State Leaders Inclusive In Push for Standards

By Linda Jacobson — November 08, 2000 9 min read
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At Central Education Center, a new charter school south of this city, some students will have their pick of $35,000-a-year jobs right after graduation because of the opportunities they have here to take postsecondary-level technical courses while finishing high school.

The center, a collaboration between the 15,000-student Coweta County school district and West Central Technical College in Carrollton, Ga., is one example of what Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes wanted to accomplish with the A-Plus Education Reform Act he pushed through the state legislature this year.

The school was also the first stop this year on an annual bus trip through the state sponsored by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.

For eight years, the partnership—a group of business, government, and education leaders working to raise academic standards in the state—has been loading people on a bus and driving them around the state to witness examples of excellence in Georgia schools.

But this year, in the midst of strife over the A-Plus law—a measure that has left the state’s political and education communities deeply divided— the leaders of the partnership have faced an added responsibility. Their challenge has been to shift attention away from the debate and focus it on what the law was designed to achieve: greater accountability for schools and extra assistance for the students who need it the most.

“When school people are confused, then parents and communities are confused,” said Tom Upchurch, the president of the partnership and a former local superintendent in the state. “Here we are with interventions in the law that we have not had before, and we haven’t been able to get the message out.”

As states move rapidly to implement school improvement policies built around higher standards and increased accountability, policymakers are learning it’s important not to leave the public out of the process.

In several places around the country, from Massachusetts and New York to Washington state, education leaders are making greater efforts to involve members of the public in the drive to improve student achievement. In some states, schools chiefs and other state officials are directly involved in such work, which may include statewide and community forums and televised conferences. Elsewhere, outside organizations are taking the lead.

Such efforts come at a time when standards-based educational changes are stirring strong feelings among parents and other members of the public.

A recent survey by Public Agenda, a New York City-based research organization, showed that the public supports high academic expectations for students. A majority of people polled, however, said they were against basing high-stakes decisions for students, such as promotion or retention, on the results of a single test. (“Parents Seek Civil Rights Probe of High-Stakes Tests in La.,” Oct. 11, 2000.)

Putting policies in place that impose such consequences without involving the public can backfire, policy experts say.

“The side effects of ignoring people are really terrible,” said William G. O’Callaghan, the founder of a think tank in Lakewood, Ohio, called the Mohican Institute. The institute grew out of a 1995 meeting involving 30 superintendents in Ohio who were hoping to move beyond traditional public relations methods and find more effective ways of communicating with the public.

Reaching Out in Mississippi

In Mississippi, state schools Superintendent Richard L. Thompson is hoping that a series of community meetings and other outreach efforts will help build public trust in a new policy requiring students in grades 3 and 7 to meet certain educational benchmarks to advance to the next grade. New end-of-course tests are being prepared for high school students as well.

“When you’re dealing with massive change, you can’t assume anything about communication,” Mr. Thompson said in an interview. “You cannot do this once and think people have gotten it.”

That’s why, in addition to holding face-to-face sessions with both school leaders and parents, Mr. Thompson has been addressing teachers over a statewide educational television network. During the broadcasts, which have occurred a few times a year, the superintendent responds to questions that he has received by e-mail and takes call-in questions as well.

Additional regional forums will be held in the spring, as time for the changes to take effect grows closer.

Mississippi is also one of three states that recently received grants from the Education Excellence Partnership, a Washington-based coalition, to help improve communication with the public and help people understand new expectations for students and schools.

Illinois and Virginia are the other states that will receive assistance from the coalition, which is made up of leading business and government organizations and the national teachers’ unions.

Trust Out of Distrust

It’s during some of the most bitter arguments between educators and parents that school leaders learn to change their ways, Mr. O’Callaghan said.

“Trust can only be created out of distrust,” he argued.

As in many states, the Ohio education community is facing potentially divisive changes: The school finance formula is being restructured, new academic standards are being written, and the state is just beginning to use “report cards” to hold schools accountable for student performance.

Besides such issues that typically stir debate, it’s also important for educators and the public to come together over issues they can agree on, said Hank Rubin, an associate state schools superintendent in Ohio.

