What's Trust Got To Do With It?

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.

The report draws on three strands of information:

  • An assessment of parents’ views on school turnarounds. The following pages offer a summary of how parents, especially parents in districts with poorly performing schools, see the school turnaround issue and specifically how they view the idea of closing existing schools and offering more effective alternatives. Public Agenda conducted exploratory research to gain a better understanding of why standard turnaround strategies so often prompt negative community reaction and to identify strategies that may help to address public doubts and concerns. In doing this, we reviewed existing survey research on public and parent views, conducted focus groups with parents and guardians of public school students, and completed a series of oneon-one interviews with leaders of community and parent groups with experience in school closings and school turnaround controversies.
  • Public Agenda’s reservoir of opinion research and engagement work. Over the years, Public Agenda has conducted dozens of surveys of parents, students, teachers, and school administrators on a wide range of education issues. We have also worked with scores of communities nationwide to organize more productive conversations on school reform and related issues. This report reflects our advice and insights based on our accumulated experience in the field.
  • Advice from communications and engagement experts. As part of this project, Public Agenda interviewed 38 experts and opinion leaders with a wide range of experience in school turnarounds and convened a strategy session in Washington, D.C., in May 2011, bringing together seasoned communication and engagement professionals to seek their advice on how leaders could handle these difficult situations better.

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

Other Resources

PUBLIC AGENDA Nearly all of Public Agenda’s opinion studies on K-12 education are available either online or for free download at 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, 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

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 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,

Want To Learn More?

Want to find out more about Public Agenda’s distinct approach to improving public life? Interested in connecting with other citizens to address critical issues? If so, you can check out our online community and sign up to find out about activities that bring people together to strengthen their communities. Email us at You can also keep in touch by becoming a fan on Facebook or by following us on Twitter @PublicAgenda.

Related Publications 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.

The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation by Public Agenda founder and president 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 William 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

What's Trust Got To Do With It?

A Communications and Engagement Guide for School Leaders Tackling the Problem of Persistently Failing Schools

Media Type: PDF

Public Agenda's latest report offers a critical resource for leaders seeking to transform the nation's persistently failing schools.


Related Reports


Public Agenda knows what it takes to fuel progress on critical issues.
We need your support to keep things moving!

Join the Community


Take Action