Families & the Community

Poll: Words, Actions Fail To Match On Public Engagement

By Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily — March 28, 2001 3 min read
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School leaders say they strongly support efforts to solicit feedback about policy matters, but their actions often fall short of that ideal, a new poll says. Teachers, meanwhile, often feel “out of the loop” on school policy decisions.

“Just Waiting To Be Asked? A Fresh Look at Attitudes on Public Engagement” captures the views of hundreds of superintendents, school board members, teachers, and members of the general public. Conducted by Public Agenda, with support from the U.S. Department of Education, the American Federation of Teachers, and other organizations, the poll was to be released March 26.

For More Information

A summary of “Just Waiting to Be Asked?” is available from Public Agenda. Print copies are $10, plus $2 shipping and handling, from Public Agenda, 6 E. 39th St., New York, NY 10016-0112.

Public Agenda found widespread support for public schools and a high degree of goodwill between superintendents and board members. In addition, the nonprofit opinion-research group reports, 66 percent of the 809 members of the general public who were interviewed said they felt “comfortable leaving school policies for educators to decide.”

Superintendents, meanwhile, voiced support for efforts to gather more public comment. Of the 686 superintendents who took part in a mail survey, 78 percent said such public-engagement efforts were under way in their districts. Even so, 41 percent of the schools chiefs said they set policies with other school leaders first, and then worked to get public support, rather than soliciting residents’ opinions before policies were crafted.

Superintendents “absolutely believe in the concept of public engagement, ... but when it comes to the execution as opposed to the intent, then the reality is somewhat different,” Deborah Wadsworth, the president of the New York City-based Public Agenda, said in an interview last week.

Teachers Feel Left Out

The poll also raised some concerns about teachers, 70 percent of whom reported feeling “out of the loop in their district’s decisionmaking process.” Only 23 percent of the 404 teachers interviewed said that district leaders talk with them to understand their views, while 70 percent said school officials talk with teachers simply to gain their support for “what the district leadership wants to accomplish.”

Teachers are the main conduit of information to parents, and if they are left out of the process of improving schools, “it’s a lost opportunity,” Ms. Wadsworth said. The poll, she added, offers a “healthy dose of reality.”

“If public engagement ... is a kind of scarce resource, which I think it is, then you pick your issues and you pick your moments very carefully,” she said. “Then, the need to engage teachers is very important.”

Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association, said teachers often cite their inability to have an impact on school policy as a reason for leaving the profession. If school leaders made more of an effort to solicit their teachers’ views, it would go a long way toward reducing cynicism about policy changes, he added.

School Board Outreach

The poll also reveals that a majority of school board members believe they are hearing from a vocal minority at their meetings, rather than a representative sample of the public.

That finding underscores the need for board members to seek out other forums for checking the pulse of the community, said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association. The Alexandria, Va.-based group was a co-sponsor of the study.

The NSBA has been working for several years to encourage school boards to reach out to the public, Ms. Bryant said. Preferably, board members should visit on “people’s own home turf,” she added.

Ms. Bryant said she was pleased by the finding that most members—77 percent of the 475 board members who responded to the poll— regard their relationships with superintendents positively, and vice versa.

The poll is based on a mail survey of 686 public school superintendents and 475 school board members, as well as phone surveys of 404 public school teachers and 809 members of the general public. The general- public category included 205 parents of K-12 public school students.

The margin of error in the poll varied, depending on the particular survey area. For example, the margin of error for the teacher survey was plus or minus 5 percentage points, and for the general-public survey was 3 percentage points.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Poll: Words, Actions Fail To Match On Public Engagement

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