The Roundtable: 'Raising Public Awareness'

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MR. HORNBECK: Public-opinion surveys consistently show that Americans may not be satisfied with schools in general, but they tend to think their own schools are doing pretty well. That is viewed as a major barrier to getting systemic reform.

The kinds of changes being proposed in this country are pretty dramatic. In some places, like Pennsylvania recently, they have generated considerable controversy.

How important is it that the public support systemic reform, and how can we win that support?

MR. MILLS: We're trying to sell systemic reform to a lot of people who aren't buying.

If we just asked people, including students, for their opinions, they would give us a systemic-reform agenda that is not crazy. I'm trying to learn how to listen to those people and how to harness their passion for change. It's powerful stuff.

MS. GRAHAM: If we're going to get significant change--and my heart and mind belong to change--we have to enlist passion in this effort.

We need a clear, or at least a more compelling, statement of why this change is important or what this change is about. It's very hard to get people to sign up for an agenda that is lacking the dynamism of passion.

MR. CROSS: It is essential that we reach parents, as a defined, discrete, and targeted part of the broader public.

MS. HAYCOCK: Change will occur only when there's both a policy structure that encourages it and permits it, and when individual educators, parents, and others see the change as theirs.

That only occurs around small tables, and the process of creating ownership ought to get at least as much attention from strategists as the process of creating a rational policy structure.

We spend 99 percent of our time at meetings like this on policy structure, and that is important. But I think we're pretty close to agreement on policy issues, and now we need to begin to figure out the very much more complicated task of getting thousands of communities across the country to take ownership of these ideas.

MS. FINE: One problem is that we lack images of what good schooling might look like. Does a good school have to be small, does it have to be community-based, does it have to engage the community of teachers and parents and students?

Absent those images, especially for those of us struggling in urban communities, the only images out there are of deadly, violent, awful schools.

We know what makes a good school. I feel like the public is owed that.

MR. MILLS: Governor Dean of Vermont once asked me what really needed to be done about education in our state. I started to list things very quickly for about two minutes. He listened intently, and, when I finished, he asked: "But what really needs to be done?''

I escaped by saying, "Let me tell you what I saw in a classroom of a 3rd-grade teacher.'' And I described what went on in that classroom. And he said, "That's right; that's what I want for every kid.''

We're not conveying these images. We're not yet giving the public the keys to the reform process. It is as if we don't quite trust them.

We didn't really ask the public what the goals of education should be. We got a lot of smart, powerful people together to write the goals. But we didn't ask the public, "What do you want for your children? What are you willing to give up to get it?''

These groups working on the standards, that are very powerful and very effective, have not asked the public in any systematic way: "What do you think every child should know and be able to do?'' When you do that in a small community, you get a very lofty vision. People do not generally say, "We just want basic skills.''

The public can be trusted an awful lot more, and if we were willing to design this educational system we want in a much messier way, we would get much more lasting change, and we would harness the passion that is right there.

MR. CROSS: We talk about public support for high performance. But we need public support for high performance and reform, because there's a lot more that people believe needs to be done than just high performance. There are a number of other elements that the public is concerned about, including the whole question of decentralization.

MS. FINE: We bypass parents and communities as both serious critics and constituents of public education. How do we educate the public, engage them in public critique and engagement with the schools?

MR. MILLS: I'm very intrigued with the British Inspectorate system.

These inspectors have almost no power except the power to go and see schools and talk about what they see. They don't check for compliance, they just go into a school and look at teaching and learning. Then they write about it, and their reports don't read anything at all like a state or a federal report. They are very literate discussions of what the children know and can do in relation to a set of national standards.

The reports go first to the school and then to the community, so there is this continual argument and discussion about what's important and what's being delivered. We ought to invent something like that.

In Vermont, we have "school report nights'' that work for us. There are other things that work in other places, but there is not an awful lot of good information to fuel a sensible conversation in a community about schools. Lacking that, we talk about things that are not very important. We form our opinions and base our policy on that marginal information.

MS. FUHRMAN: Those of us in this room may have no problem with the systemic-reform agenda, but my feeling is that it is not widely shared or known about at all.

A major concern is the media, the fact that education reporting in general--quality aside--is very focused on individual schools. That's great and important, but there is very little sense of these kinds of system issues that comes across in the press.

When you talk about higher-order thinking or more authentic assessments, the press makes that sound as if that is less hard-nosed than multiple-choice exams. The media are just not well informed about these complex issues.

Maybe our Education Week colleagues can tell us why this is so. Is it just that education reporters have the most junior beat?

EW: Perhaps you are aware of the inadequate coverage in education because you are an expert in education. If you were an expert on foreign affairs, you would probably feel the same way about the way the media reports on the Serbian-Bosnian conflict. Mass media don't do well with complex issues in any field; coverage tends to be a mile wide and an inch deep.

MS. HAYCOCK: And educators don't explain these issues clearly to anybody.

MR. SEXTON: I think it's a state role to provide that explanation. I find it interesting in Kentucky that many people believe that, as a result of the reforms there and because they take the outcomes as the ultimate signal of state control, the system is more centralized. The truth is that the reforms have resulted in a decentralized system, pushing responsibility to local levels.

In some cases, it gets right back into the secular-humanism argument that there are forces out there trying to control the minds of our children. Then they turn that into the political argument, that the state is controlling.

The other interesting thing has been that in opinion polling in Kentucky, we saw that the most popular element of the reform was local school-based decisionmaking and "accountability,'' as the polling firms phrased it.

