Are We Expecting Too Much From 'Public Engagement'?

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The phrase "public engagement" has become a regular staple in the vocabulary of many leading educators, and I take particular delight in that. I left political journalism five years ago in part to try to help education reformers successfully "engage" the public.

But I also find myself getting a little nervous these days as I listen to what some education leaders are saying about how much public engagement can do. What many of them essentially are saying is: With the right public-engagement strategies, Americans will deeply understand the need for systemic education reform, be willing to spend tax dollars on these changes, and rise up to offer support for politicians who demand, pursue, and implement such reform. It will lead, they say, to a renewed commitment to public education and, in the end, strengthen democracy in America.

Yeah, right, as my 7th-grade son would say to dismiss me. Or, as my 5th-grade daughters would say, whatever.

Don't get me wrong. I am deeply committed to public engagement. I believe that the reform movement will fail without it. But I believe that my vision of public engagement may differ from the visions of many of those who have adopted the term.

Let me try, very briefly, to explain what I think good public engagement looks like, and to respectfully suggest why I don't think it can do all that some would like to have happen.

To me, a school district that has good public engagement is a place where the leaders of the district the superintendent, staff, school board understand what their publics think of how the schools are doing and how they should be doing. These leaders regularly collect data to help them understand, and they communicate clearly with the public the owners of the system about how the schools are doing, what changes must be made, and what these changes will mean for students, parents, and taxpayers.

To me, this is not about "selling" the public a new program or dressing up an old program with new public relations. Rather, it is about crafting a new relationship with the community; treating the public as the valued customers and owners of the schools.

We now have an impressive array of data that demonstrate the wide gap between the agendas of education leaders and the way the public views schools. The public has a set of very real concerns safety, discipline, the basics that it does not see being addressed by leaders of the reform movement. The public isn't willing to engage in the concerns of education leaders standards, assessments, professional development until it sees its issues dealt with, even though people generally support these notions.

If the public's concerns are addressed, real communication can take place. But let's not expect miracles.

We can do much better, but to expect large numbers of people to suddenly "engage" in the world of schools makes me decidedly uneasy. It's tough enough just to get the attention of parents of schoolchildren, and these parents make up only about 20 percent of the average community.

There is a consistent trend in America over the past couple of decades to disengage in civic life generally. Instead of joining civic organizations, the p.t.a., or even bowling leagues, Americans are spending their free time with their VCR'S, cd players, and home-exercise machines. The groups they do join are ones that require almost nothing of them other than to write an occasional dues check (the Sierra Club or the American Association of Retired Persons). This phenomenon is thoughtfully documented in an article by the Harvard University professor Robert Putnam in the Journal of Democracy titled "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital."

"By almost every measure," Mr. Putnam writes, "Americans' direct engagement in politics and government has fallen steadily and sharply over the last generation, despite the fact that average levels of education the best individual predictor of political participation have risen sharply throughout this period. Every year over the last decade or two, millions more have withdrawn from the affairs of their communities."

Mr. Putnam looked at a wide array of civic and religious organizations that used to attract far more vigorous memberships and participation. The decline in the National pta, which had 12 million members in 1964 and has about seven million now, he finds dismaying because such membership is "a particularly productive form of social capital."

My point for quoting Robert Putnam is simply to take note of a very definite trend in contemporary American life, not just a momentary blip. I would be delighted if the kind of public engagement I care about were implemented widely, and even more delighted if more Americans engaged in their communities through their relationship to public schools. But I'm not about to bet my mortgage on it.

I am willing to bet my mortgage that we can do a much better job of communicating honestly and openly with the public. If we can put high standards in plain language that conveys clearly what students must know and do, the evidence is that the public will support us. But to expect thousands of members of the general public to engage in a months-long standards-writing process is, in my view, unreasonable and unnecessary.

This work, the public believes, and work like it, is for teachers and principals. But taxpayers do need to understand that their dollars are being prudently spent on an investment that will benefit them. Parents need to know that their children are safe, that they are learning the basics and more. If these things are happening, the conversation can go deeper. But let's take it a step at a time.

Vol. 14, Issue 30, Page 39

Published in Print: April 19, 1995, as Are We Expecting Too Much From 'Public Engagement'?
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