Finding the Public in Public Engagement

As problems intensify, how best to integrate sustained community efforts with educational strategies? by DAVID MATHEWS and RANDALL NIELSEN


In 1996 the Kettering Foundation published an interim report of its ongoing research on public education. The report, "Is There a Public for Public Schools?" documented a deterioration of the historical relationship between public schools and the citizens and communities they are charged to serve.

The report suggested the underlying problems related to those relationships were critical challenges to the survival of public schools in their role as the foundation of public education. The report also proposed a strategy whereby citizens might reclaim their role in public education, but only as part of the larger challenge of improving the way their communities work together on problems they share.

That strategy implies a particular meaning to the term "public." The public in the title of the report refers not simply to those people who happen to live in a particular place, but rather to a diverse body of people willing and able to join together to recognize and act on the issue they face. That concept suggests that, rather than the schools engaging the public, the converse is needed--the public needs to engage the schools.

The response to the report has been remarkable. As of May, nearly 20,000 copies have been sold and distributed. Most have been distributed to individual readers, but many have been bulk orders by civic, business and educational organizations that have seen the book as a way to illuminate their own conversations and struggles with the issues related to the relationship between the public and the public schools.

In the meantime, Kettering Foundation research has continued. Indeed, the response to the book has provided some of the most important findings. Many readers have contacted us. Some who are not educators have relayed stories of their experiences in communities that have attempted to recognize their responsibilities for linking the mandates and well-being of public schools to broader community issues. Others have asked for more details of Kettering research on the community practices that provide the foundation for effective public schools.

Defining the Problem
The response from educators has been equally interesting, in part because it has occurred in the context of a growing professional interest in what is called "public engagement." As readers of the Annenberg Institute’s fine 1998 report on public engagement titled "Reasons for Hope, Voices for Change" have seen, the term includes a wide variety of meanings in practice. Of course, what engagement means to educators depends on what is perceived to be the nature of the problem they are trying to solve.

For many educators, experiments with public engagement have focused on parents, with the terms of the engagement being the school-based issues defined by the educators. The promise of such efforts is clear: Given the current tendency to view education as a consumer good, it is helpful to be better connected to the clients. On the other hand, a focus on parents leaves the majority of people in most communities out of the loop, a failing that can be critical at times when larger levels of community support are needed. When a school levy is up for renewal, for example, voters--not parents--decide the issue.

Framing the schools as providers of services to otherwise passive consumers has additional dangers. In the absence of a widely shared sense of responsibility for the challenges related to education, it is natural for schools to become focal points for responsibilities that they simply cannot fulfill. Unless citizens--parents as well as nonparents--have come to recognize and choose among the tradeoffs inherent in the decisions that they and school administrators face, efforts to improve communication can result in ever-increasing sets of conflicting demands. Most administrators know from experience that, in the absence of a responsible and coherent public, increasing opportunities for engagement can do as much harm as good.

That recognition has led some to explore a form of public engagement that begins with community issues that affect--and themselves are affected by--what happens in the schools. Issues such as juvenile violence, drug abuse and teen-age pregnancy are inexorably intertwined with the challenges educators face. Sustained community efforts to deal with these issues need to be integrated with complementary educational strategies. Such strategies include, but are not limited to, what happens in the schools.

The crucial initial step appears to be a way of seeing the public, not as a mass of citizens to be persuaded or a body of interest groups to be placated, but as an entity that develops through the process of working together on shared community issues. Such efforts begin with the creation of opportunities for making choices about how to address those challenges. The assumption is that only when shared decisions have been made on such fundamental issues can the various agencies within communities--including the schools--do what they do in ways that can strengthen and support those broader community objectives.

Severity of Issues
What promise do public-building strategies hold for educators? Why should educators be concerned with the community’s capacity to engage issues that appear to lie outside the school buildings? The recent shooting tragedy in Littleton, Colo., is just one example of a phenomenon that more educators have come to recognize. It is increasingly the case that the problems they face in the schools are symptoms of larger community problems. And more of those community-based problems are what have been called "wicked" problems, which are replacing the tamer ones faced in the past.

A medical analogy may be helpful to explain the difference. Not long ago, scores of people died in outbreaks of measles and smallpox until effective immunizations were discovered. Today, people struggle with chronic diseases like diabetes and cancers that they wouldn’t have lived long enough to experience if we hadn’t learned how to prevent measles and smallpox. While the old diseases were serious--indeed often fatal--they proved more susceptible to relatively simple forms of control than the diseases that now plague us.

