REPORTS & SURVEYS | MAY 18TH, 2012
A Communications and Engagement Guide for School Leaders Tackling the Problem of Persistently Failing Schools
While communities and situations differ, most parents with children in low-performing schools and districts do want change. For reform to be sustained for any length of time, a vision must be support by people beyond the key decision makers.
Although the issue is often presented as a problem affecting the country’s largest cities, an assessment by the Alliance for Excellent Education emphasizes that there are also some deeply inadequate schools in smaller cities, small towns, and rural areas. “Their one unifying characteristic,” says the Alliance, “is that they disproportionately serve our nation’s poor and minority students.”
Public Agenda’s research among low-income and minority parents over the last decade shows indisputably that nearly all recognize the importance of education in their children’s lives and that they are typically less satisfied with local schools than parents overall. Yet, Having “the entire community” work out the details of a school turnaround plan is not realistic or practical, and it’s not really what most parents and residents expect or want. After all, communities aren’t monolithic. People will disagree. Discussions could go on indefinitely. At some point, school leaders have to make some decisions and put the building blocks in place—and most people accept that. But this doesn’t mean that reformers and leaders can’t invite community members to help shape a broad vision of what kinds of school they want and what kinds of changes they think are most necessary and likely to be successful in their particular situation. In fact, to be sustained for any length of time, a vision must be supported by people beyond the key decision makers. Any vision with power and genuine potential for change must be shared by a fairly broad swath of parents, teachers, students, and the general public.
Ending the cycle of failure at these schools is a daunting challenge and a controversial one. There is an intense expert debate on which kinds of reform are most likely to be successful and an uneven track record for even the most earnest attempts at school turnarounds. Communities and situations differ, and few experts would argue that one kind of solution fits all. The dilemma is even more acute because the boldest reforms—such as closing failing schools and offering better traditional public school or charter options, replacing school leadership and staff, or breaking large, unmanageable schools into smaller units—often provoke angry, prolonged public opposition.
In many instances, school leaders seem trapped between two undesirable options. They can back away from serious reform to mollify protesting parents, students, teachers, and community residents. That often means leaving underlying reasons for failure unaddressed while students continue to miss out on the exceptional education that they, and their community, desire. Or, leaders can push changes through without inviting community input and despite broad opposition. The risk here is that reforms may not be sustained because they do not necessarily reflect the needs of the community, are not accepted or are misunderstood. Even with strong support from governors, mayors, and other key leaders, forging ahead in the face of widespread resistance can damage trust and cohesion necessary for sustainable reform. That makes a tough challenge even more difficult, and in most cases, it’s not the best starting point for long-term success.
What’s Trust Got to Do With It? is an effort to help school leaders and reformers find a third path. Our goal is to aid leaders in a better understanding of negative community reactions to bold school turnaround proposals. With a more complete, nuanced appreciation of “where communities are coming from”— and by ensuring, when possible, that community voices are at the table through well-tested communications and engagement strategies—leaders may be able to avoid the most pernicious and negative forms of public opposition.
It is our hope is that the information here can help leaders propelling change take a more positive, active approach. With more effective public and parent engagement before decisions are made, we believe it is possible for leaders to forge more productive community relationships—the kinds of relationships that strengthen school turnarounds and support student learning.
This report was prepared by Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public opinion research and engagement organization that has focused on K-12 public education issues for more than two decades.
This work was funded by the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation, The Joyce Foundation, and The Skillman Foundation.
|One-on-one interviews with nearly 40 individuals:|
|-||13 parent advocates, who have publicly spoken out on the issue|
|-||10 leaders working locally with school turnarounds or community engagement|
|-||10 national experts and thinkers|
|-||5 school or district leaders|
|Focus groups with parents/guardians of public school students:|
|-||Detroit, Michigan; Washington, D.C.; Denver, Colorado and Chicago, Illinois|
|-||Groups of parents were recruited to be representative of the cities they came from, and didn’t have prior knowledge of the topic of the focus group beforehand|
|-||Focus groups and interviews allow for an in-depth exploration of the dynamics underlying the public’s attitudes toward complex issues. Public Agenda’s ‘deliberative’ focus group method, asking participants to weigh trade-offs and consider particulars, allow us to identify why people might think the way they do on an issue.|
|Attracted more than 50 participants, including:|
|-||Education experts focused on the mission of transforming inadequate schools|
|-||Education policymakers in the Department of Education, major teachers’ unions, and foundations|
|-||Representatives from community and parent groups focused on this issue|
|-||Communications and engagement specialists|
PUBLIC AGENDA Nearly all of Public Agenda’s opinion studies on K-12 education are available either online or for free download at www.publicagenda.org. Moreover, the website’s section for public engagers houses guides to planning and moderating community conversations, video discussion starters, and reports on what other communities have done. Public Agenda’s primer on public engagement reviews the basics.
THE KETTERING FOUNDATION The Kettering Foundation has worked with communities nationwide exploring ways they can use community conversations and other engagement practices to address local and regional challenges. The Foundation’s research and publications on public education, available at www.kettering.org, are especially useful. The Foundation’s recent work on community responses to the achievement gap is summarized in the video, No Textbook Answer, available at www.kettering.org.
THE NATIONAL ISSUES FORUM (NIF) The Issues Forums are a “network of civic, educational, and other organizations and individuals, whose common interest is to promote public deliberation in America.” Over time, it has “grown to include thousands of civic clubs, religious organizations, libraries, schools, and many other groups that meet to discuss critical public issues.” Not surprising, the website at www.nifi.org contains practical advice on how to organize and moderate community forums, and NIF has prepared a number of citizen discussion guides on K-12 issues that are useful in getting local conversations started.
NATIONAL COALITION FOR DIALOGUE & DELIBERATION NCDD is a clearing house of information by and for organizations that focus on “conflict resolution and public engagement.” The group provides a number of useful tools and guides, and its Resource Guide on Public Engagement is a good introduction to the field. More information can be found on their website, www.ncdd.org.
Public Agenda's latest report offers a critical resource for leaders seeking to transform the nation's persistently failing schools.