Dear Public: Can We Talk?

Public engagement encourages a broad, lasting base of support by Jean Johnson and Will Friedman

In the past decade, schools nationwide have been caught up in a whirlwind of change. No Child Left Behind is the law of the land. Every state in the nation is wrestling with academic standards and school funding.

Foundations, businesses and reform groups have pushed for revamped curricula, reduced school size, more effective school leadership and a better prepared teaching corps. Educational conferences and professional journals constantly churn out new thinking about how to boost learning and close achievement gaps among students.

While there are tantalizing indications of progress in many quarters, there also are signs that the pace of change — and the natural rivalry between different groups with different ideas about what works best — is causing confusion, tension, miscommunication and outright division among those who need to work together.

Wendy Puriefoy, president of the Public Education Network, wrote in an Education Week article, "Why the Public Is Losing Faith in the ‘No Child’ Law," that rather than bringing people closer to their schools, No Child Left Behind "is causing many Americans to feel increasingly distrustful and marginalized by professional educators."

For others, such as Michael Petrilli, vice president at the Fordham Foundation, problems are as likely to come from the community itself. In a July 11, 2005, op-ed column in The New York Times titled "School Reform Moves to the Suburbs," he shares his concern, for instance, that "affluent parents and homeowners in the suburbs [who are] not pleased to hear that many of their beloved local schools [are] in need of improvement" will undercut efforts to enforce standards.

Worrisome Situations
Public Agenda’s in-depth surveys about public education repeatedly show that concerns like these are well-founded. Our studies of the views of parents, students, teachers, superintendents, principals, employers, college professors and others indicate that different groups often operate on surprisingly different wavelengths. And while we aren’t Pollyanna-ish enough to expect everyone to always agree about everything, several gaps are serious enough to stall progress.

We outline here three areas that are especially worrisome.

  • Parents may not be ready for change.
    Our research shows that most parents care passionately about their children’s prospects and accept that education is central to their future well-being. What’s more, few are wholly satisfied with the status quo, especially in less affluent communities.

But the typical parent’s starting point is vastly different from that of many national education leaders and much of the reform community. While business leaders like Bill Gates and groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce call for dramatic increases in student skills, especially in math and science, few parents are focused on this challenge. Few know how their child’s skills compare with other students in their own state, let alone internationally. And while most assume their own child will be ready for college or work after finishing high school, professors and employers repeatedly tell us that most young graduates just aren’t well-prepared for higher education or for work.

If parents don’t understand the challenge of preparing students for future success and don’t recognize the need for change, they may resist, opting to cling to what’s familiar.

  • Communication within schools and districts could be better.
    Our surveys point to some knotty communications issues within school districts as well. For example, seven teachers in 10 say rank-and-file teachers are left "out of the loop" when it comes to district decision making. Fewer than half say administrators listen to and take into account the issues teachers care about.

In focus groups, teachers often express confusion about exactly how reforms and changes will play out. Many also say their concerns about lack of parental involvement and poor student behavior aren’t getting the attention they deserve.

It’s certainly legitimate to question whether teacher complaints are always valid. What’s not disputable is a very human truth: When those who work in the trenches are confused, anxious or frustrated, when they feel left out and ignored, they rarely do their best work. Improving schools is hard enough without large numbers of worried, demoralized teachers in the mix.

  • Districts and communities need to agree about where to put their money and what to do first.
    In a recent Public Agenda survey of school administrators, 90 percent agreed it is essential to "stick to a few core goals and avoid getting sidetracked by peripheral initiatives." Yet one of the greatest communications and engagement challenges schools face is that there are so many expectations, so many possible avenues for change, so many demands on scarce resources and so many groups that want to be at the table.