The least popular thing, of course, was assessment and testing. Talk about not understanding. Here's a public that has been demanding more accountability for years, but puts assessment and testing at the bottom of the list. I guess neither of those things should surprise us. It makes the state's job even harder.

MR. HORNBECK: It also reflects our totally inadequate ability to have people understand. I mean, for accountability to come out highest and testing to come out the lowest ...

EW: The dilemma may be that, in order to get public support for the genuinely radical change that is being called for, you have to convince the American people that schools are so bad we almost have to start over again. Confronted with such bad news, is there a danger that people will become so discouraged or defensive that they either give up or resist?

MS. GRAHAM: It is extremely important to point to success in unlikely places, and kids who are doing well in unlikely circumstances.

It's very important to say that schools have made big changes in their agendas before and that we are simply asking schools to makeContinued on Page XX

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another big change. And that we believe that schools have the capacity and the flexibility to make the big change, but not to minimize that it is a big change.

MR. MILLS: We have real communication skills in this country, through advertising and through political campaigns. We can't go at the public through C-SPAN. The general public doesn't watch C-SPAN. The Presidential election was built on that recognition. It went through a completely different medium, and that is what we need to do.

MR. CROSS: The Business Roundtable has started a public-advertising campaign that is being sent to every TV and radio station and newspaper in the country. The objective is to raise public awareness about the need for change in education.

GOVERNOR ROMER: That's the campaign called "Keep The Promise,'' where people see these messages on television and are invited to call an 800 number. They're motivated. But there's no network to follow up on the 800-number calls. And, even if we did have a network, how do you connect that with everybody who's got a role to play? How do we divide the tasks? You know: "Here's your role, go play it.''

The real challenge here is to take those standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and others like them, and begin to get them into the minds and hearts of parents in America. Tell them what they mean.

MR. MILLS: But, you see, with a political campaign, it comes to something that we want a person to do. You want them to vote. And with an advertising campaign, you want them to buy something. I don't think we're clear enough on what we want people to do with this information.

It's not enough to motivate people, you have to motivate them toward something.

MS. GRAHAM: They are supposed to teach their kid.

MR. MILLS: We need to say that clearly.

GOVERNOR ROMER: I keep looking for little levers that may be explosive. Let me give you one. How many kids in higher education do we have with student loans, how many millions?

MR. CROSS: Probably about six million.

GOVERNOR ROMER: What if we were so crass as to say that one of the requirements in order to get a student loan is to pass a 7th-grade math test, based on the new standards? Now, that's all you do, 7th grade. What would that do? It would force everybody in America to grab for the book. What the hell is this thing? Now, that's not too bad of a gate for people to go through.

You would certainly focus the minds of America. Do you realize what that would do? It would send shudders through the whole society. They would have cram courses. It would be a wonderful thing.

There are magic buttons out there that would explode this thing in America. We're just not pushing the right ones.

MR. CROSS: In 1990, they couldn't even get a debate in Congress about having any standards for student aid. Nobody would even talk about it.

MS. GRAHAM: The kind of alternative that we might be looking for is something like the anti-smoking campaign--which was, after all, initiated out of [former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare] Joe Califano's son's displeasure with Joe Califano's smoking. That campaign certainly displayed a federal dimension in terms of federal leadership.

It was a campaign to mobilize--not the poor, which it did not mobilize--but at least the middle class and the affluent to change a habit that they very much liked.

And there's a sense in which I think what we're trying to do here is to change a habit relating to schooling that has been very comfortable for us. We are trying to get people to make a very unpleasant, to many, transition from something that's been pleasant to something that will be good for them and that they will learn to love.

We at least ought to see what, if anything, can be learned from the anti-smoking campaign, realizing that this time we can't ignore the poor.

MR. HORNBECK: Maybe we should hire James Carville [of the Clinton campaign]. If we were to approach this communication problem the way serious Presidential candidates approach winning an election, we would do it both on the street and on the airwaves simultaneously. We know how to do this as a people.

MS. GRAHAM: We've just never done it in education.

MR. SEXTON: We have talked to people about the general idea, and a huge number of people have bought the concept that schools need to get better. But we have not gone into that in enough detail so that, when you put the program out there and do it, people will support you.

As people come down to the particulars, they are no longer talking about concepts. They're talking about whether they want their kindergarten child mixed in with older children. They're talking about whether they want their athletic policy changed. And that is where it gets real for people. The fundamental questions are: Do you want the discussion? How far do you want the discussion to go?

In Kentucky, former Governor Bert T. Combs, who happened to be the attorney in our court case [challenging the state's school-finance system], argued again and again that the public does not necessarily want to agree to every particular. What you want to ask them is to acquiesce to spending more of their money, and to acquiesce to leadership's recommendations as to the particulars that have to get done. That, of course, is the heart of governing.

GOVERNOR ROMER: How could we entice other policymakers to sit through discussions like this so that they get a feel for what is possible, what is quality, and what it is that they could do about it?

Public policymakers are in the position of having to drink out of the fire hydrant. They can't handle it all; they've just got to get an in-depth experience.

We have a committee in Colorado in which the leadership of the legislature and I have been putting together a standards bill. And we had at least 10 sessions, and we went through all this stuff.

All those legislators are gung ho now. They're ready to go out and fight the war. But it is that kind of experience that policymakers need. There is a way to get inside people.

If standards are that important, this President could do a lot about standards. The first thing he could do is buy 25 copies of the N.C.T.M. booklet and just sit them on every chair in his sitting room. Anybody visiting him would have to move it to sit down. And they would wonder, Why is this here? The President of the United states wants me to look at it.

Vol. 12, Issue 30

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