Divided We Stand

What has come between the public and its schools?

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First in an occasional series

With a tax levy for schools looming on the 1994 ballot, educators and board members in Olmsted Falls, Ohio, took a gamble. Instead of waging a traditional public relations campaign to gin up support for more money, they decided to listen. Educators in the 3,000-student district held a "state of the schools" meeting and gave people a chance to talk in small groups. Administrators and board members kept their ears perked at 60 coffee klatches. And they knocked on doors across the Cleveland suburb to find out what people had on their minds.

They heard what public opinion research has confirmed: Parents want to send their children to safe schools that teach basic skills. But they also heard more specific gripes about their district. Voters, it turned out, were sore because a previous school board had ignored the community's wishes for a new middle school and spent bond money to remodel elementary schools instead. The board had never bothered to explainitself, leaving bitterness that cropped up again and again. So in hopes of healing old wounds, the school board apologized in a letter to the community.

"There was major resentment still out there, and we had to deal with that," explains Superintendent Robert P. Kreiner. "As superintendents, we're always taught that the way to deal with the public is to sell things, like the old snake-oil salesman. But what we have come to understand is that the electorate is much more cynical and jaundiced in its view. We found that a better response was saying, 'Look, we're going to do our best to tell you the situation and answer your questions. At the ballot box, we'll leave it up to your judgment.'"

The levy, by the way, passed. And Kreiner is now preaching the virtues of "public engagement," a term that has taken the education world by storm. To Kreiner, it means moving away from being all-knowing—"just trust me and give me more tax money"—to buildingrobust, open relationships with the community his district serves. His motto, borrowed from Stephen R. Covey's best-selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: "Seek first to understand, before you seek to be understood."

Kreiner meets regularly with like-minded superintendents in his state under the auspices of the Mohican Institute, a new think tank designed to nurture more meaningful ways of connecting educators and the public. In Ohio—where a tax-rollback law forces districts to ask voters for money just to keep up with inflation—educators are keenly aware of the public's volatile mood.

But observers point to plenty of other reasons to worry about the growing gulf between the public and its schools.

First, the public itself is changing. As the population ages, only about 25 percent of households have school-age children. Turnout for school board elections is generally low—in the single digits in some communities. At the same time, public schools are serving a more diverse mix of students with greater needs than ever before.

Second, the public's faith in and support of its institutions has withered. Many people distrust government and bureaucracy and are hesitant to pay taxes to support education systems that may not be producing results.

Third, the public has reacted with confusion and suspicion to high-profile efforts to improve schools. The Goals 2000: Educate America Act has been a lightning rod for conservative critics. Pennsylvania's first efforts to overhaul schools were derailed when the public couldn't make sense out of outcomes-based education. The new California Learning Assessment System, or CLAS, was dropped in 1994 after parents and taxpayers raised countless questions. And many other smaller-scale efforts to change teaching and learning—from new types of report cardsto more demanding graduation standards—have run up against resistance and skepticism from a wary public.

Fourth, signs of growing support for alternatives to public schools—including charter schools and vouchers—are prompting some thinkers to question whether Americans have lost touch with the role public schools have played in forging our democracy. As people focus more directly on their own needs and those of their children, and less on society as a whole, they become less committed to the ideal of public schools as the glue binding a diverse society.

"The public is slipping away from the public schools, and no one seems to be paying much attention."
David Mathews
Is There a Public for Public Schools?

In the face of these troubling trends, many educators and reformers are promoting public-engagement strategies as a way to repair frayed relationships. But even supporters fear thatthe fuss may simply result in slick public relations campaigns that are more style than substance. Already, school districts have rechristened their communications departments as public-engagement offices. And hardly a conference takes place that doesn't include a session on public engagement. All the lip service makes proponents of reaching out to the public worry that an opportunity for genuine dialogue may be wasted.

"It's easy to assume that what we need are more newsletters," says Sylvia Soholt, the community relations manager for the Edmonds, Wash., schools, "but that's not what we're talking about."

The evidence of the chasm between the public and its schools is too overwhelming to suggest that bridges can be built quickly, agrees Michael D. Usdan, the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington. "I contend that the public is beginning to vanish," he says. "This is too important to be a fad of the '90s, where every school system will 'do' public engagement."

