Giving Parents the Runaround on School Turnarounds

Don’t be responsive to parents’ concerns – focus instead on marketing, suggests public agenda report promoting federal takeover strategies.

Contact: 
Jamie Horwitz, (202) 549-4921, jhdcpr@starpower.net
William J. Mathis, (802) 282-0058, wmathis@sover.net

URL for this press release:  http://tinyurl.com/7eon86q

 

BOULDER, CO (February 7, 2012)–Federal school “turnaround” strategies that call for firing teachers, replacing managers, or closing troubled public schools or converting them into charter schools often meet with understandable skepticism, resistance and even anger among the parents whose children attend those schools. How should policymakers react? According to a recent study from the think tank Public Agenda, the answer is to treat the harsh realities caused by turnarounds as a public relations problem.

That’s the conclusion of a review released today of What’s Trust Got to Do With It? A Communications and Engagement Guide for School Leaders Tackling the Problem of Persistently Failing Schools.

The report was reviewed for the Think Twice think tank review project by William J. Mathis, an education researcher and former school superintendent who has studied school turnaround strategies. Dr. Mathis is managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, where the Think Twice project is housed.

“Turnarounds” are the most drastic sanction imposed by the 10-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, which prescribes them for schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” in student achievement for five consecutive years. When imposed, they often meet with fierce community opposition from parents who don’t want to see their neighborhood school closed and who don’t want to lose teachers they and their children have found supportive and helpful.

In the face of such reaction, the authors of What’s Trust Got to Do With It? focus on how to better sell the concept. They assume that resistant parents simply don’t understand “how bad” their local schools are. These parents can, the report explains, be brought around to support what the authors characterize as “bold action to transform deeply inadequate schools, including closing or fundamentally reshaping the leadership, programs, and staffing at these schools.”

To accomplish that, the report provides eight “communication strategies” directed at parents and communities. The strategies, and the report itself, are based in large part on an unspecified number of focus groups conducted with parents in four cities. For instance, turnaround advocates are told to “Provide information—not too little and not too much” and to “Remember to tell stories [testimonials].”

For the most part, the advice is basic communications 101 and is not troubling by itself. But as Mathis points out in his review, the report never treats seriously the substantive concerns of resistant parents; it never questions the fundamental strategy that it proposes communicating about.

“While the report endorses and encourages the federally promoted turnaround approaches, it does not include a discussion of the considerable body of research that raises questions about the effectiveness of these models,” Mathis writes. “In fact, the efficacy of all these turnaround reforms is simply assumed.”

After hearing directly from parents who described their concerns about school turnaround proposals, these concerns were set aside – as a practical matter, they were ignored.  Instead, the focus groups were used “to test messaging that would manipulate those groups’ participants (and, by extension, the wider community) into favoring federal turnaround approaches,” according to Mathis. The result is a document that’s “paternalistic and arrogant” in its “criticism of parents for not knowing what’s good for them.”

What’s Trust Got to Do With It? is ironically titled,” Mathis concludes. “Trust has everything to do with the problem. Yet, perhaps the greater problem is in the authors’ complete lack of trust in the views of the parents.”

 

Find William Mathis’s review on the NEPC website at:
http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-whats-trust

Find What’s Trust Got to Do With It? A Communications and Engagement Guide for School Leaders Tackling the Problem of Persistently Failing Schools by Jean Johnson, John Rochkind, Michael Remaley and Jeremiah Hess and published by Public Agenda on the web at:
http://www.publicagenda.org/files/pdf/whats_trust_got_to_do_with_it.pdf

The Think Twice think tank review project (http://thinktankreview.org) of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) provides the public, policy makers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. NEPC is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. The Think Twice think tank review project is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on the NEPC, please visit http://nepc.colorado.edu/.

This review is also found on the GLC website at http://www.greatlakescenter.org/

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) Think Twice Think Tank Review Project (http://thinktankreview.org) provides the public, policymakers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. The project is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice: http://www.greatlakescenter.org