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Matthew Lynch, Ed.D.

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Promoting Civic Engagement In Schools

Posted: 12/19/11 07:45 PM ET

Civic engagement with schools has a long history, dating back to before World War II, when "democratic localism" was popular. Citizens expressed their views and altered the direction of their schools through town hall or other meetings. The impetus for civic participation remains, even though the process fell out of favor in the 1950s as social and political influences changed.

Civic engagement in schools is often seen as impractical and complicated. It relies on involving individuals with the capacity to understand and willingness to learn school procedures in order to make reasonable decisions. With the growing complexity of the public school system, finding residents with the availability and inclination to do so is challenging.

In theory, electing representatives of the community to school board positions would facilitate informed decisions that benefit the local community. In reality, state policymakers, along with business leaders, were able to take control of school reform between 1983 and 1989, presupposing that educators could not or would not act on their own to improve schools.

They relied on a strategy of political-coercive change and intensification tactics in order to spur reform. Notably, they increased resources and altered policies that essentially required educators to do more of the things they were already doing well. These efforts, however, were only partially successful. The reforms ignored variations in student needs and did not anticipate the number of teachers who would circumvent the reforms rather than comply.

In the early 1990s, school reform efforts were shifted to the local level, with school officials being held accountable for improvement. This allowed school board members and administrators to decide what reforms needed to be made, rather than just deciding how to implement those changes mandated by federal and state bodies.

This type of reform is complicated, as it involves managing the line between societal and individual rights. Decision makers must fuse the wishes of individuals within the community with the need to reflect the values of society within a common school curriculum. The result is that teachers and other educators make decisions based on their professional knowledge, while still acknowledging the will of the people and ensuring that the community is engaged in school reform. Civic engagement in school reform can be approached in various ways -- the most recognized of which are the adversarial, electoral, and communicative approaches.

The adversarial approach can include groups of parents confronting incumbent board members, or criticizing public administrators over certain issues they have with the curriculum. A group of parents may take exception to the inclusion of sex education, for example, or the theory of evolution in the curriculum. This approach to civic engagement is risky. While it may produce results, it also often irrevocably destroys the relationships between school officials, parents, and other stakeholder groups. It can also often lead to instability when board members are reelected, superintendents are fired, or there is other institutional unrest because of adversarial action from the community.

The electoral approach to civic engagement is popular, particularly in relation to school board elections and referenda on tax. While this is a better approach in terms of democratic participation, it isn't an ideal mechanism to encourage community participation. People often fail to exercise their right to vote and, in some communities, only 10 percent of people cast ballots in school board elections. In addition to being expensive, the electoral approach may discourage or detract attention from other, more efficient, forms of participation.

The communicative approach utilizes deliberative democracy, encouraging parents and stakeholders to express their opinions. Its aim is to engender open dialogue through support from the superintendent and school officials in order to stimulate productive debate and encourage a consensus. While this is the most open and democratic approach, it is also notorious for being contentious and inefficient, due to inevitable differences of philosophical and political opinion within the community.

In order to enhance civic participation in schools, reform efforts must be both practical and philosophical, to promote performance as well as participation. This allows reform to be undertaken locally, while remaining accountable to stakeholders. Education professionals and local communities should embrace civic engagement as a normative standard in both school reform activities and partnerships, which would encourage democratic localism, while promoting the spirit of civic volunteerism.

Partnerships should be assessed through annual evaluations. The evaluations would focus on levels of democratic localism, social capital arising from the partnerships, the acquisition of relevant resources, and avoiding exploitation. This would allow public-private partnerships to foment school reform and engage the community, instead of existing to gain social capital for school officials and business executives.

 
 
 

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