Education may have become a hot topic for politicians, but a new nationwide survey by New York-based Public Agenda indicates that the rest of Americans are not sufficiently involved in discussions that determine the direction of their local schools.
The report, entitled "Just Waiting to Be Asked?" (www.publicagenda.org), offers a fairly bleak perspective on the lack of meaningful communication between school boards, teachers, and community residents.
Sixty-two percent of superintendents and 69 percent of school board members told Public Agenda that school board meetings tend to be dominated by people with special interests and agendas.
At the same time, 73 percent of superintendents and 74 percent of school board members said they would like to see more community involvement in public schools.
The study is based on mail and phone surveys of 686 superintendents, 475 board members, 404 teachers, and 809 adults in the general public.
Teachers indicated they often felt excluded from the decisionmaking process when it comes to determining school policy. Many say they receive little communication from their district offices. Fifty-two percent of school board members agree that teachers are generally kept "out of the loop."
The report also highlights some of the dangers of failing to include teachers sufficiently in decisionmaking. It points out, for instance, that despite the current enthusiasm of many politicians and business leaders for the nationwide movement toward higher academic standards, large numbers of teachers have failed to fully buy into the reform. Many teachers continue to feel that much of student achievement depends on factors beyond their control.
"Yet few leaders," the report states, "have mustered the requisite energy to engage the qualms of teachers."
Only 1 in 4 board members surveyed by Public Agenda said that public attendance is high at school board meetings, and only 1 in 4 said they considered board meetings to be an effective means of communicating with large groups such as parents and teachers. And yet, 51 percent of board members said they rely heavily on public board meetings as a means of understanding community views on issues.
"District leaders say they are eager for public involvement, but the very venue they rely on most to listen to the public - the school board meeting - seems to be dysfunctional, at least for this purpose," says Public Agenda president Deborah Wadsworth.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor