What Does It Mean to ‘Engage’ the Public?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

What Does It Mean to ‘Engage’ the Public?

For district leaders impatient to implement school reforms for students’ sake, the question “How do we engage the community?” can sometimes be another way of saying “How can we get people to support what we’ve already decided to do?” Last week in Houston, CRPE brought together the people driving the portfolio strategy in 26 cities for a meeting on the theme of public engagement and strategy sustainability. Howard Fuller, a Marquette University professor and former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools, kicked off the 10th Portfolio School District Network meeting by suggesting a different angle: Engaging with the community means understanding it.

Leaders must consider dynamics of race and class, Fuller said, because both still matter greatly. Leaders can’t close schools without figuring out how closings will impact different communities. They have to make sure a “no excuses” approach doesn’t mean “no empathy” for the problems schoolchildren and their families face. “Of course poverty matters,” said Fuller.

Engaging with the community also means reflecting it, Fuller said. It’s a problem, he said, when all the higher-performing schools are led by white people, when all the funding goes to certain groups of like-minded, and racially homogenous, reformers. “Both from a moral standpoint and a political standpoint, we’re going to have to address that issue,” Fuller said. (Doing so, he noted, will of course be difficult. Our schools have so failed minority students that down the line they are not well represented in the pool of potential teachers and school leaders.)

In our work at CRPE, we have seen city after city learn that it’s a losing strategy to try to convince the community to sign on to reforms that are already underway. “‘Engagement’ as a synonym for ‘conversation’,” Fuller said, isn’t any better. “What’s happened is the conversation has replaced action, and people feel good that they’ve had the conversation….After we get through talking, are we actually going to change anything?”

Engagement carries the risk of angering people, but that’s okay, Fuller emphasized. “Anytime you make a difficult decision, somebody is going to be mad,” he said. When the need for change is urgent, make the change—do what you can while you’re around, he said, even knowing your work might be reversed once you’re gone.

But be honest about how slow progress may be. Be honest about the process for decision-making, about the criteria for success, about mistakes when they happen. It makes no sense, Fuller said, to overpromise and under-deliver. “Tell no lies,” he told the group, “and claim no easy victories.”

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For more on public engagement in portfolio districts, see CRPE’s brief, Communicating Change in Education: Ideas from a PR Expert.

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