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What Would Real Engagement Look Like?

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By: Nick Donohue

Any good conversation about deep educational change naturally orbits back to ideas about communities and families. However, even lighter engagements -- homework help, teacher conferences and basic communications between home and school - prove elusive. This at a time when the changes indicated by our modern age call for a deep renovation of schooling as we know it - a deep enough change that it demands deep public discourse and authorization.

Charter school advocates have long tapped the interest of families as customers for a decade or so. But direct engagement of the public on more comprehensive systems change efforts - the kinds dependent on working from the inside out -- seems daunting or even dangerous to many trying to lead in these directions. They see the public as unstable, reactionary and unable to grasp the need for a deep change, not just incremental improvement.

It's as if public leaders, local and national, are like the stars in the night sky, some larger and brighter and some with more gravity and attraction. And the public (families and communities) is like the less understood "dark matter" that scientists think is the source of so much energy and potential power.

However, recent research suggests that many public school leaders work on counter-productive assumptions about the readiness, interest and even the basic capacity of regular people to understand the changes our systems need to keep up with the times -- never mind to keep up with other higher performing countries. Many public school advocates seem skittish about risking some sort of negative chain reaction, when tapping into the public may be a fusion-like source to propel us forward educationally.

The main assumption many have is that in order to enlist support we need to ring the alarm. Familiar ways of rallying support include: "We are in a crisis." "Parents, kids, community members you need to step up faster and further to help us!" "We need our budget restored or else their children will suffer."

It turns out that when people think they are in this kind of crisis they are driven to familiar but counter -productive frames of mind. In a crisis, most people naturally focus on taking care of their own and getting their own out of the crisis as quickly and as unscathed as possible. They also see "going back to the basics" as the remedy for such a situation. If we could only recapture the past, things would be better. Good teacher, well behaved kids, supported at home by well-behaved families.

However, the research on public communications delivered by the FrameWorks Institute-- a highly scientific research shop - reveals that a crisis frame pushes people to look back to basics and tap values about individualism, merit and competition. If you are in a crisis - get out fast and make sure those closest to you make it too.

The research also suggests that Americans are naturally drawn to other core values that can be tapped to advance innovation and renovation of schooling at its foundation. These other values include fairness, pragmatism and a deep interest in being prepared for a good future. It turns out that if you give regular folks a chance to think ahead and consider what their communities need in order to be prepared -- vital places to live and work -- they will of course talk about individual success but within the context of community well-being.

The basics still matter through this forward thinking frame, but just not the old basics. In this frame, "new basics" rooted in the three R's but further defined by problem solving, communication, taking the other's perspective and a sense of self as adaptive learners and successful people make sense as well. And given these new educational goal posts, when coupled with an honest assessment of current performance, the public is more understanding, more generous and more adventuresome than we have given them credit for.

This is more good news because it's apparent to many that our current educational system is too much early 20th century assembly line, too little an orchestra playing in unison around our learners. As a society we used to be able to suffer the results of the one size fits all endurance test that school represents because it gave us the names of a good crop of learners to move ahead to elite skills training known as higher education. It now seems obvious that to be truly prepared we need nearly all our K-12 learners to be at least ready for some form of post-secondary success. This at a time when some estimates suggest that less than fifty percent are really ready -- if you believe the need for remediation puts a graduate below the bar.

So, maybe those who promote deep innovations in the name of universal, equitable public education might rethink assumptions about the public, take some risks and make a bet on many of the core values that have made us a great nation. Sure this bet has its risks. This kind of public work is untested. However, the bet is a sound one because it is at its core a bet on America and its people -- one that has the power to move educational change to warp speed.

As President and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Nick Donohue is leading efforts to reshape New England's public education systems to be more equitable and more effective for all learners.

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