The energy aimed at improving student learning, the renewed commitment to closing achievement gaps, the wellspring of new ideas — these are assets. But at some point, school leaders have to decide what to do first. It’s not just a question of marshaling the financial resources to support change, although that is clearly a monumental challenge in some districts. It’s getting key players "singing from the same song sheet." It’s creating the partnerships to make progress toward common goals. It’s ensuring that teachers, parents and students share a bold new vision for learning. Doing this is a communications and engagement test of the first order.

Authentic Alternatives
Traditional approaches to public engagement in education have not been especially successful. In the traditional model, decision making is an expert-driven process: Get the best information, bring trained minds to bear, make the best decision, and only then reach out to wider audiences to persuade them to sign on. Those outside the circle of decision makers and experts are viewed as an audience to be educated or persuaded, sometimes even as a problem to be managed. They are rarely seen as a vital resource, especially at the planning stage.

From this perspective, planning and implementing school improvement is confined to a small circle of people in order to progress quickly and minimize static. To be sure, there is sometimes a minor nod toward gaining "input" from "customers" or "end users." An advisory committee, perhaps, or some form of public hearing might be put in play. In the best case, these add a small degree of useful input and lend some legitimacy to the planning process. At worst, these are empty, cynical public relations gestures, as in today’s popular "town meetings," with carefully screened participants and predetermined questions.

Authentic engagement, by contrast, involves substantive give and take with those who have a vested interest in the decisions being made. If done well, it prompts deliberation, dialogue, shared responsibility, and cooperative action. Such engagement presupposes a more collaborative relationship among school leaders and various stakeholders, including the community, than is often the case. Top-down, one-way communication is replaced by a joint process of figuring out how to define and make progress on core challenges such as closing achievement gaps.

To be clear, engagement does not mean that all members of the community have an equal say in every aspect of education policy, or that most people want or expect to be involved in deciding every technical detail of school policy. Traditional school leadership and professional expertise still count. Nor does it mean that we abandon traditional communications efforts; they remain absolutely essential.

What it does mean is that leaders consult with a broad swath of the community to set overall goals and establish priorities for change. And because of this, authentic engagement offers a broader base for change and increases the chances that progress will continue even in the face of special interest politics or changes in school leadership.

Our Approach
Based on our experience at Public Agenda, we identify three components of engagement that are indispensable.

  • Taking time to plan an effective process.
    Engagement can include face-to-face community dialogues, school-based meetings, online strategies, media partnerships and information campaigns. But these elements cannot be thrown together haphazardly. Poorly designed, half-hearted engagement reaps poor results and can even backfire, frustrating and alienating people rather than bringing them together.

A carefully thought-out engagement process allows people with very different starting points to talk effectively and productively about issues and can open minds and begin to shift attitudes. Strategic follow-up by leaders can transform initial outreach and discussion into solid working relationships that have strong impacts on policies, communities, schools and students. But you have to put in the work.

  • Reaching beyond the usual suspects.
    Public engagement is most informative and productive if it involves a broad cross-section of stakeholders and community members, including a good number of regular folks: parents, taxpayers and community leaders who are not already strongly involved in school activities. If engagement includes only those people who already attend nearly every school meeting, little will be learned and little will change.


  • Including choice work.
    Giving people alternatives to consider is an effective spur to deliberation and dialogue. It is also one of the most efficient ways to help people become more knowledgeable and subtle in their thinking about how to set priorities and use limited resources.

Weighing different approaches to solving a problem helps people learn about tradeoffs that must be faced. It helps reduce simplistic thinking and the tendency to reach for an easy answer. And it helps people work through their values conflicts, share knowledge and build common ground as a way to move ahead.

Concrete Examples
Public Agenda has been involved with these sorts of initiatives across the nation, in scores of communities and districts of every kind, large to small, rural to inner city, fairly homogenous to incredibly diverse. We share here concrete examples of how public engagement helped move the ball down the field in education initiatives in San Jose, Calif., and statewide in Nebraska.

