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The 'Noblesse Oblige' Award

Public Agenda for NEPC Review: What’s Trust Got to Do With It? (Public Agenda, December 2011)

Reading this report, one learns about a problem that few of us knew existed. Apparently, there is a great deal of confusion in disadvantaged communities where wealthy strangers have arrived laden with school-turnaround gifts. The patrons of these communities are inexplicably and unjustifiably seen as patronizing—or even as destructive intruders. Fortunately, the Public Agenda Foundation has stepped up with this report which outlines ways to help members of these communities to get their minds right.

The report examines why citizens have proprietary attitudes toward their community school and why they resist external “change agents” who are intent on improving those schools for the citizens’ own good.

In the view of this report, these uninformed and parochial parent attitudes are obstacles to the re-making and improvement of community schools. According to its authors, “Many parents do not realize how brutally inadequate local schools are.” As a result of their ignorance, parents have raised irrational and unwise objections to firing teachers due to low test scores or to their school being closed, privatized, broken-up.

While the report includes a section on “how the research was done,” it provides no research in any conventional sense of the term. It is instead an explicit effort to test and refine message framing and sound bites designed to engender negative attitudes toward public schools and promote positive attitudes toward charter schools and other “bold” turnaround approaches.

Our judges noticed that in the focus groups conducted by the researchers, the community members knowledgeably identified the problems of inadequate and inequitable resources, as well as the significant hurdles faced by their impoverished communities. The authors also note, “There was also a strong sense among the parents we interviewed that, in their view, the communities themselves should be seen as sources of new thinking.” The report’s authors honestly and clearly present such concerns and ideas. But the report never addresses these core problems and never suggests truly valuing local ideas. Instead, it recommends eight communications strategies—including such things as “tell lots of stories” and “communicate through trusted sources”—all designed to shift attention toward the favored “bold” turnaround approaches (and thus shift attention away from the real problems seen by the communities, as the report itself describes).

Amidst all this messaging, the report completely ignores the lack of evidence that the so-called turnaround strategies actually work to benefit communities. The strategies are just assumed to be desirable. As our reviewer concluded, “What’s Trust Got to Do With It? is ironically titled. 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.”