ON THE AGENDA | MARCH 7TH, 2014 | Public Agenda
An interview with Carolyn Farrow-Garland, of the Kettering Foundation, about recent research from Public Agenda and Kettering.
The following is an interview with Carolyn Farrow-Garland, of the Kettering Foundation, about recent research from Public Agenda and Kettering. The research, "Joint Ventures," explores what could happen when communities and schools work together to tackle improving local education.
Carolyn, why did Kettering and Public Agenda take on this project?
For communities where education reform has gotten bogged down, we wanted to offer an idea for a process they could use to spark progress. This project also enables us to highlight how different actors in public education— administrators, teachers, and parents— feel about the accountability trends in education, so that everyone involved in the problem can see other actors' side of it. It’s an outgrowth of research we conducted over the past few years looking at how the public defines “accountability” compared to how experts and professionals generally think about it.
Accountability has been such a strong theme in education reform over the past decade, but we’ve seen key differences in the way leaders and members of the public talk about it. Leaders often focus on holding teachers, principals, and schools accountable for student learning and using test scores as a main way to judge that. Parents and the broader public often bring a broader set of issues to the table, including the idea of holding parents and communities more accountable for children’s learning. Parents interpret accountability as being relational rather than informational, so they want school officials to use communication strategies that help them understand why certain policy changes are implemented.
So our question for this project was: Can education leaders and professionals join with parents and community members to “co-frame” goals for their schools, and what happens when they do?
The project included “co-framing” experiments in four communities that brought local teachers, parents, administrators, and others together to talk about the mission for local schools. How did the people in the groups respond?
These co-framing discussions intentionally mixed people with varying backgrounds and perspectives to talk about education in their communities, and the results were quite encouraging on several fronts. Most of the participants believed the conversations helped them understand more about how others view the schools and children’s learning. In fact, about half of those participating told us afterwards that the conversations had changed the way they were thinking about K-12 education.
What did people actually talk about?
The participants deliberated using a “Choicework” exercise similar to those used in the National Issues Forums and in much of the on-the-ground engagement work that Public Agenda does. The groups were asked to weigh four different missions for local schools:
The participants talked about the advantages and disadvantages of each approach and what it would take to make progress on each of these goals.
What surprised you about the work?
One surprise is that even though these conversations took place in four different communities (Baltimore, New Orleans, Chicago, and Union City. NJ), the participants often talked about very similar challenges—increasing parental involvement, helping students who struggle, making progress when money is tight, and others. Even though New Orleans, for example, has many more charter schools, participants there mentioned many of the same concerns as people in Baltimore, Chicago, and New Jersey.
Any other unexpected results?
The other major surprise was the degree to which the participants in all four communities believed that expanding students’ horizons and developing a love of learning should be a higher priority. Many of our participants said that all the other goals depended on getting this one right in the first place.
What kinds of challenges did the research uncover?
Most of the participants tended to define “community” mainly as parents. The idea that communities have other individuals and groups that could enhance education rarely emerged in the conversations until moderators specifically asked about the community’s assets.
Were there other challenges that emerged?
When we interviewed participants afterward, some told us that they had felt a certain level of mistrust and even resentment during the conversations. The conversations were respectful and constructive, but some of the teachers told us that they were uncomfortable when other participants criticized teachers or suggested that they weren’t qualified or working hard enough. There is no reason to expect that feelings of mistrust that have been building for decades would dissipate in a single conversation, but this does that effective co-framing work will depend on sustained discussion.
What does this work suggest for people working to bring communities together to address issues of children’s development and education?
This work certainly suggests the potential for serious, thoughtful dialogue across the normal professional/public divisions, but it also clarifies some of the challenges that face all of us. It raises questions that many of us have struggled with in our work in communities: Who can convene these kinds of discussions? Who will be seen as a neutral and positive organizer? How do you sustain and build on dialogue once it’s started? There are groups and individuals around the country addressing this kinds of community engagement challenges, and we need to capture and learn from their experiences. That’s one logical next step for us.