Public Engagement: Do We Have To?

It's embarassing to admit, but true. I remain stubbornly unconvinced about the necessity of public engagement in school reform.

I know, I know. I'm an idiot. A lot of smarter-than-I-am folks believe in it deeply. Or pay a lot of lip service to it. And I certainly understand its benefits, in an ideal world.

But I still sometimes wonder: do we really have to do it? Is it really all that important, given what a giant pain in the ass it can be to pull off? If so, can it be done without becoming an end in and of itself? I'm not so sure. Are you?


The issue comes up again because of this post from Teaching Matters Most: Dear Public: Can We Talk?, which is a riff off an article about Public Agenda in the current issue of School Administrator.

"Anyone interested in working with the public to help improve schools should read this article for its description of why traditional approaches to public engagement in education have not been especially successful, and real alternative models for working with communities that have achieved concrete and meaningful results in San Jose, California and Nebraska."

Even knowing that many past school reform efforts have failed, perhaps due to lack of sufficient public engagement, it's not hard to find reasons to be skeptical about public engagement when it comes to large scale school reform.

As even the most ardent community organizer will admit, most of the public is engaged with its own immediate pocketbook issues, sports, and the occasional ideological dispute. An organizer told me once that parents are particular hard to get and keep involved. I believe it.

Add to that the reality that few of the common strategies of public engagement -- the petition, protest, sit-in, or march -- seem to do much good, though I know that they occasionally have an effect on the outcome.

Last but not least, I know from first-hand experience that the political and legislative processes are both highly impermeable to the type of public engagement that education issues seem to engender. All those parents and teachers who came to meet with me or my boss on "Hill Lobby Day" usually did so to no effect, I'm forced to say.

And, while community and public concerns can certainly derail tin-eared reform efforts like Alan Bersin in San Diego, more than a handful of district superintendents and reformers find that they can make progress without any serious commitment to the engaqement process.

The model for this may be Boston, where the superintendent and the school reform community has succeeded -- or failed, depending on your view of things -- largely without focusing on community engagement.

Here in Chicago, even with local school councils still nominally effect of school-level decisions, the district and the downtown reformers seem to have the field pretty much to themselves right now. There are a few old-school screamers and spitters out there still, but with less and less money every year.

I'm still hoping that maybe some engagement guru can shape me up on this issue.


Blogger Amerloc said...

You can lead a horse to water....

7:50 AM  
Blogger Brett said...

I think it depends on your definition of public engagement: to which "publics" you're referring, and how you want them to engage with education.

I think most people would think of individuals (parents and other citizens) getting involved according to terms set form by the schools: volunteering, voting for bond issues, and the like. And yes, that's hard to do - at the risk of being overdramatic, people don't like being given orders if they don't feel like they're being heard in the bigger picture.

For more on this, take a look at my review (alright, my partial review) of "Is there a public for public schools" by David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation (http://www.dehavillandassociates.com/2006/01/is-there-public-for-public-schools.html).

If, however, you look at the public as all stakeholder groups affected by education - businesses, communities, government - and you define engagement as a collaborative (not dictated) venture, then I see tremendous value in it.

Schools are a means to an end: to prepare our kids to be capable and productive members of society, as workers, citizens, and neighbors. The people who receive our kids - businesses, communities, etc - have a right and a responsibility to make sure that schools understand how to define "capable and productive" according to contemporary (and ever changing) standards, and then set clear objectives (graduation standards) and a logical and consistent approach to helping kids meet those objectives.

If you look back at the first half of the 20th century, business leaders were involved in setting those standards, as they figured prominently on school boards. And because they helped set standards that were of interest to them (primarily vocational), they felt an obligation to support those objectives by participating in education with internships, school support, and the like. In theory, if stakeholder groups are given a real voice in setting the goals and methods for education, they should also feel a commitment to step in and support those efforts.

So that's my take - allow stakeholders to join as partners, and you'll end up with real support and relevant goals. Try to make them do your bidding, and you'll get a resistant, resentful, and unresponsive public.

1:56 PM  

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