Maze of Mistrust: How District Politics and Cross Talk Are Stalling Efforts to Improve Public Education


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In 1993, the Kettering Foundation and Public Agenda released a report titled Divided Within, Besieged Without: The Politics of Education in Four American School Districts. The study’s attention to communities was distinct from the conventional focus on the technical issues of school administration and funding, and it reported on what people in communities said they were concerned with: the qualities of human relationships. And the relationships people described were troubled. Parents, teachers, and administrators spoke of mutual suspicion and distrust, which stifled the ability to make even simple improvements to administrative practices in schools.

The past 20 years have seen some powerful trends that one might expect to have improved things. Public engagement strategies should have helped bridge the distance between citizens and school districts—and among stakeholders. The digital revolution should have made communication between districts and parents, teachers, and community groups easier and better. Finally, the standards and accountability movement should have fostered greater trust in the public schools by letting parents and communities know what their schools were doing—and how well they were doing it.

To understand the impact of these trends, the Kettering Foundation asked the FDR Group to look anew at the state of relationships around education in communities. Their report, Maze of Mistrust: How District Politics and Cross Talk Are Stalling Efforts to Improve Public Education, finds that the divisions among district stakeholders have not improved since the 1993 study, despite the advent of public engagement. Administrators say that the explosion in communication technology has created more ways for people to say the wrong thing and say it loudly. The standards and accountability movement has strengthened the preexisting tendency to view the public schools as the central lever for educating youngsters. The distance between school districts and their communities shows no sign of diminishing. Citizens and community groups tend to see the schools as institutions standing apart from them, rather than as an integral part of their community.

There is a lot that’s good about technology, standards, and public engagement. That they’ve had negative consequences probably says something about how they’ve been implemented. Advocates of school-reform initiatives should take heed. They need to plan ahead for destructive district dynamics, which can sabotage the most carefully designed reforms. Those interested in democratic governance should also pay attention. The estrangement between citizens and governing institutions is not just a problem to be overcome with the right tools. There are dispositions and habits of mind and behavior among leaders and citizens that will undermine efforts to bridge the gap between them, regardless of the techniques used. When leaders view citizens merely as a force to coax, co-opt, or bypass, they will use any tool to that purpose. And when citizens view government only as the provider of services that they pay for with their tax dollars, responsibility for what it does will not be theirs.

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Public Education

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