Community Responses to School Reform in Chicago

Opportunities for Local Stakeholder Engagement

How do Chicago community stakeholders, including parents, teachers, community leaders and advocates, think about current efforts by Chicago Public Schools to turnaround the city's lowest performing schools? What are their expectations for future reform? How can education leaders and reformers best engage, communicate and work with community stakeholders to ensure the best outcomes for the city's children?

"Community Response to School Reform in Chicago: Opportunities for Local Stakeholder Engagement" collects the insights of Chicago parents, public school teachers and school reform thought leaders in order to examine these questions. The report reflects the findings of a small but suggestive qualitative study, funded by the Joyce Foundation, as well as Public Agenda's reservoir of research into the views of K-12 education stakeholders and wealth of experience in public engagement around education reform.

Building on "What's Trust Got to Do With It?," our 2011 communications and engagement guide for education leaders tackling school turnaround efforts, "Community Response to School Reform in Chicago" seeks to contribute to the many heroic efforts now underway by helping education leaders, teachers, parents and community members work together more productively to overcome divisions and move beyond arguments toward solutions.

Five Tensions

It's no surprise that tensions exist between district and reform leaders and parents, teachers and community members and organizers. Our research in Chicago reinforced tensions that we've heard nationwide, and illuminated five key points that might characterize challenges to the current state of school reform in Chicago.
These include:

  • A legacy of distrust among parents, teachers, community members and the school district
  • The limited impact of information in addressing concerns and anxieties
  • Differing perspectives on school quality and how much test scores can demonstrate
  • Frustration over accountability expectations
  • Differing definitions of parent engagement


The report also outlines a set of principles, based partially on Public Agenda's wealth of experience in public engagement around education reform in both the K-12 and higher education spheres, to help leaders in both Chicago and nationwide build trust and establish constructive dialogue with the community.

Our interviewees broadly acknowledged that much of the Chicago school district's legitimacy in the next few years will depend on the kinds of engagement efforts it invests in. To rebuild community trust, our research suggests that these efforts must be broad based -- including parents, teachers, principals, students and community organizations -- and be conducted with a genuine commitment to collaboration among all stakeholders.

"Implementing new school reforms is a complex endeavor for all stakeholders' teachers, parents and community members, and school administration," said Katie McCormick Lelyveld, Director of Communications at The Joyce Foundation. "Doing so effectively requires knowing where potential tension points may exist, and Public Agenda offers a thoughtful summary of some of these, as well as reasonable recommendations for addressing them."

These recommendations, both for Chicago reform leaders as well as education reform leaders nationwide, include:

  • Lay the groundwork by talking with parents, students, teachers, community leaders and residents early, often and in ways that are accessible and personal.
  • Don't dismiss parents' resistance to school actions; understand what their core concerns are and try to address them.
  • Help parents help their own kids succeed.
  • Develop trusted community engagement channels by investing in those that are already present.

A few of these principles may seem basic to some, yet based on interviews by Public Agenda with parent advocates and education leaders, both in Chicago and nationwide, they still need to be consciously included.

How The Research Was Done

The observations that underpin this white paper were drawn from two focus groups of parents, one focus group of public school teachers, and semi-structured interviews with sixteen thought leaders. More information about the methodology for this research can be found in the report's appendix.

The findings we describe here are generally consistent with the results of "What' Trust Got to Do With It? A Communications and Engagement Guide for School Leaders Tackling the Problem of Persistently Failing Schools," our national research project on the same topic. For more information, visit:

Related Resources From Public Agenda

Several publications from Public Agenda or focusing specifically on Public Agenda's opinion research and public engagement work may also be helpful to education leaders looking to implement sustainable reform supported by the broader school community.

"What's Trust Got To Do With It?": A Communications and Engagement Guide for School Leaders Tackling the Problem of Persistently Failing Schools

The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation, by Public Agenda founder Daniel Yankelovich, lays out a set of communications principles aimed at reducing tension and enhancing understanding among groups and individuals with different viewpoints.

You Can't Do It Alone: A Communications and Engagement Manual for School Leaders Committed to Reform, by Jean Johnson, recaps a decade of Public Agenda opinion research among parents, students, teachers, and the general public, and summarizes the organization's theory of change and public learning.

Toward Wiser Public Judgment, edited by Daniel Yankelovich and Will Friedman, is a collection of articles by authors with experience and expertise in engagement and dialogue, including experts from Public Agenda, the Kettering Foundation, and National Issues Forums, among others.

Download the PDF of the Report

Community Responses To School Reform In Chicago

Media Type: PDF

How can education leaders and reformers best engage, communicate and work with community stakeholders to ensure the best outcomes for Chicago's children?


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