: “sustaining the vision and momentum for change over time; persisting despite obstacles and setbacks; building political capital and creating the political will that motivates officials to take action; and producing authentic change in policies and programs that reflects the concerns of parents and community members.”

To improve public education, communities, like school systems and schools, need to be brave and bold. Individual citizens need to have the generosity of spirit to look beyond their own pocketbooks, and whether or not they currently have children in school.

No community will prosper if its civic action is immobilized by the narrow self-interests of citizens whose commitment to education ends at their front doors. No school system will reform if its communities do not clearly, forcefully, and consistently communicate their specific expectations for what they want public education to help their children achieve. No children will perform at levels higher than they believe possible if communities and schools do not work together to provide every child, in every class, in every school, challenging curricula and quality teachers every day.

Improving the results schools achieve is not a task for the timid, whether the actors are educators or communities. Schools will not improve unless the knowledge, skills, and practice of educators improve. Schools will improve only marginally unless the knowledge, skills, and practice of communities also improve. This means learning more about schools, identifying and recognizing their good practices, and identifying and demanding the correction of their ineffective practices.

For ordinary citizens, this seems a major challenge, because the most many of them can do is raise and guide their own children and pay the taxes that enable public schools to function. Yet these citizens do see, they do hear, they do talk, they do feel, they do understand. It is the responsibility of communities to provide reliable information, so that such citizens will learn what their schools are doing and how well they are doing it.

Then it is up to communities to provide venues where the voices of these citizens will be heard, to support their efforts to organize and act if school officials do not respond, and to partner with educators, so that they will make the changes necessary to educate all children well.

Hayes Mizell is the director of the program for student achievement at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York City.


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