President's Corner

Bemoaning Fate Won't Garner Public Support


Whenever I arrive for a board of education meeting and notice an unusually large number of cars in the parking lot, I know that the board and I can expect to hear complaints that evening about something. It is rare that a large number of people come to a meeting to tell us that we are doing a good job. In fact, no news really is good news for board members and school system leaders.

Parents, students and the general public generally become engaged directly with us only if they feel their personal interests are being threatened. Otherwise, most people go on about their business paying little attention to us and to what we do.

Even when we manage to garner significant public support around a particular issue we do it mostly by convincing large numbers of people that it is in their own personal interest to support what we want them to support. Ask most people to support something because it will help somebody else and you usually get no response. Ask them to support something that requires the people you are asking to relinquish something and you usually generate hostility and opposition.

Those of us who lead school systems all too often respond to this situation by bemoaning our fate. People are so selfish and so narrow minded, we complain. If only, we say, there was a greater sense of the common good, our tasks would be so much easier to accomplish. Unfortunately, most of this is true.

While venting our frustration is healthy, doing nothing else about the lack of public engagement condemns us to more and more frustration, with retirement the only hope for relief. Let me suggest that after we’ve expressed our angst enough, we turn to doing something to re-engage the public in its schools.

First, we can make sure that our school systems live in a culture that welcomes public engagement. By virtue of tone and content, all communication with the public should give the impression that we want people to know what we do, to share their concerns and criticisms with us and to work with us. In many school systems, these attitudes are contrary to the organizational values that are held presently.

Second, we can develop specific ways in which students, parents and the general public can make a meaningful contribution to and have a real impact on the policies and procedures of our school systems. Few people will become engaged in any enterprise that refuses them some form of ownership. Groups that are selected by the members of various constituencies and who have a clear advisory role vis-à-vis the administration are useful in this regard.

Finally, we can make sure that our school systems provide our students with instruction and experiences that develop a commitment to good citizenship. By virtue of what we teach them, how we treat them and what we ask and allow them to do, we should immerse our students in what Horace Mann called civic virtue. Our students need to know that their country, state, municipality and even their school system belong to them as much as to anyone else and that they need to join us in taking better care of all of these institutions. In fact, our students need to become passionate about meeting their responsibilities as citizens.

Taking these steps and others will not lead to instant success. They will, however, produce over time the level of public engagement that should exist. In the meantime, they will give us something more to do than vent. Over time, we’ll have less to vent about.