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February 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 5

Overview / What Does the Public Want?

What Does the Public Want?

I shouldn't have been upset, but I was. On public radio's “All Things Considered,” a Texas newspaper editor was commenting on studies showing that the general public has ideas about school reform that are very different from those of the “education experts.” For example, the editorialist said, most people think children should learn basic computation skills before they are allowed to use calculators. “Of course,” she sniffed, “how could anybody think otherwise? People are fed up with these `reformers' who still sound like John Dewey.”
As I listened, I wondered what had happened to make me a “reformer” so apparently out of touch with ordinary people. More important, I wondered how people who think as I do, many of them conscientious, concerned educators and members of ASCD, can do a better job of communicating with parents and citizens.
That Public Agenda report on U.S. attitudes (Johnson and Immerwahr 1994), and a companion study conducted later in Connecticut (Immerwahr 1994), are discouraging to those of us who believe schools must be thoroughly restructured. The authors observe that, despite an apparent consensus among politicians, business executives, and education experts, many recent efforts to reform schools have “come unraveled” because of opposition by parents, teachers, and community groups. They explain this by showing that the majority of people want “first things first,” meaning safety, order, and “the basics.” As for practices ASCD supports, such as whole language approaches to teaching reading and writing, heterogeneous grouping, and authentic assessment, people oppose or are skeptical about them.
The studies were conducted by a reputable organization, so they are undoubtedly valid, as far as they go. And such findings are scarcely news (that's why I shouldn't have been upset by them). They are quite consistent with a headlong movement in the United States and other parts of the world that is labeled “conservative” but that seems to be a confusing combination of fear, self-interest, libertarianism, and privatization. In Virginia, where I live, the governor has led a bipartisan campaign to eliminate parole and spend at least twice as much on prisons. Most citizens apparently approve of this direction, whether professional criminologists do or not. It's one way to try to get “safety and order,” which the Public Agenda study suggests should be our first priority.
The report concludes with three possible ways educators might respond to this situation. If we are persuaded the public has it right, we should rethink our priorities and put much more emphasis on safety and order. If we think they misunderstand, we must do a better job of communicating. And if we are convinced the public is just plain wrong, we need to demonstrate leadership—do some “constituency building”—to develop backing for the practices we believe in.
Sound advice. We must not be arrogant and assume that we know better than others. Now, as to priorities, I doubt that most educators are confused about that. Safety and order are obviously very important, but our highest priority is learning. Educators trying to make greater use of performance assessment or teaching reading and writing through actual use are not neglecting safety and order; they know that orderly behavior can be achieved in different ways: through repression, or by involving children in meaningful, engaging activities. They seek order through learning, not at the expense of learning. And frankly, I think many, though not all, parents want the same thing. (The report shows very high percentages of respondents agreeing with statements such as “Schools should place much greater emphasis on making learning enjoyable and interesting.”)
As to communicating and constituency building, educators clearly have much to do. In this issue of Educational Leadership, we review what has been learned over the last decade from various approaches to reform. One thing we have surely learned—confirmed, really—is that extensive reform of public schools is not possible without public understanding and support. I'd love to have a conversation with that editorialist from Texas, because I believe we could see eye-to-eye—on some things, at least.

Immerwahr, J. (1994). The Broken Contract: Connecticut Citizens Look at Public Education. New York: Public Agenda.

Johnson, J., and J. Immerwahr. (1994). First Things First: What Americans Expect from the Public Schools. New York: Public Agenda.

Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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