“Standards and accountability may not be the points around which you initially convene,” said Mr. Rubin, who heads the Ohio education department’s Center for Students, Families, and Communities.

Within the center is a new office of partnership and public engagement, which trains local school officials in communicating with the public and forging partnerships with other social service agencies.

Education leaders need to be careful about the approach they use with parents and other community members, those who work on such efforts say.

Detailed communication plans—no matter how well-intentioned— can often end up sounding like sales pitches, said Mr. O’Callaghan, who is the author of the 1999 book The Power of Public Engagement.

Tony Wagner, a co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, said he noticed that among the school officials and other people who attended a workshop there on public engagement last March, many were looking to “learn how to tell the public what a good job they are doing.”

“The problem is learning how to listen to the public,” said Mr. Wagner, who ran a similar conference earlier this month. “It means taking risks. You start an open-ended discussion and you can’t control it.”

Small or Big Groups?

Just because some state education departments are making such communication and partnership activities a more official part of how they operate doesn’t mean that all such initiatives are being directed from the state level. More effective meetings often occur within local communities, observers of public-engagement efforts say.

Mr. Rubin said a series of 13 local forums held throughout Ohio last year had produced several recommendations that the state education department is seriously considering.

For example, he said, both parents and teachers of 4th graders complained that all of the state’s standardized tests for that grade were being given during the same week. So state officials are now talking about “reducing the scope and the number of tests” required of Ohio students, Mr. Rubin said.

Larger groups might be more appropriate if the scope of the topic being discussed is broad, added Susan E. Auerbach, who coordinates community- engagement work for the New Hampshire education department’s Best Schools Initiative.

“Big events allow more people to come,” Ms. Auerbach said. “The difficulty is getting those people who don’t have kids in school.”

Building strong partnerships between businesses, parents, educators, students, and others in the community is one of the principles behind the initiative, which was an outgrowth of a state education summit Gov. Jeanne Shaheen held in 1997.

Fifty-eight teams, from individual schools or districts, are now involved in the program, through which they receive help from the state in setting goals for their communities.

Melody Crockett, a parent involved in the Best Schools Initiative in Belmont, N.H., said the forums haven’t attracted the usual “booster-club crowd.”

“It can be a different set of people. They’re not all ‘yes’ people, and that’s a big change,” Ms. Crockett said.

‘Hungry for Information’

Escorted by two state patrol cars, the large motor coaches used for this year’s bus trip in Georgia transported company presidents, state legislators, teachers, and other interested people to tour classrooms, talk with students, and pick up ideas to use in their own communities.

Gov. Barnes joined the group for a stop at a school that he said exemplifies the ideas behind his reform plan.

At Cartersville Elementary School, “direct instruction,” a scripted, teacher-led program, is used to teach children to read. In mathematics and reading, children are grouped by ability and move out of their groups when they have reached a higher level.

The school, one of four schools in the state’s only all-charter district, also already had smaller class sizes—a major feature of the new law.

“I wish I could take this school and replicate it all over Georgia,” Mr. Barnes told the group after he visited several classes, in which he helped dissect a frog and asked students about their work.

Word about the new requirements for schools is getting out in local communities, but much of it has been coming from state schools Superintendent Linda C. Schrenko, who isn’t exactly playing up the law’s positive aspects. A critic of the law, Ms. Schrenko has been holding town hall meetings throughout the state this year to gather suggestions on how to “fix” it.

Since the state education department doesn’t have other communication plans in place, other education groups in the state have taken it upon themselves to help interpret the legislation for those who have questions.

“I see a lot of interest in communities about reform,” said Barbara Christmas, the executive vice president of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a nonunion teachers’ group. Ms. Christmas said she receives about two calls a week from civic and parent groups who “are hungry for information.”

Ron Newcomb, Gov. Barnes’ education adviser, who accompanied the governor to Cartersville, said he believes there is widespread support for the new law. And the governor’s participation in last week’s bus tour notwithstanding, Mr. Barnes is still largely depending on the news media to explain the changes that are coming, Mr. Newcomb said."The general public knows that schools aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2000 edition of Education Week as State Leaders Inclusive In Push for Standards


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