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Source:Public Agenda

It's Time to Address the Human Factor in Education Reform

By Jean Johnson, Executive Vice President, Public Agenda. November 8, 2005

There are strong differences of opinion about what schools should do to help all children achieve their potential.

But alongside the debates is a remarkable and impressive consensus: Nearly everyone believes schools must do more to raise achievement among low-income and minority students. And nearly everyone agrees that raising standards -- and helping all children achieve them -- is essential. In fact, American education is in the midst of a decades-long reform movement to that end.

Based on Public Agenda surveys of parents, students, teachers, administrators, employers, professors, and others, I am convinced that the drive to raise standards and achievement is at a turning point. If the country shows genuine progress in the next few years, we could reach the tipping point. But if we do not address some of the misunderstandings and disputes that divide us, we could see progress begin to stall.

Improving schools requires concerted action on many levels -- astute analysis of the problems, new ideas on how to address them, legal and structural reform, and often, bringing new resources to bear. But, added to this is the human element. Will the attitudes and habits of the people involved also evolve?

Addressing this human side of reform is indispensable to progress in education, and I believe that it has not received nearly enough attention. Here's what concerns me:

Too much of the public is on the sidelines. Many leaders in business and government say much higher levels of learning will be needed for the country to compete economically, and these views are fueling a movement to transform schools so all students learn more, especially in science and math.

Meanwhile, few parents have thought about the skills their children need in the future. Few understand the challenges local schools face. Most admit they don't understand No Child Left Behind well enough even to venture an opinion on it.

There are warning signs that many could be taken aback when the drive to transform schools really hits home -- when, perhaps, a local high school ups the ante on math and science courses or a beloved local school fails to make "adequate yearly progress."

When people are caught unprepared, they sometimes react in counterproductive ways. In fact, some observers believe that negative reports about a well-respected school in Provo, Utah, gave the initial push to that state's decision to withdraw from NCLB.

School leaders are pulled in many directions. Much of the hope and responsibility for transforming schools falls to superintendents and principals, and there is strong research showing that they are the pivotal players.

But our surveys show that school leaders are constantly pulled in many directions and that their practical concerns are not always considered. Right now, this tension emerges most strongly on NCLB, where majorities of school leaders say the law needs major changes to work well. But collisions between visions of change and the reality of managing schools day-to-day could surface elsewhere.

Low teacher morale. Our surveys show serious morale problems among teachers nationwide. Large majorities say they are left out of the loop in school decision making and lack the support they need to teach at top effectiveness. And teachers' sense of confidence and purposefulness can affect progress.

Schools can't do it alone. Many are convinced schools must change in dramatic ways. If nothing else, the country can no longer live with inadequate levels of learning among so many young Americans, given the intensity of worldwide economic competition.

But it is also true that schools, acting alone, will be hard-pressed to succeed with the most disadvantaged children -- those who most need and deserve society's help. Problems like truancy and dropping out are quintessentially problems schools can't solve by themselves. They require action from the community as a whole -- parents, grandparents, mentors, community and religious groups, businesses, and local agencies. To tackle problems like these, schools need a communitywide resolve to act.

The limits to "messaging." The reforms being launched today involve fundamental shifts in the way teachers, principals, students, and parents conduct their daily lives. To succeed, they require authentic support in the community and confidence and purposefulness in classrooms.

Building this support and purposefulness is not easy. Standard public relations strategies, even if most districts could afford them, generally don't work well for changes of this scope. Even the most carefully developed message or beautiful set of public service advertisements can't build the relationships required to address problems like truancy or lack of parent support for learning.

Addressing these deeply human issues requires genuine give-and-take among people inside and outside schools.

I believe that engaging broader swaths of the public -- and doing it in more human, tangible ways -- can yield positive results. We've seen it work in cities like Rockford, Ill.; and San Jose, Calif.; and statewide in places like Nebraska.

There are cost-effective ways to reach out to the broader community. This is the mission of Public Agenda's newest enterprise, Education Insights, which is working with communities to build open, consensus-seeking dialogue. School boards have many tasks at hand. But I believe that all of us who care about improving schools need to address these human communications issues more forcefully.

Unless we act, unless we build a broader base for change, we risk seeing advances that evaporate when individual leaders move on. And we will end up with "reforms" that repeatedly fail to reach students and teachers in the classroom.

Jean Johnson is executive vice president of Public Agenda.


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Last modified: , 2005

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