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February 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 5

Restoring Public Confidence / The Public's View of Public Schools

Educators will not advance the case for public schools if they dismiss the public's concerns or simply pay lip service to the notion of public engagement.

During a Public Agenda focus group last year, a Seattle teacher emphatically said, "The school system isn't broken. Society is broken." That may well be true. Americans seem roiled by deep-seated anxieties about the direction of the country, and these anxieties are often mirrored in concerns about our public schools.
Prominent among these anxieties is the widely shared sense of economic insecurity, which continues even as the economy grows and unemployment moderates. At the same time, people see moral decay as pervasive in American culture—crime, greed, lack of responsibility, the breakdown of values. At the heart of this anxiety is a sense that those who work hard and play by the rules are no longer rewarded.
Finally, there is an increasing sense that many leaders—in government, business, law, and journalism as well as education—are out of touch with the concerns of average Americans. As a result, confidence in all leadership groups has dropped dramatically over the last 15 to 20 years.

A Mirror of Society

For the past six years, Public Agenda—a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that focuses on public policy issues—has conducted a series of national surveys and hundreds of focus groups on public education and school reform. Our goal is to understand what the general public, and particular groups within the public—such as parents, teachers, school administrators, minority groups, and community leaders—think about public education and reform.
What has emerged is a picture of an American public frustrated and angered by the state of public education. Some of the public's chief complaints about the schools reflect the societal themes mentioned above: youngsters graduating without minimal basic skills, truants sporting diplomas alongside youngsters who worked hard, educators making jargon-laden announcements of yet another educational fad.
Americans may not follow employment trend data showing the stagnating wages of people without strong educational backgrounds, but they clearly understand the concept: Young people without skills don't get good jobs. People find this unsettling for any child; they find it terrifying for their own. As a participant in an Albuquerque focus group said, "I see an awful lot of kids graduating from high school, putting in applications at my place of work, and they can't even fill out the forms. But they've graduated. It's very disturbing."
At the same time, many Americans see schools as the mirror image of a moral decay that has infected society at large. Many fear the most poorly-behaved students get too much of the teacher's attention, while those who want to learn get the short end of the stick. As shown in the table in Figure 1, people clearly expect schools to teach academic subjects, but most Americans believe schools also have an obligation to reinforce some basic values. In our surveys, more than 80 percent of respondents have said it is "absolutely essential" for schools to teach good work habits such as being responsible, being on time, and being disciplined. Nearly 80 percent have said it is absolutely essential for schools to teach the value of hard work.

Figure 1. What Subjects Are Absolutely Essential to Teach?

Restoring Public Confidence / The Public's View of Public Schools - table

Percentages Saying "Absolutely Essential"


General Public

Black Teachers

Hispanic Teachers

White Teachers

Basic reading, writing, and math skills98%92%99%96%99%
Good work habits such as being responsible, on time, and disciplined90%83%94%89%90%
The value of hard work83%78%83%82%83%
Values such as honesty and tolerance of others82%74%88%79%82%
Habits of good citizenship such as voting and caring about the nation77%66%82%72%77%
Curiosity and love of learning76%57%75%73%77%
Computer skills and media technology72%80%79%77%73%
American history and American geography72%63%73%68%72%
Biology, chemistry, and physics64%59%64%61%64%
How to deal with social problems like drugs and family breakdown61%64%76%71%60%
Practical job skills for office or industry55%57%74%61%54%
The history and geography of such places as Europe or Asia41%35%42%49%41%
Advanced mathematics such as calculus36%37%42%40%36%
Classic works from such writers as Shakespeare and Plato24%23%28%28%24%
Modern American writers such as Steinbeck and Hemingway23%22%29%26%23%
Sports and athletics14%23%20%20%14%
From Given the Circumstances: Teachers Talk About Public Education. Data for the general public from Assignment Incomplete survey (1995).