Wicked illnesses have replaced the tamer ones on the mortality charts. Something similar is happening with respect to our social problems. The effects are especially telling in our communities.

Despite the immensity of the difficulties that afflicted early 20th-century America, they had the characteristics of tame problems. Now, at the end of the century, we are left with a greater proportion of problems that resist our best programs and cleverest organizational schemes, even our vaunted expertise. A wicked social problem has characteristics that distinguish it from the tamer variety, among them:

  • The very name of the problem is difficult to find agreement upon. People can’t be sure what the problem is because of its ever-changing form. It appears different to different people, or different to the same people in different circumstances.
  • The problem seems to have many origins, making it extremely difficult to pin down the real source. Every symptom suggests a different cause. Explanations of why the problem exists seem mutually exclusive.
  • The problem seems to defy logic. It should not exist. The fact that it does provokes puzzlement and exasperation.
  • Any outside intervention is likely to produce more than the usual number of unintended consequences. The problem may get worse as a result of trying to remedy it or as more serious side effects emerge.
  • The problem is deeply embedded in human nature and the social culture. It has deep roots and a long history. It evokes the basic concerns of people, the things that are most valuable to them, yet it is impossible to be certain which of these imperatives should inform the response.
  • The problem is endless. It is impossible to imagine when it will be eradicated. Or there are disputes about when it has truly been solved.
Three-Part Test
To test for wicked problems, three simple questions are useful:
  1. Is the problem systemic? Some problems can be handled with a relatively narrow focus. Others are more deeply embedded in a community.
  2. Does the problem require an ongoing response? Think of the difference between a broken arm and chronic diabetes. The arm can be dealt with once and for all with a single remedy. Dealing with a disease such as diabetes requires ongoing coordinated efforts involving the physician, the patient and the patient’s family.
  3. Does the problem require multilateral action? Some problems can be handled by one institution or agency, while others are beyond the power of a single person or institution to manage.

If the answer to these questions is yes, the problem is a wicked one. The usual strategy of breaking the difficulty into subcategories, designing categorical programs for each part and holding one institution accountable for the solution is as ill suited for dealing with this kind of problem as putting a cast on someone suffering from diabetes would be. The remedy doesn’t fit the disease. Wicked problems require action from a whole community.

Collaborative Responses
Symptoms of these problems find their way into almost every school. When they do, it is only natural for educators to try to solve them on the basis of what was learned from solving the tame problems of the past. Yet those lessons about how things really get done may be inappropriate for dealing with wicked problems.

Schools cannot reasonably take sole responsibility for dealing with issues that originate in the public sphere. Rushing to find a solution may be counterproductive when the name of the problem is unclear, when the cause is uncertain and when misguided intervention could make matters worse. In dealing with wicked problems, the challenge is to identify actions that will narrow the gap between what is and what ought to be, when what ought to be needs to be decided.

Such problems call for the community as a whole to take responsibility for working through conflicting motives and perceptions. Only then can schools do what they do in ways that support the resulting public response.

Some new approaches to public engagement of schools are taking shape in various locations across the country. The project of the Center for School Study Councils at the University of Pennsylvania illustrates what is promising in these efforts. The project creates coalitions of civic and educational organizations (that include but are not dominated by the schools) to organize old-fashioned town meetings, where citizens have an opportunity to make decisions about how to deal with major issues facing the community. The sponsoring organizations range from churches to libraries to civic clubs to youth groups. News organizations may play what they feel is an appropriate role.

The forums for making decisions about objectives and directions are followed by discussions of the roles of a range of civic and educational organizations in the community. Note that the objective is not to have the schools do things that are unrelated to their basic work, namely teaching children. But over time (this is no quick fix), the collaboration between schools and other educational organizations increases. The work of the schools returns to the radar screens of noneducational organizations. Partnerships grow.

Perhaps one reason it is difficult to begin projects that take the disconnect between the public and the public schools seriously is that the prospect of these institutions being around in the next century is very discouraging. We often are asked, "Is there any hope for the public schools?" We believe the answer is yes. Hope is a human creation. It develops when we see possibility.

Reconnecting public schools to the larger purposes of the community can create a sense of possibility. One reason for this is that we are more confident when we are joined with others in common work. Hope will grow when we begin experimenting and learning from the results rather than merely trying to document elusive successes. Hope will expand when we find ways to get our hands on what is happening to the schools, when there are opportunities to make a real difference. Hope will thrive when passive consumers become active partners.

David Mathews is president of the Kettering Foundation, 200 Commons Road, Dayton, OH 45459. E-mail: jenkyn@aol.com. Randall Nielsen is a program officer at the foundation.