Maintaining Public Support for the Public Good
Public systems are inherently complex because they involve multiple levels of government and numerous actors. Such systems, funded with taxpayer dollars, engage the concept of public good. Collective dollars contribute to a framework from which the broader citizenry benefits. The U.S public education system exemplifies complexity, from diverse funding streams to policy-making at the federal, state and local levels to the daily functioning of schools and classroom teaching. As such, public education is often at the heart of a greater debate over the role of government and the concept of public good.
For more than 40 years, the Phi Delta Kappa International (PDK) Gallup Poll has asked Americans what they think of their public schools. Americans generally are very supportive of their local public schools; however the nation’s schools frequently score lower. Take, for example, the 2011 data, in which 51 percent of respondents gave their local school an A or B rating. In contrast, only 17 percent gave the nation’s public schools an A or B. 43% of respondents credit the difference to having greater knowledge of their immediate community and local schools, suggesting that perhaps an intimate knowledge of the system and personal experiences increase levels of support.
A significant body of literature exists on public opinion and public polling, but within the context of public education, there are a few things to take into account. First, there is selective media coverage in the United States. Media coverage helps reinforce pre-existing negative perceptions. The PDK poll asked participants if they were more likely to hear negative or positive stories about teachers in the media; 68% responded that they more likely to hear bad stories. Stories that gain attention are ones that pick up conflict, for shock value. Therefore, you are likely to read more on conflicts between school administrations and teachers’ unions than you are about harmonious collaboration within a district that is improving student achievement. Additionally, because the system is complex, it is difficult for people to conceive of possibilities for reform. They want fixes without truly comprehending how they might occur.
In order to shore up support for public education, which Gallup reveals does exist; we must all become better advocates for strong public education. As advocates, we must fine tune our messaging to connect with values that resonate with the public; we must use more common frames that make sense of complex systems. On May 17, 2012, when Jack Jennings accepted the Learning First Alliance’s 2012 Education Visionary Award, he told leading education organizations that they must set the agenda and consequently own the narrative. He said “I don’t think we are going to have that [a major improvement in public education] unless we concentrate on the essentials of education, and unless the major education groups, and the people who know education the best, unify themselves behind a common agenda and insist that that become the agenda.” The organizations and their collective membership understand the urgency for reform, and the options, with a depth that no one else can fully comprehend. But they must do a better job communicating the realities of reform.
Policy options that resonate with citizens must connect to core values and take into account predetermined worldviews; only then will specific policy outcomes garner public support. This concept requires a more finely tuned message around the concept of public good and public systems generally. Americans possess a diverse set of perspectives and values, which set a backdrop for the continued discussion over the role of government in the lives of citizens and the role of public education more specifically. While Americans value liberty and their freedom to make individual choices, they also value achievement and believe in equity when it comes to ensuring opportunity.
According to a 2012 Center for American Progress survey, Americans don’t want smaller government, they want better government. Sixty percent of Americans say the government should be more involved when it comes to improving public schools. Americans’ values embrace a government that is innovative and changes with the times; helps people get ahead in life; serves public interest and operates openly, to name a few. People perceive waste in many different ways, including but not limited to government agencies duplicating efforts of other agencies; people receiving government benefits who do not deserve them and government programs continuing for years even though they have not proven effective. These attitudes concern the federal government, but as a public system, education bears some risk by association. Messaging around public education should take into account peoples’ inherent beliefs and skepticism. Only then will systems of public good find true public support. As we look ahead to building a more robust foundation of national support for public schools, perhaps we will also find ourselves rediscovering the more popular nature of egalitarianism and government, of, by and for the people.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
- 2013 Digital Principal Ryan Imbriale
- Best Selling Author Dan Ariely
- Family Engagement Expert Dr. Maria C. Paredes
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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