04/14/2011 02:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2011

Lifting Up America's Voices on Education -- and Acting on Them

Co-authored by Richard C. Harwood, President and Founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation/em>

America's school systems have reached a tipping point. Every day, we are inundated with reports of schools dealing with insufficient funding, violence and bullying, or not enough time between students and educators. The fact that Americans believe the nation has reached a crisis point in education is clearly nothing new. What is new is what they want to and can do about it.

As part of a larger effort on education, we've been in community conversations across America to listen to what people have to say. We know that to truly address the challenges facing our kids, we must understand their concerns and the concerns of those directly involved in their daily lives.

At a time when the conversation around education has been dominated by Inside the Beltway chatter and progress can seem so daunting, what we've learned is sobering -- but it also gives us hope.

What is clear is that people by and large believe it is only through direct community involvement that our nation, cities, towns, schools and children have a fighting chance to succeed. When you take the time to listen, you hear that people want to make a difference -- and they are ready to act.

As mistrust of institutions of all kinds continues to rise, the challenge for leaders in all sectors is to work together to create more constructive ways for people to act toward a common purpose that leads to real progress.

We know this will not be automatic or easy.

It's not a mere bake sale at a local school in which people want to be involved. Nor are they waiting for so-called "school experts" or Superman to solve this problem. They don't believe there are quick fixes or silver bullets.

They say there is hard work to be done. The cross-section of Americans we talked with want to find better ways to connect schools and communities. They argue that responsibility for action goes beyond just schools. They believe that they, their neighbors and the larger community must play a decisive role.

Across the country, we've heard that progress on education will require addressing the underlying conditions within communities. One without the other is not enough. This must include reviving a basic connection to one another in order to advance the common good.

There is a hunger to do more than just "fix" education. People are ready to believe that Americans can come together to take effective action. Restoring that sense of belief requires us to change the way we work in communities.

Truth be told, it's not just individuals who have retreated from the public square. Too many organizations have become inward looking, primarily concerned with their own positioning, survival and pursuit of their own narrow agenda. While groups fight amongst themselves for turf and are preoccupied with scoring "debate points," our kids and communities suffer.

The work that needs to be done will require more organizations and leaders to take a critical first step and turn outward toward communities. In turning outward, we must become the catalysts communities need to bring people together across dividing lines, spread proven practices in education, incubate new ideas and marshal resources.

What is so compelling about the voices we heard in our community conversations is that they come at a time when so much of our public discourse is acrimonious and divisive. When it seems the nation is polarized. When gridlock and stalemates block progress and federal, state and local governments are planning to slash education funding.

Yet, if we listen carefully, in people's voices we can hear that there is a real opportunity. On this issue, at this time, people want to go in a different direction.

If ever there was an issue on which Americans can mobilize for change -- on which they yearn to engage -- it is education. It's time to bring people together in the work they're telling us they want to do: to ensure every child gets a chance to succeed.

The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation is a nonprofit that works with individuals, organizations and communities to turn outward toward communities and develop their ability to make more intentional choices and judgments that lead to impact.

The findings from United Way's community conversations, along with data from focus groups and a national poll, were released in March at a National Education Town Hall in a report titled "Voices for the Common Good: America Speaks Out on Education."