Out of Touch

The public's feeling that many experts and leadership groups are out of touch with the thinking of average people extends to education reformers. While well-meaning reformers may favor such practices as heterogeneous grouping, mainstreaming children with special educational needs, bilingual education, and creativity at the expense of the basics, many people find these approaches troubling.
In our focus groups across the country, participants routinely talked about school reforms. A father in Minneapolis, for example, related this concern about his 3rd grade son:He'd come home and we'd see his journals. He wasn't getting the basics. He would just ramble—no complete sentences, not even complete thoughts. Sure it's creative, and they should try to help him be creative, but students also need the structure.
The public is remarkably clear about what it wants from public schools. Americans from all walks of life, in every demographic group and in every part of the country, endorse the very same list of priorities—safe, orderly schools where all children learn, at a minimum, basic skills. In the public's mind, until these tasks are accomplished, schools should not focus their attention elsewhere. Unfortunately, as they learn about local reform agendas, community members hear little that addresses their concerns.
In today's highly competitive environment, it is difficult to find a corporation that does not respond to, or at least acknowledge, its customers' perceptions. The more frequent and normally more successful approach is to address the issue immediately. If the customer's perception is incorrect, one can make a forceful case for an alternate point of view. But at least the customer will know he has been heard. Many educators argue that the public's perception that schools are unsafe is faulty, that parents' fears arise from media hype. Keep in mind that the presence of metal detectors in even one school violates the public's sense of the sanctity of all schools.
The principal of a highly acclaimed New York City magnet school suggests one approach to truly listening to the "customer's" concerns. Every year he invites parents of prospective students to an open house. He introduces the teachers, and he and the teachers explain the curriculum and field parents' questions. He makes a point of announcing that he has yet to hear one question: "Is this school safe?" He reports that every time he poses this question himself, an almost visible sigh of relief fills the room: what many parents shrink from asking has been asked. The principal then invites parents to observe for themselves—to visit the school when they like, go anywhere on the premises they like, and talk with students and teachers.
Right or wrong, the public feels that schools are no longer "theirs," that they have been captured by the teachers, reformers, unions—whomever. So long as their concerns go unaddressed, public resistance will stiffen, ultimately leading citizens to abandon public education.

No “Dialogue of the Deaf”

This past year, Public Agenda has been conducting a series of town meetings about public schools and the strategies the public would support to improve them. In partnership with the Institute for Educational Leadership, we have brought together teachers, parents, residents without children, business people, school administrators, recent public school graduates, and community leaders. By the end of each evening, we hope to find agreement about certain general strategies—a basis for developing the trust that is necessary to take more specific and ambitious steps.
In helping to build such a consensus, education and reform leaders must avoid what Public Agenda's cofounder, Daniel Yankelovich, calls "the dialogue of the deaf," that is, people paying lip service to communication without actually listening to one another. Unfortunately, the traditional approach to ordinary public engagement is classic public relations, a three-step process that begins with consciousness-raising and moves quickly to a presentation of "the facts." The assumption is that people will then fall in line and support the solutions that leaders—often after years of contention—have already agreed upon. This top-down approach only works when everyone defines the problem similarly. But in this skeptical age, when experts, leaders, and the media are all suspect, and fears over a lack of values and economic insecurity abound, such a simplistic approach is doomed to fail.
Public Agenda's strategy is based on a more realistic assumption: It is impossible to impose solutions on people when those solutions do not conform to their values. We further believe that no major change will occur quickly. You are better off inviting your different constituencies into the tent for an ongoing conversation. And this means engaging a broad constituency, not just "the usual suspects." It also requires something more than a one-shot meeting. People must be able to vent at first, but you must then help them move beyond criticism and hold them responsible for realistic solutions. And again, people must listen to one another.

Whose Schools Are They?

I would ask you, the educator, to set aside your professional identity for a moment and think of yourself instead as a parent, grandparent, taxpayer, or church leader in your community. You may well have watched neighbors and friends lose their jobs and health benefits. You probably have sat around the kitchen table and bemoaned the country's loss of values, and the chasm between your town and Washington politicians. On occasion, you may even have criticized the impenetrable jargon that often passes for communication among experts. Keep these perspectives in mind when you listen to the public's concerns about the schools.
What will not advance the cause of public education is to dismiss the public's views out-of-hand or attempt to manipulate people by paying lip service to their ideas. The public's fears are fundamental; at their core are very real concerns about the future of the children they love.

Deborah Wadsworth has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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