In San Jose, public engagement was new to the superintendent and school board in the 1990s, but they wanted to try it as a way to inform school policy and open up communications with the district’s highly diverse community. Now, almost a decade later, public engagement is an established mode for communications and collaboration in the district and an integral part of its planning process.

The district started in a small way, asking Public Agenda to conduct focus groups with Anglo parents, bilingual Hispanic parents, Spanish-only Hispanic parents, students of various backgrounds and teachers on the topics of student achievement, diversity and equity. One district official called the findings "an eye-opening experience" because parents of all backgrounds, along with students themselves, called for high expectations for student achievement. Largely in response, the school board raised its graduation requirements.

The district then moved on to a broad-based community conversation about "Standards and Expectations for Our Students" with Public Agenda assisting by training moderators and developing discussion materials. Although the district initiated and sponsored the forum, a committee that included parents, members of the clergy, employers and others took over the planning and operations. The forum, held at a downtown church, drew about 140 participants; some discussions were conducted in Spanish with translated materials and a bilingual moderator and recorder.

Several themes emerged: the need for higher expectations for all students; concern about inadequate parental involvement; and the need to address communication gaps between school and home, including a lack of clarity about district standards already in place. A reporter from the San Jose Mercury News captured the process in a positive article that appeared on the front page of the next day’s local news section.

The result? The district developed an action plan to increase parental involvement, began regularly surveying students and parents, and started holding neighborhood conversations on standards policies and other school issues. The district’s communications office also established a public engagement division. Focus groups, surveys and community conversations remain an integral part of the district’s work today.

Defining Essentials
In the mid-1990s, Public Agenda worked with Nebraska’s state Board of Education to engage hundreds of Nebraskans over the then-contentious question of statewide standards. Parents, students, educators and community members participated in forums during which they wrestled with alternative approaches to the standards issue. Building on the results of those forums, the state board adopted new statewide guidelines, confident that the perspectives and values of a large number of residents were reflected in their efforts.

In spring 2004, the state board again asked Public Agenda to help design and implement an engagement process — this time on what constitutes an "essential education" for all students. The board was looking for a way to allow a cross-section of residents to weigh in on recommendations they had developed in a document called "Equitable Opportunities for an Essential Education for All Students — Recommendations for Nebraska Public School Districts." Although the board was ready to move ahead with its ideas, they knew from their previous experience with public engagement the value of involving citizens in the policy development process.

Public Agenda began by conducting focus groups with educators from nearly 25 districts across the state. We then created discussion materials and trained local organizers, moderators and recorders for an engagement effort in several urban, suburban and rural districts. More than 370 parents, students, educators (teachers, principals and superintendents) and members of the general public voiced their hopes and concerns about what education in Nebraska should be. Although public thinking was generally consistent with the board's proposals, the discussions highlighted areas where Nebraskans saw gaps in the existing opportunities, as well as cautions they wanted state education leaders to take to heart.

Perhaps most gratifying for the state board was the fact that most Nebraskans who participated believed it was appropriate for the board to take a leadership role in defining an essential education and proposing policies to support it — something they have been doing ever since.

A Practical Tool
Public Agenda’s experience in different kinds of districts and diverse communities persuades us that genuine engagement with the public and other stakeholders can help leaders and administrators build a broader base for change. As important, it can help avoid the miscommunication that sometimes stalls progress.

We cannot rely on leadership alone. We need a more permanent base for action: more informed and supportive parents; a stronger and more integrated professional culture within education; and more than lip service support from the community.

Public engagement is a practical tool at the building, district and community levels, offering schools, districts and states a way to reach out to teachers, parents, students and the larger community and give them a true stake in improving student learning. Engagement can strengthen efforts to raise achievement and help us create schools that work for all youngsters.

Jean Johnson is executive director of the Education Insights initiative at Public Agenda, 6 East 39th St., New York, NY 10016. E-mail: jjohnson@publicagenda.org. Will Friedman is Public Agenda’s senior vice president for public engagement.