What's needed instead, Usdan and others believe, are opportunities for schools and communities to take a hard look at the fundamental purpose of public education. EdSource, a nonprofit organization in Menlo Park, Calif., that specializes in clarifying complex education issues, defines public engagement as "a long-term commitment to open, two-way conversations that make clear what the public expects of schools and what level of support schools need from parents and the public in order to meet those expectations."

But few teachers, administrators, principals, or school board members are prepared to engage in such conversations. Talk can be risky. And after a decade or more of constant criticism of public schools, many educators are just too weary. John F. Jennings, the former general counsel for education in the U.S. House of Representatives, traveled extensively last year after leaving his job in Congress. He writes in a recent article in Phi Delta Kappan that "teachers and other educators are losing heart and starting to turn inward."

Jennings, now the director of the Center on National Education Policy in Washington, has teamed up with two other groups to sponsor public forums in 29 cities to discuss the reasons for public education and to identify common ground. The brochure the center has published to use in the discussions is called "Do We Still Need Public Schools?"

The question might seem exaggerated, but Jennings isn't the only one wondering about such a fundamental issue. David Mathews, the president of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, published a monograph last fall called Is There a Public for Public Schools? Mathews, whose foundation has a long history of studying the public and the ways it approaches problems, says Kettering research has shown that Americans increasingly see public schools as "entities out of their control."

While education reformers push high standards and innovative teaching, ordinary Americans first want safety, order, and the basics.

No reforms will work, he and others contend, unless members of the community are involved in defining problems and proposing solutions. Public opinion research conducted by Public Agenda, a research organization in New York, has shown that leaders and the public often talk past one another. While education reformers push higher standards and innovative teaching strategies, ordinary Americans first want safety, order, and the basics. This doesn't mean people won't support more aggressive reforms—they strongly support higher standards, for example—but it does mean that their concerns must be credibly addressed before they can turn their attention to other changes.

If people are worried about "books, bathrooms, and bureaucrats," says Andy Plattner, who works as a consultant with states and districts trying to communicate more clearly with the public, they won't focus on more esoteric reforms.

The trouble is that elected officials, superintendents, and foundations are pushing for far-reaching reforms on a tight schedule that too often doesn't allow time for the public to become meaningfully involved. "An expert-driven movement is doomed to fail," argues Tony Wagner, the president of the Institute for Responsive Education in Boston, which is helping teachers, parents, and residents in several communities set standards for learning.

Deborah Wadsworth, the executive vice president of Public Agenda and a sought-after speaker on public engagement, puts it bluntly. "Part of what is so difficult with the education-reform movement is that most entities trying public engagement have an agenda they wish to sell," she says. "Their sense is if only the general public understood, everything would be fine. Our contention is that it has taken these reformers a long time to get to some consensus among themselves, and the public is entitled to work through the same process."

Many of the battles that have derailed reform efforts in recent years might have been avoided with more upfront buy-in from the public. Of course, that would have meant a more proactive approach from educators. As it is, the interest in public engagement that has kept Wadsworth's calendar so full is largely a reactive response to the danger signals sent by by parents and taxpayers. "Educators have learned some hard lessons," notes Jennifer Davis, a special adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. "So many education folks traditionally have focused on developing curriculum and working with schools and never had to really build this support or to reach out. It's a very different time."

If people are worried about "books, bathrooms, and bureaucrats," they won't focus on more esoteric reforms.
Andy Plattner
education consultant

Changes in public attitudes explain some of the trouble. EdSource notes that Americans are less respectful of authority, more educated, more demanding, and armed with more information than ever before. Parents, in particular, are extremely anxious about their children's futures. Civic life itself appears to be changing. Some academics argue that citizens' ties to traditional institutions are dangerously weak. Others say involvement with public life is just taking on new forms.

Given this combustible mix, reformers who waded blithely into major changes in a familiar institution like schools were asking for trouble. Arleen Arnsparger, the communications director at the Education Commission of the States in Denver, has seen a sea change in attitudes as reformers have learned that they can't just present their ideas to communities and expect support. When her organization started working on Re:Learning, a project to build state-level support for reforms in high schools, Arnsparger says few people were interested in her suggestion that communities should be involved.

