Parents trust public schools but want input during crises

April 24, 2001|By Susan Reimer

ANNE ARUNDEL County is an object lesson in the amorphous yet perilous business of public involvement in education reform.

Superintendent Carol Parham decided to double reading instruction time in middle schools, at the expense of music and art classes, to improve dismal test scores.

The plan was met with a firestorm of parent protest that has not yet flagged.

Indeed, that anger only intensified with news that the county, caught ignoring a state physical education requirement, must now shoehorn what was once an elective into the school day - further crowding out the popular band, orchestra and chorus programs that flourish in middle schools all over the county.

Parham responded to the public outcry by offering to put her plan before the Board of Education for a vote, thereby allowing public hearings.

But parents left those hearings believing that a decision had already been made and that their concerns were heard only as a grudging courtesy.

According to the nonprofit research organization Public Agenda, this is exactly what school districts are not supposed to do if they want the public on their side.

Public Agenda, which reports on the public's attitudes on major policy issues, surveyed 2,000 parents, non-parents, teachers, superintendents and school board members on their attitudes about the role of the public in schools.

In a report titled "Just Waiting to Be Asked: A Fresh Look at Attitudes on Public Engagement," Public Agenda found that, contrary to the conventional wisdom that the relationship between the public and their schools is fraying, the public is happy with the state of their community schools and is willing to let the professionals manage things.

Until there is a crisis.

Parents and non-parents surveyed said that, though they were not necessarily active in school affairs, they believed that good public schools make good communities. Simple inertia, the researchers concluded, keeps them from reaching out to schools for a relationship.

But if there is a problem - such as abysmal MSPAP scores - Public Agenda found that the public wants to be forewarned and consulted before fundamental changes are made. They expect their concerns to get a serious hearing, and they want to hear about alternatives.

None of these things happened when Anne Arundel County officials moved to restructure the middle school day. And according to reporter Stephanie Desmon in a story in The Sun on April 15, middle school art and music programs, as well as other electives, are already being cut.

The point here is not whether an extra period of reading instruction will improve MSPAP reading scores - and there is some doubt about that. The point is that Anne Arundel County might have had public support for its solution if it had not handled it in such a top-down fashion.

The Public Agenda report found that parents and non-parents are very willing to let the professionals do their job, but not while being dismissed or condescended to. Carol Parham and the Board of Education poked a stick in a wasp's nest.

The Public Agenda report concluded that nobody - not school officials and not the public - thinks much of school board meetings. They are generally rancorous with the complaints of a minority pushing a narrow agenda.

The irony is this: School board members report that the meetings are the best measure of public concerns. Of what value is this process to either side if it is nothing but a sham and a pageant?

Finally, the Public Agenda report concluded that if schools want public support, they are going to have to reach out, realizing that, in good times, the public is hardly clamoring for this relationship.

Should Anne Arundel County's Board of Education reach out to the public right now, I fear it would pull back the proverbial bloody stump.

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