2017 Josh Poll 2017 Column 1200Px
Expert opinion

Translate the public's desires into policy

by Joshua P. Starr

Education leaders play a crucial role by bringing a listening ear plus expertise to the table when policy makers are at work.

When I was a school superintendent, I used to remind my team that the community consists mainly of reasonable, if silent, people. Every time an important decision has to be made about educational policy or practice, a vocal minority of parents and other community members will show up at meetings, flood the district office with emails and calls, and maybe even get themselves elected to the school board. But most people just want a clear explanation about what’s going on, what you’ve decided to do, and why. And if you are transparent and forthright — especially when the results aren’t positive, a strategy isn’t working, or mistakes have been made — they will tend to believe you and trust your judgment.

One of the advantages of a survey like the annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools is that it pulls back the curtain on that silent majority. This year, as in many recent years, the poll showed a wide gap between what the most strident policy makers and reformers are advocating and what the American public actually wants and believes.

School and district leaders are in a unique position to help close that gap. Not only do they hear directly from parents and other community members, but they also have the ear of policy makers, and they can help them translate the public’s desires into policies that make sense for schools and for kids. 

Last year, we learned from the poll that a majority of parents wanted more offerings that would prepare their children for the world of work, even at the expense of honors courses. This year, they seem to be saying that it shouldn’t be an either-or decision. Americans recognize that success in the workplace and in life requires people skills as much as academic smarts, and they believe that schools should focus on both. 

School and district leaders can help close the gap between what the American people want and what policy makers are working toward.

Unfortunately, most parents don’t really know what goes on in school on a daily basis, other than what they gather from the homework that gets sent home or what their teenagers mumble at the dinner table. To help keep them informed, school and district leaders can hold forums and curriculum nights, post materials on the web, host science fairs and art exhibitions, or invite parents to “ family Fridays”  (as my own children’s elementary school used to do). But while such efforts are great, they don’t really shed much light on what kids do 180 days of the year for 6.5 hours a day. The challenge remains: What can principals and superintendents do to ensure that parents truly understand what their kids are learning and how it connects to life after high school?  

Beyond improving communication between school and home, public school leaders must move more aggressively to integrate academic skills with the necessary work skills — and do so at scale. How can we help teachers design instructional environments that combine both the academic skills to tackle a complex problem and the skills to work in teams, understand others’ perspectives, and persevere? The nascent social-emotional learning movement isn’t yet at scale in our schools, but we’ve seen enough evidence to know the value of incorporating SEL into instruction and finding ways to measure it.  

The danger lies with the measurement. This year’s poll results tell us that parents not only value the instruction of interpersonal skills; they also want schools to measure the results. I personally have grave concerns about our ability to measure social-emotional learning and use those results for accountability purposes. The public’s desire for measurement has significant implications for practitioners and policy makers since the science of such measurement is lagging. I fear that the marketplace will try to convince educators that it does have the ability to measure SEL and that policy makers will soon want to use those measures to evaluate teachers. It is imperative that superintendents and school boards resist attempts to misuse a solid theory to support another purpose, much in the way that policy makers have misused value-added measurements.

Americans recognize that success in life requires people skills as much as academic smarts.

Superintendents can get ahead of this by implementing measures of SEL that focus on the school as the unit of change and include measures of school climate and culture that lead to positive outcomes for students. For example, schools with a highly collaborative professional culture tend to achieve better outcomes for students; that can be measured with a survey of staff. Or, ask every middle and high school student one question: “ Is there one adult in the school who knows you well and has your back?” Answers to that question will tell you a lot about how students feel about their school and is a great entry point into further inquiry about school climate.  

Superintendents also can point to districts that have done such measurement effectively and encourage policy makers to support these good practices and avoid wandering down a dangerous road toward accountability measures that cause more harm than good.

The PDK poll consistently shows that what the public and parents want at the policy and classroom levels is often not consistent with many of the policies enacted by local, state, and federal lawmakers. Educational leaders can’t merely admire the problem; they must proactively be part of the response and the solution. When they wade into the public arena, educational leaders must be mindful that they are responsible for not only teaching children but also teaching adults about the possibilities of public education. That can mean counteracting the views of the majority when those may lead in dangerous directions and protecting the interests of the minority even when those are deemed unpopular. It is a balancing act but suited to those with expertise about what’s required for effective teaching and learning. The annual PDK poll is a great place to start that conversation by understanding more precisely what parents are seeking for their schools.

Joshua P. Starr

Joshua has been the chief executive officer of PDK International since July 2015. Josh has worked in public education since 1993 as a teacher, central office leader, and superintendent of schools. He is a passionate champion for all students and is committed to ensuring that PDK International continues to serve as a unique and trusted voice that supports the teaching profession.

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