"We said, 'Well, OK. Give us a call if you think you need help in this area,'" she recalls. "It did not take long for people to start giving us lots of calls. What they ran into was a wall, where folks were real nervous about the changes that were being made." Unfortunately, she adds, most of the calls asked for advice on quieting critics, not on dealing with their concerns head-on.

Now, organizers of major reform efforts have learned to incorporate a focus on building public support and understanding. New American Schools, the nonprofit organization formed by corporate and foundation leaders to create "break the mold" schools, is paying close attention to public engagement as it works in three states and seven cities to install new school models. (Still, one of the first New American Schools designs, the Odyssey project in Gaston, N.C., was dropped after it ran into stiff opposition from religious conservatives.) In Cincinnati, New American Schools, ECS, and Plattner worked with district officials to write a five-year strategic plan and a detailed blueprint for communicating about the changes. The district sent each principal a communications "tool kit" with a videotape, copies of the strategic and communications plans, comment sheets to distribute, a bulletin board display, and a list of suggestions for staff and public engagement.

The Education Department and many states pursuing Goals 2000-related reforms also are mindful of the need to listen. In Louisiana, many taxpayers had questions—and some were downright hysterical—about the state's Goals 2000 efforts. Bill Miller, the director of Louisiana Learn for the 21st Century, says supporters of the program to encourage higher standards endured bitter attacks, including charges that they were anti-Christian. They turned to community forums, statewide teleconferences, leadership meetings, focus groups, and telephone surveys to gain information about the public's views and feed it back into the plan. "Even when people were obnoxious, we stood our ground and remained committed to the idea of listening to people," Miller says. "Underneath the rage, frustration, and criticism, we generally found that people cared about children and wanted quality education and straightforward ideas."

In Colorado, the state education department took elaborate steps to involve the public in setting standards for students. Residents were asked to provide feedback on thousands of copies of draft standards, invited to public meetings, involved in a cable telecast, and provided with videotapes of the program. The message from the public was loud and clear: Take out the education jargon. "One of the reactions between the first and second drafts was, 'Wow, you really listened, and you changed these,' which surprised people," says Wayne Martin, the former state assessment director. "They are not used to being listened to. We ask for their input, and then we don't use it."

Through Gov. Roy Romer's office, people involved in writing the standards held brown-bag lunches at businesses and industries across the state to gather feedback. To lay the groundwork, the state published a math-assessment handbook that shows different kinds of tests and includes scored samples of student work. The contractor now designing the assessment system also is required to prepare similar demonstration booklets to let the public and teachers see what types of questions students will have to answer.

Maryland—which has a relatively new assessment system that asks students to perform experiments, write, and work in groups—is also trying to cut through the jargon. The state has prepared a straightforward handbook that describes the assessment system to parents and another one to help principals find effective ways to involve the public, such as inviting parents to schools to work through sample problems.

Part of what undermined California's CLAS program, despite praise from many educators, was a perception among members of the public that the test items were secret and pried into students' private lives. Without paying attention to parent and taxpayer concerns, cautions Richard Lee Colvin, an education reporter for the Los Angeles Times who covered CLAS's demise, educators can find themselves stranded. "Educators just can't get too far out ahead of the public," Colvin says. "As much as they might feel it's a constraint, the public pays the bills."

As Colvin knows, reformers often blame the media for undermining confidence in schools with negative and superficial education coverage. But public opinion research conducted for New American Schools and ECS found that complaining about the media may be wasted energy: Parents overwhelmingly say they get their information about schools from teachers, children, and other parents.

"An expert-driven movement is doomed to fail."
Tony Wagner
president, Institute for Responsive Education

The most successful efforts to communicate change and build support for schools, experts say, must start with teachers and other school employees. In Olmsted Falls, the district spent months holding background briefings with its employees before broaching the idea of a tax levy with its public. In Colorado, educators snapped up 6,000 copies of the math-assessment handbook meant to make the case with businesses. And in Cincinnati, despite the help from national experts, polls and focus groups show that the district still has work to do to build support among its own teachers for its reform plans.

