ENGAGING IN DELIBERATIONS
A final and extremely important way in which we citizens can achieve our responsibility to public schools is through engaging in public deliberations about the goals and practices of schools so that they reflect the will of publics. I concur with leading political theorist Amy Gutmann when she says,
All citizens have a right and a responsibility to concern themselves with the civic education of all children in schools. Deliberating about the ends and means of mandatory public schooling is more important today than ever before because civic education is so demanding. Like constitutional democracy itself, civic education is an ongoing project of democratic citizens. Nothing is more worthy of our national attention.14
Insofar as such deliberations have largely been curtailed owing to the current emphasis on accountability or have been co-opted by technical jargon, citizens must reclaim those conversations. We should deliberate about the goals of accountability and its measures, using understandable terminology and directing conversations toward public well-being. The president of the Kettering Foundation, David Matthews, notes that “a RAND study recommended that accountability be broadened to include ‘more of the public’s goals for education.’ That obviously requires a public that can set goals"15 And it is to such efforts that publics should turn. In doing so, we must also ask critical questions, probing the ways in which the national will has become to an extent, by default or perhaps because of the pressures and expectations of what has become common sense, a reflection of larger calls for accountability determined by narrow test achievement. In other words, we must determine what is truly the will of publics and the extent to which that will is aligned with principles of democracy.
Publics don’t merely talk for the sake of talking to one another; instead deliberations are focused on understanding a situation and taking action on it. Such action allows participants to feel that they can and are really having an impact. As we engage in deliberations we must approach them via dialogue, rather than debate. In dialogues, we work together to collaboratively arrive at understandings, plans, and solutions, rather than competitively fighting for our views as the best or only way to understand or address the issue. It requires listening to one another and finding points of common ground, rather than focusing merely on ensuring that our contribution is successful and defeating those of others. Throughout deliberations, we should not be distracted by political skirmishes, but rather should focus on relationality by considering what is best for democracy and what is best for the children in our schools.16
One excellent example of such public deliberation comes from the small, rural town of Pittsfield, New Hampshire. In 2010 the town was struggling with poverty, drug addiction, and lack of jobs. Their school was one of the poorest performing in the state. Seeking to understand and improve the situation, the superintendent hosted a series of community forums. There, residents concluded that there were two primary issues they needed to tackle: lack of focus on and care for students (especially in disciplinary realms) and lack of resident voice and power in school decisions. As a result, a series of listening sessions and public deliberations were held to formulate solutions. Community members rallied to set forward on a newly constructed plan together, which resulted in the establishment of a restorative justice committee composed of students and townspeople as well as a site council of community members to guide school policy. Earning a $2 million Nellie Mae Education Foundation grant for their efforts, the town continues on today, hosting dialogues regarding opportunities for youth and a citizens’ academy to educate residents on how local government works.17
Other examples coming out of New Hampshire include the 2014 Newmarket Common Ground conversations regarding the community’s priorities for the future of Newmarket schools and the discussions in Dover, where the community’s educational goals shaped the building design for their new high school. The new design included a focus on making the school a more interactive space with the community, bucking trends toward safety that were making schools more difficult to access.18 Elsewhere, we can look to examples of community deliberations held in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, which seek to discuss not only educational aims, but also challenges to achieving those aims, such as the racial achievement gap.19 And in Springfield, Ohio, local officials paired up with residents and the business community to identify the particular educational needs of their city and to craft a new high school that was geared at meeting those needs, not only in terms of preparing agriculture and STEM workers, but also in terms of preventing brain drain by losing those children after graduation from college.20
We must be responsible for the accountability systems we have directly or indirectly put in place, as well as their effects on children and teachers. In some instances, citizens have engaged in dissenting actions, such as opting their children out of testing, in order to raise awareness about the problems of testing and to gain a listening ear from some policymakers, media, and others regarding their alternative views on good education. While citizens are not necessarily responsible to engage in a wide variety of dissenting acts, some may be warranted when conditions are overtly detrimental to students or democracy, and doing so may form publics around current problems and potential solutions. Notably, groups like More Than a Score in Chicago and the Opt Out Florida Network have organized community conversations about testing and have supported legislation to protect the rights of parents to refuse testing. They have also supported initiatives to expand assessments beyond testing to include the professional judgment of teachers, thereby engaging in democratic action to challenge current testing accountability systems.21
We might also host deliberations based on books and films about education problems and reform initiatives. These offer great springboards for generating deliberation and for pulling in our neighbors who may not know much about current educational issues. Direct invitations from friends or respected peers are persuasive ways to encourage civil participation and action resulting from dialogues.22 We might also arrange panelists, including parents, teachers, and more, to comment on the books or films in order to shine various lights on the issue. Finally, we can invite representatives from educational reform, educational justice, and pro-public-school organizations to comment. Those groups, such as The Network for Public Education or Public Education Partners, can also be excellent civil associations worth joining to learn more about public schools and to take action on their behalf.