Guest Column

Your Staff Waits To Be Asked

by Deborah Wadsworth

Public engagement-the activity that holds out the promise that reforms will succeed if the public's concerns are heard and addressed-is much on the minds of school leaders nationwide.

Findings from a recent Public Agenda study, "Just Waiting to Be Asked? A Fresh Look at Attitudes on Public Engagement," suggest three caveats for school administrators struggling to involve parents and community members in their school district's reform efforts.

A Two-Way Flow

* Lesson 1: Public engagement differs from constituency building.

There are many instances when getting buy-in for a particular initiative is critical, and leadership is the key to the enterprise. Superintendents and other administrators understand this well and are quite sophisticated at advocating solutions when necessary.

But public engagement is something else. Generally understood as a two-way communication in which leaders not only offer ideas and information but also listen to public concerns to ensure that the interests of the broad public are heard, public engagement aims for real dialogue with honest give-and-take and responsible feedback, going beyond the agenda of the most vocal members of the community.

While more than half of superintendents in our study say they "set district policies in partnership with their community," the reality is that as many as seven in 10 also report that they "tend to make decisions based on their own experience and sense of what is right." Nearly three-fourths also say that when the leaders in their district initiate communication, it is to help people understand and support the schools, not to understand the community's concerns.

Sadly, the most traditional opportunity for engaging the public's voice on education matters-the school board meeting-is seen by both superintendents and board members as largely dysfunctional. Sixty-nine percent of board members say their meetings are dominated by people with individual axes to grind, and only 25 percent of board members and 21 percent of superintendents believe these meetings are an effective way to communicate with large groups such as parents or teachers.

It is important, therefore, to be clear about the desired outcome from the start, for using the tactics and approach of public engagement-appearing to seek feedback and dialogue-when decisions have already been made is problematic and counterproductive.

Selective Use

* Lesson 2: Public engagement is not appropriate for all issues.

Both parents and other members of the general public say they are willing to delegate many education decisions to teachers, principals, superintendents and school board members. This is particularly true when it comes to issues of management, staffing, governance or even curricular reforms.

However, people do need to be forewarned and given the opportunity to participate in the discussion when fundamental changes are in the works or when serious conflicts already have surfaced in the community. During such occasions, listening to the public's concerns and giving them a respectful hearing are crucial.

Extensive education research by Public Agenda and others have demonstrated time and again that the public feels sincere concern for the public schools and that despite being uninformed about the details of many policy debates, ordinary citizens want the public schools to succeed.

Moreover, the public is often quite adept at voicing its values, communicating areas of concern when granted the opportunity, often proving themselves to be more open-minded, fair-handed and practically oriented than many specialists. Remembering that public engagement is a scarce resource, not to be employed at the drop of a hat for any and all matters, greatly enhances its potential for effective decision making.

Courting Teachers

* Lesson 3: Don't leave teachers out of public engagement efforts.

It's not parents but rather teachers who are calling for greater opportunities to jump into decision making, according to our study. Seventy percent of teachers are disgruntled, saying they are often left out of the loop. Most say that when district leaders talk with them about school policy, they do so to win support for "what the district leadership wants to accomplish." Only a fourth believe the motive is to gain a better understanding of their issues and concerns.

Teachers traditionally have been the major channel of communication to parents and the community-the individuals parents most trust to make educational decisions for their children.

To exclude them from decision making on matters relating to standards reform, for example, is to court disaster.

Many teachers believe student achievement is affected by factors beyond their control-social problems, student apathy and lack of parental involvement. As a consequence, their commitment to reform, as borne out in earlier Public Agenda research, has been less vigorous than that of administrators. On top of that, if teachers continue to feel uninvolved in the development of reform policies, it is questionable whether they can be counted on as ambassadors to parents and the general public about what the schools are attempting to accomplish.

Administrators must meet the challenge of this disgruntled group, engaging the teaching corps in real dialogue that explores and responds to their reservations about reform efforts.

"Just Waiting to Be Asked?" was based on random national surveys of 686 superintendents and 475 school board members, as well as 404 teachers and 808 members of the general public, including 205 parents of public school students. Highlights of the study and information on Public Agenda's public engagement programs are available at www.publicagenda.org.

Deborah Wadsworth is president of Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan opinion research and education organization, at 6 East 39th St., New York, NY 10016. E-mail: info@publicagenda.org