"Frankly, very few school systems have a real capacity to put together a public-engagement strategy," says Davis of the Education Department. "They don't have the skills, the funds, or the knowledge of how to do it."

In one effort to build that knowledge, the Danforth Foundation and Public Agenda are working with 10 superintendents from urban, suburban, and rural communities interested in public engagement. The administrators are looking at practices that might confuse or turn off the public, such as scheduling meetings with parents during the daytime when many can't leave work, says Robert H. Koff, a program director at the foundation. In the long term, Public Agenda will help the superintendents collect data on their communities and design plans that will give people a genuine voice in decisionmaking.

Clifford Janey, the superintendent of the Rochester, N.Y., city schools and a participant in the program, has put together an easy-to-digest guide to his budget recommendations that focuses on improving student results. The publication is part of a larger effort to make the budget comprehensible to Rochester residents, who have argued for a decade about whether their investments in education are paying off.

Plattner calls the polls, focus groups, and surveys now being used to understand the public "systematic listening." In California, he teamed up with a group of nonprofit organizations this year to conduct a statewide research project aimed at generating data on Californians that policymakers, educators, and parents can use.

Trish Williams, the executive director of EdSource, one of the partners in the study, says educators tend to take feedback about schools personally, while the public is frustrated and worried about children.

"America and California are going through lots of rapid changes, and it's catching people off guard," Williams says. "People did things a certain way five or 10 years ago, and it worked. But now they've got to regroup and develop new ways to do things. It's no more different for schools than it is for corporations."

Changing old habits is hard. But in different ways, educators are trying. Crookston Central High in Crookston, Minn., invited staff members, parents, and residents to spend three days planning an entirely new high school. They're now following up in work groups that report back regularly to one another. In West Hollywood, Calif., teachers and administrators at Walter Reed Middle School invite parents and the public to attend "math nights" to check out what the school's new math curriculum is all about. In suburban Cincinnati, the Northwest Local Schools are taking the community's need for a walking track and bike trail into consideration in a facilities study. And a statewide organization called Ohio's BEST is waging a campaign to encourage communities to organize coalitions on behalf of better schools.

Whether these outreach efforts can help reconnect an alienated public to its most important institution—its schools—remains unclear.

In Michigan, the state school boards association plans to sponsor community meetings in Kent County that will use study circles, a process for involving citizens in dialogue about important common issues. Justin King, the executive director of the Michigan School Boards Association, believes it's imperative for school board members to try to lead civil discussions of issues. "The alternative is to be dead in the water," he says, "to have critics attack and to splinter a community because you've got somebody who wants to start a charter here and somebody else who wants to pass a voucher plan and spend public money on parochial schools there."

Educators in Olmsted Falls are planning a parent symposium in January, based on comments they've heard from uneasy parents. "There's a great deal of fear out there right now about the future," Superintendent Kreiner says. "Parents are concerned about whether their children will have the same or better standard of living as they had. We're trying to get them to think about the fact that their school system can be a big part of working with them."

In Grand Rapids, Mich., the local public education foundation is sponsoring a school-to-work conference this month to talk about how the community can use workplaces to help students acquire a rigorous academic education. The employers and educators scheduled for a panel are going to take questions from—rather than talk a—the people who attend.

Beth Dilley, the executive director of the Grand Rapids Public Education Fund, says educators need to learn to provide the public with good information and ways to act on it that can "tap into the sheer force of public and personal will. Educators know what that looks like when it opposes them," she says. "They need to think about what that force and will could look like when it supported them."

Whether these efforts can help reconnect an alienated public to its most important institution is unclear. Wadsworth of Public Agenda cautions that there simply is no magic bullet, despite some peoples' eagerness to make "public engagement" into one. On the speaking circuit, Wadsworth says she usually notices someone in the audience "whose skills and talents have to do with crafting messages, as if the problem is in the message. As if, if we could just somehow get it right, it would be open sesame."

But that kind of thinking isn't going to pay off, Wadsworth says. "This is hard work. It is going to take time to change habits that are firmly ingrained. But certainly, there is a yearning for some real, serious, thoughtful conversations. People have had it with confrontation and with the quick fixes. They don't work."

Vol. 16, Issue 10, Page 31-35

Published in Print: November 6, 1996, as Divided We Stand
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