Families & the Community Opinion

Putting the Public Back in Public Education

By David Mathews — April 11, 2006 7 min read
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—Peter Lui


Last month, the Kettering Foundation released its latest findings from an ongoing study of the relationship between the public and the public schools. The initial report, published in 1996 as the book Is There a Public for Public Schools?, showed that some Americans insist that the public schools aren’t their schools. They reason that if these institutions were really theirs, they would be able to make a significant difference in improving them. But they say they can’t, so they don’t believe they are accountable for what happens in the schools. (This issue of ownership shouldn’t be confused with whether people approve of the schools or are willing to assist them; it is a different matter entirely.) When people don’t feel ownership, they expect others to take responsibility for the schools. That may be why educators are primarily held accountable today.

The new book, Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy, takes up where the old one left off. It is about restoring public ownership and accountability. A feeling of ownership prompts Americans to take responsibility for public education, and this sense of responsibility leads to community efforts to solve problems that schools alone can’t solve, especially problems that come from outside the classroom.

While Americans doubt that they own the schools, they do feel that they own education. People make a sharp distinction between the two. Education is learning outside the classroom as well as in, and people believe that even though they can’t “school,” they can educate. They can make a difference. Since everyone can help educate, education tends to be considered everyone’s responsibility, and everyone (the community itself) is held accountable. In a town meeting in Baton Rouge, La., a woman took this insight to its logical conclusion when she said that there should be “a community strategy, not a school strategy, for educating every single child.”

A community strategy is only possible where there is a public capable of taking on the responsibilities that ownership implies. Unfortunately, however, every community may not have the public its schools need. Some may disagree, pointing out there are always voters who can be persuaded, parents who can be mobilized, and civic organizations that can be enlisted as partners. But the public that will take on the responsibilities of ownership has to be more than the persuaded, the mobilized, and the enlisted. Those aren’t owners. A responsible public is made up of citizens who join forces to make collective decisions and take collective actions, which has been called “public work”—work done by citizens, not just for them. This public exists only when people are deciding and acting together. Public work builds a public, just as playing baseball turns a group of individual athletes into a team. If the work isn’t going on, there is no public.

While I realize this is an unusual way of thinking about the public, it has significant implications for educators: Citizens have to engage citizens before they have the collective capacity to engage schools.

If schools need a responsible public, then educators should go about their work in ways that help, not hinder, citizens in doing their work. The catch is that even though professionals in education are public citizens, the public doesn’t do its work the way professionals do theirs. One way is not inherently better than the other; in the best of all worlds, they complement each other.

Citizens have to engage citizens before they have the collective capacity to engage schools.

For example, one of the first things that citizens have to do in their work is to identify, describe, or “name” the problems they need to solve. People name problems in public terms, which reflect their collective experiences and the things they consider important to their well-being. These common needs may not be readily apparent, however, and they can’t be determined by interviewing individuals. People have to sort out what is most valuable to them as they engage one another. Public terms are more than concerns expressed in everyday language. They resonate with our common needs, such as being safe and being treated fairly, which are as important as our individual needs for food and shelter. Describing problems in these basic terms is part of public work, and it is a public-building practice.

Professionals also name problems, though in expert terms. For instance, educators talk about improving the “student-teacher ratio” or overcoming the “achievement gap,” names that research shows have little meaning for most citizens. Although professional names are accurate, they can be so expert that they create the impression that no other names are possible. Consequently, citizens fail to see their worries reflected in the way problems are presented, so they back off, taking neither ownership nor responsibility. On the other hand, when people are able to see their concerns reflected in the names of problems, they become engaged. Everyone becomes a stakeholder.

What can already-busy educators do to see that the work of naming problems gets done when they can’t do it for citizens? Maybe they don’t have to do anything out of the ordinary—they just have to do the ordinary in different ways. A simple example: Since professionals also name problems, they have it within their power to open their description to include public terms. This would begin to align professional routines with public practices so they reinforce one another rather than clash.

Some school boards are already drawing on the idea that the public is a dynamic citizenry-in-motion, not a static body like an audience, to be “messaged.” They are tapping into another practice essential in public work: making decisions together. In order to understand how citizens make up their minds, some boards have sponsored deliberative forums. In this type of forum, citizens work through difficult choices on tough issues facing their communities, issues that raise questions about the trade-offs people are willing to make. Struggling to balance costs against benefits makes people think, especially when the things they hold dear are at stake. As a result of watching these exercises in public decisionmaking, school boards are in a much better position to understand how the citizenry will approach the issues on their agendas.

These initiatives can help shift some of the burden of accountability from educators alone to communities.

Professionals in other fields have already used deliberative forums to understand the way the public thinks about problems affecting their professions. The American Bar Association has framed issues in books that present a range of options for improving the justice system—including some that have little appeal to lawyers. The ABA has recognized that Americans are reluctant to do the work of making difficult decisions if the issues aren’t presented fairly. Perhaps one of the associations in education will prepare this kind of issue book so that citizens can deliberate on some of the controversial issues in education.

One of the payoffs from aligning the routines of educators with the practices citizens use in public work has been to recast issues initially seen as school problems so that connections to community concerns become more apparent and assistance from other institutions becomes more available. For example, a school district in Colorado received a grant for health education that involved adding a course on sex education to the curriculum. This generated a controversy that polarized the community. But with the help of the Colorado Association of School Boards, district officials held meetings to hear citizens name the problem. As it turned out, most people weren’t as agitated about sex education in the schools as they were about the high rates of teenage pregnancy in the community. The community’s problem had been masked by the debate framed around sex education. In essence, citizens renamed the issue to reflect people’s broader concerns, which resulted in extending accountability to the community at large. When educators and school boards go about their work in ways that help the public do its work (in this case, renaming and reframing an issue), they build the kind of public that the public schools need.

Taking time for public-building in a community may seem like going the long way around when schools face pressing problems. Certainly, aligning professional routines with practices used in public work is going the long way around when professionals are under attack. Yet these initiatives can help shift some of the burden of accountability from educators alone to communities. Citizens become accountable as they work together to produce things (beginning with names for problems), because people usually take responsibility for what they make. When that happens, there is more likely to be a public that can exercise responsible ownership of the public schools.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Putting the Public Back in Public Education


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