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Home arrow Education arrow American public education and the responsibility of its citizens : supporting democracy in the age of accountability

PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT AND PUBLIC WORK

First, public engagement can be a worthwhile approach to satisfying some citizen responsibilities to public schools. I build here off of Marion Orr and John Rogers, who define public engagement for public education as that which “promotes collective action toward shared interests.”1 The idea of public engagement is a response to our contemporary focus on parents bogged down by their daily needs and self-interests and pushes us to extend and expand that focus. This resembles my earlier discussion of public work and the construction of public goods. Such public engagement takes place often through collective deliberations and actions. While it may begin with individual concerns or interests in schools, those often either give way to public interests or are appropriately balanced with them. Those public interests may be the preservation of democracy or the assurance of safety, equity, and opportunity within schools, but the interests may also vary and take on particular forms relative to the needs of a given public or the particular problems they are trying to solve.

For example, parents might notice that as their local school struggles to achieve satisfactory scores on the state mathematics test, time and attention are being diverted from social studies in their classrooms. While one mother may be concerned with her son’s frustration that the weekly current events discussion he enjoys has been suspended, another may wonder why the annual eighth-grade field trip to Washington, DC, has been cut. In response to these related concerns, the mothers may reach out to other parents to discuss the valuable civic learning being lost. Regardless of their specific forms, public engagement for public schools entails working together to ensure shared interests in development of future citizens and flourishing democracy. Recognizing our citizen responsibilities pushes us beyond just demanding the immediate gratification of our personal interests.

Public engagement for public schools does not rely upon aggregative or representative forms of democracy that permit passive actions largely disconnected from other citizens, but rather sets out to achieve publics through associational democratic practice and public work. Sometimes it requires organizing with others to better articulate and negotiate one’s agenda for school improvement and to increase one’s agency in achieving it. This foregrounds not only differentials in power among citizens, but also shows that those who are better able to assert their will have a responsibility to acknowledge and aid those whose power is limited. The parents in our example might host a meeting to discuss their concerns and craft a plan to reemphasize social studies in their school.

Organizing is especially important for poor or minority groups whose voices are sometimes overlooked or outright ignored, if expressed at all. In our example of the decreased time devoted to social studies instruction, this is especially important, for there is a well-documented civic opportunity gap among poor and minority populations.2 Organizing with others from overlooked communities and from more powerful ones can strengthen a fledgling public. Organizing can take the form of social movements when “people and groups join together around a set of intensely held shared interests, and their actions engender such broad public support that deeply held social convictions are transformed and dramatically new policies are enacted"3 Again returning to our example, recognizing their shared interests, the parents might join with others as part of a larger movement promoting Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics initiative.

Such organizing tends to intrigue and motivate other citizens, further expanding the public interested in public school issues or creating new, related publics. Its intensity may lead to mobilization or protest in order to effect significant changes in schools, such as lobbying for increased focus on social studies at a school board meeting. To do this public work of movement and mobilization well requires constructing a principled stand and criteria to measure improvement. It is important, for example, that publics deliberate openly and have clear goals for supporting or improving public schools. They can do this by establishing indicators of success and plans for how to sustain a public’s interest in education or its reform.4 A key approach to sustaining citizen participation when education has seemingly been in perpetual crisis for decades is making such participation habitual, as I will describe in chapter eight. It also includes creating networks and alliances with other publics working on related problems of democracy, equality, and learning.

 
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