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Facing Public Apathy

Being a parent activist can be frustrating. There may be some support for your concerns but most people seem indifferent to educational issues unless they have reached crisis levels. In addition, educators and community leaders are often hostile and defensive. They don't want to see an object of local pride tainted by criticism. The recent public response to educational standards illustrates the problem. Everyone was supportive until they discovered that it was their school and their child that did not measure up.

Public concern about local schooling typically originates as parent protest about a particular event or policy. Parents become concerned about an issue because of its expected impact on their children. Their protests may produce some degree of accommodation but the broader matter of whether the local schools should adhere to the aims of the local community is never addressed because public discussions are confined to the immediate conflict. As soon as the immediate problem is diffused, consumers go away. For an ECA to form and grow, it needs to look beyond the immediate crisis.

As is evident from years of polling data, most people believe their local school system is excellent. It's the ones in other towns and other states that need reform. Instead of having concerns about academic standards and the like, average parents are more likely to share students' complaints about boring classes and too much homework. They believe good teaching is, first and foremost, teaching that makes learning fun and exciting. They assume that if students appear to be engaged and enthused, they must be learning something important. As one activist commented, most people think of good teaching as something that looks like MTV.

In short, an activist's life can be very frustrating because most people literally do not see the problem. Parents and taxpayers may have complaints about a particular issue but, in general, they see nothing that calls for far reaching change. Schools maintain a largely positive public image and so long as they do so, there isn't going to be a groundswell of community support for consumer activism.

Are They Really Apathetic?

While it is true that many of those who should be concerned about local school quality seem uninterested in learning more about it, it isn't true that they don't care about the issue. Rather, the truth is that most citizens have little direct knowledge about whether their schools are doing a good job. Their view is simply a reflection of the prevailing climate of opinion. Even if they recognize the need for selective improvements, most citizens assume that local schools are doing at least an adequate job of imparting the knowledge and skills necessary to going to college or getting a job. Parents, for example, may not be willing to participate in an ECA but they do care about whether their kids are learning enough to go to college and/or have an attractive career. Businessmen and community leaders may prefer to believe the schools are doing a great job but they do care about whether students are learning enough to be gainfully employed.

In essence, education's consumers believe their schools are doing at least an adequate job because they have no reason to believe otherwise. Virtually all the information they get about local schools comes from the schools themselves and most of it sounds good. Most people are favorably impressed with schools that excite students and tout the latest innovations because they are given to understand that excitement and innovation are the keys to student achievement. Most laymen would never think to question whether schools are continually striving to use the best and most effective teaching methods. It is only after the students graduate and enter college or the workplace that parents, students, and employers may come to have objective reasons for doubt. Of course, by then it is too late.

Information Needed by the Public

Broad public interest in and support for an examination of school quality issues is unlikely to emerge unless the public has reason to doubt the conventional wisdom. Such a change isn't likely to take place over night. Responsible citizens and school board members are not going to abandon long-held beliefs without credible evidence-especially in the face of claims by local school officials that minor refinements may be needed but that otherwise, all is well.

Of course, doubt may never arise if the public hears only from the schools and that is why ECAs need to raise the issue. An ECA may be questioning the value of a proposed program (e.g, the adoption of "new, new math" or the implementation of block scheduling) but it needs to go into the broader question of whether existing and past practices have worked as advertised. How many past fads have been adopted and later swept under the rug? Broadly, the ECA needs to put the current issue in context: Should a school system that has been doing a mediocre job be trusted to implement more pedagogical mischief?

In order to overcome public indifference, an ECA has to pull together data that validates its assertions, share that information with the public in a credible and consumer-friendly way, and be patient. The experience of other schools and other communities around the country needs to be gathered, responsibly examined, and publicly reported. Data collection and dissemination may take days and weeks but it needs to be done in a way that fair and credible.

Objective data on school performance may be available from state and national databases but opinions are valuable too. Groups that might be surveyed include recent graduates, parents of recent graduates, employers who hire recent graduates, professors who teach recent graduates, and teachers who have worked with recent graduates. Professional assistance in survey construction is advisable.

Teachers, in particular, must be surveyed in a way that assures both credibility and anonymity. They are very often troubled by what they see in the schools yet unable to candidly express themselves without risking their jobs.

Parents and other members of the community need to understand that they may not have been getting the full story about the quality of local schooling. They also need to become accustomed to the notion that there is a responsible point of view about schooling that differs from the official viewpoint, i.e., there is a legitimate consumer viewpoint. With a public recognition that "let the buyer beware" applies to schools just like it does other market transactions, a local consumer voice can grow and be effective. Without such a public understanding, most people who hear complaints about local schools will reject both the message and the messenger.

Education Consumers Foundation
1655 North Fort Myer Drive, Suite 700
Arlington, VA 22209
Phone: (703) 248-2611
Fax: (703) 525-8841

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