Home Education American public education and the responsibility of its citizens : supporting democracy in the age of accountability
Like teachers, school leaders and administrators have opportunities to make special contributions to supporting public schools, which also include disseminating their professional knowledge and engaging in deliberations about the form and function of public schools. Because of their prominent role in schools, and often in communities, school leaders may be particularly well situated to host and guide public deliberations, or to identify resources of space, time, and materials to facilitate public conversations and involvement in schools. Fulfilling this role responsibility, however, presents some challenges.
Principals and superintendents, accustomed to positions of power and influence, have to learn how to take a back seat to the views and will of others in the public at times. They have to recognize that they tend to see education issues differently than the public does and they need to work hard to understand the public’s alternative perspectives. They may also need to improve their skills of facilitating deliberation, including learning how to be more inclusive of a wide array of views and people given evidence of past exclusions, especially of particular populations. And, school leaders face the difficult reality that in today’s accountability climate and increasing market system, where charter and private schools vie for students, they feel pressured to share only good news about their schools and to shield them from criticism. Opening up community conversations about school problems may invite criticism, but it also opens opportunities for publics to form, to better understand recent educational changes and struggles, and to take informed action. Avoiding problems does not lead to solving them.36
Principals can help citizens see schools as the hub of the community, where people can gather to address shared problems, deliberate, and form publics. These deliberations should be as open as possible, which may include issuing widespread announcements about forums and events and publishing notes and resolutions from them afterward. To confront tendencies toward citizens being bogged down with their own immediate concerns today, such announcements need to clearly explain why the community should care and what will be done with the input gathered at the event in order to express its worthwhileness and its connection to our responsibilities as citizens. Being transparent builds trust in leaders and in education as a public institution, while also creating an inviting space to welcome new participants. They should hold deliberations directly in the school, reaffirming the building as a public space for exchanging ideas and working together to solve problems, and inviting the increasingly large portion of citizens without children in school into their walls to learn more about what goes on there.
While being careful to maintain genuine dialogue among all participants and not to resort to a question-and-answer session during these public conversations, school leaders can help others understand problems occurring in schools and arrive at solutions that are richly informed by the details of those problems. But extending beyond school walls, school leaders should try to understand the larger social and political context of the school so that they can help deliberators have a more complete and complex understanding as they tackle problems together. This requires learning from and working with citizens from outside the school community.
Amid this public work and deliberation, school leaders must resist the temptation to replicate or reinforce neoliberal views of parents and students as merely consumers or customers. Such views, as I described in chapters three and four, actually deprive parents and children of authentic political voice and deep involvement in schools. School leaders can be on the forefront of reestablishing the political relationships between schools and citizens and the state and citizens. An overtly political act, these deliberations may necessitate action or social movements on behalf of public schools. School administrators can employ their social capital and community position to lead or support such actions, being sure to encourage and support parent engagement as equitably as possible along the way.
As a result of deliberations, school leaders should demonstrate for the public the ways in which they are upholding the goals and plans set forth by that public, both as a fulfillment of responsibility and as a technique to further instill trust and ongoing participation. They may also demonstrate a commitment to strong citizenship education in the curriculum and priorities of the school to show the ways in which the school is working to perpetuate democracy and equip future citizens. Once deliberation and action to support or improve public schools have occurred, school leaders can guide assessment and evaluation of those acts and their impact to be responsive to the wishes of the public and to guide future actions in helpful ways.37
School leaders can also play an important role translating local concerns with education into policy suggestions for the state that oversees them. They can lobby legislators to make sure that policies reflect the will of their communities and employ their own firsthand experiences in the schools, or the experiences of the teachers they lead, to inform legislation. In my area, forty- one superintendents in a four-county radius have formed a coalition that they call the Greater Cincinnati School Advocacy Network. In response to teachers in their schools feeling inundated with standards and testing pressures exerted by far-away legislators, and in response to taxpayers feeling frustrated that local control was declining, these school leaders gathered together to pool their resources and knowledge to more effectively lobby the state and federal legislatures. They share a collective voice about what they see as education in the best interests of children in their local communities. Building a public, they have employed media outlets to share their message and gain support and participation from other Cincinnatians.
Finally, school leaders can exercise significant impact on hiring new teachers in their schools. When screening applicants, principals should seek those that demonstrate understanding of the public and democratic nature of education. They should seek teachers trained in programs that discuss and practice democracy in ways that prepare those teachers to educate for democracy themselves. This differs considerably from current alternative certification and charter school approaches to training teachers that often eliminate such talk and related courses as they focus almost entirely on efficient teaching for improving test scores. Better teacher preparation programs help their preservice educators become more comfortable and familiar with discussing values and political theories, some of which underlie not only excellent teaching techniques, but also the very educational reform movements influencing schools today. Those teachers can then more knowledgably and confidently participate in quality practices and in larger reform movements.38
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