Divided We Stand

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"Underneath the rage, frustration, and criticism, we generally found that people cared about children and wanted quality education and straightforward ideas."

Bill Miller,
director, Louisiana Learn for the 21st Century

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."

"Californians want to trust schools, but educators will have to rebuild that trust by demonstrating the kinds of improvements that Californians think are important."

Priority One: Schools That Work
California Public Education Partnership

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.

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.

Vol. 16, Issue 10

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