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Changing the Conversation on Education in Connecticut

Educators and citizens eager for school reform can ill afford a breakdown in communication and cooperation. A telling example is the story of “Outcomes-Based Education” (OBE), which inspired school improvement efforts in many parts of the nation in the early 1990s based on the straightforward notion that reform should be judged by results, or “outcomes.” Despite public opinion research showing that most citizens agreed with this concept, OBE turned into a political football and ultimately disappeared. Instead of focusing on demonstrating that kids learned their basic school work—what the public wanted—some reformers began applying the concept to controversial values lessons, which drew culture warriors of every persuasion to the topic. As a result, the debate became increasingly symbol-laden and confusing, which was not helped in the least by the tone-deaf manner in which reform experts and professional educators explained OBE to parents and taxpayers.

The OBE example—and many others that could be marshaled from the history of school reform—shows that it simply makes good sense to pay attention to the relationship between educators and the public. Doing so can build common ground and a shared sense of ownership and responsibility for new initiatives. It can also create a coordinated effort among educators, parents and the broader community that amplifies the effects of reform and sustains it through inevitable bumps in the road.

The question, then, is less about whether to engage parents and citizens but rather how to do so most effectively. In the early 90s, this line of thinking was on the mind of David Nee, Executive Director at the Graustein Memorial Fund, a New Haven-based foundation dedicated to improving the lives of Connecticut’s children. “I wanted to…find out what was on the minds of Connecticut citizens as far as education was concerned. I was especially interested in the opinions of people of color,” Mr. Nee said. “With Public Agenda, we did survey research and focus groups [in 1994] to find out where people [in Connecticut] are on education.”

Of course, many policymakers have come to understand the usefulness of getting a read on public views prior to initiating new programs. What is more unusual and noteworthy is how Graustein responded to the results. As Mr. Nee explained:

The interesting thing…was that the gulf was not between city and suburb, or classes, but between educators and all others. Parents [of all backgrounds] all sounded the same in terms of their aspirations and frustrations with the school systems. That was pretty rich. That survey became a national story.

The challenge was, having discovered the problem, what are you going to do about it?…People really understood this was a powerful disconnect and really needed attention. Out of this came the glimmerings of Connecticut Community Conversations.

Graustein decided to try to put in place a process that would, according to Mr. Nee, “change the conversation about education in Connecticut.” This meant real dialogue between educators and the public, not finger-pointing or traditional, formal public hearings.

You want to be respectful of the system, and build capacity on the community side to have that conversation. I’ve seen pretty amazing scenes…superintendents who want to talk about education policy and people want to know if they got three bids for the Xerox machine… So I think there’s wariness among superintendents about public dialogue because they’ve seen it all too often become pro forma or the gong show, and they didn’t want either.

Around the same time, Public Agenda was working nationally in partnership with the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) to develop a set of strategies and materials that would facilitate just such fresh conversations. Thus, it was not surprising that, in 1997, Graustein asked Public Agenda and IEL to help apply this new expertise to Connecticut, in partnership with the state’s League of Women Voters. This case study describes and discusses the work that ensued.