Public engagement has become a buzzword in education reform, and who could argue with ideas such as “building community support,” “improving communication,” and “creating collaborations between educators, parents and the wider community?” But if public engagement is to become more than the latest reform fad and truly benefit the nation’s students, schools and communities, important questions of theory and practice need to be addressed. What are the various interpretations of the term? How should public engagement be defined, or, at least, what are its more useful definitions and the more problematic ones? What are the practical hurdles to, and most promising strategies for, successful public engagement? And what impacts can successful public engagement have?
With funding from The Ford Foundation, this white paper on public engagement in education tackles these and other related questions. While the paper reflects the thinking and experience of a variety of practitioners, it draws most heavily on Public Agenda’s hands-on experience. For 25 years, Public Agenda has closely examined how the public reacts to complex policy issues, how public opinion evolves over time, and how citizens can grapple effectively with tough issues amid the swirl of the latest policy debate.
For several years we have worked intensively on public engagement in education in particular, and often in partnership with the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL). While there are many important strategies and activities than can help engage the public in school improvement, from the dissemination of school report cards to the use of the Internet, our work has focused most centrally on community dialogue, and on the new attitudes, partnerships and activities such dialogue can generate.
This work has involved community-based projects from urban settings (Brooklyn, Hartford and San Jose) to rural ones (Grand Island, Nebraska), and places in between (Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Gray-New Gloucester, Maine). Some of our projects have been purely local affairs, some have involved statewide initiatives and others have been national in scope. We have worked with professional networks, such as the Danforth Foundation’s Forum for the American Superintendent and the National Education Association's Center for the Advancement of Public Education, as well as with grassroots organizations ranging from local education funds to volunteer parent groups. This experience has clarified, we believe, a number of principles and strategies that can lead to successful public engagement, as well as common mistakes and pitfalls to avoid. This white paper draws on these lessons in the hope they will prove useful to others.