Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed April 1998
Copyright ©1998 by Jeffrey Kimpton and Marcia K. Sharp

Reasons for Hope, Voices for Change

By Jeffrey Kimpton and Marcia K. Sharp
Jeffrey Kimpton is director of public engagement at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. Marcia K. Sharp is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant.

"Regardless of where it begins, public engagement for public education is a purposeful effort to build a collaborative constituency for change and improvement in schools"

There is a quiet revolution taking place in public education, the beginning of a fundamental shift in the actions of Americans on behalf of their children and with their schools. It signals a change in the notions and structures of power in education. It is called public engagement.

Engaging citizens in shaping the institutions that serve them is, of course, not new. Its roots stretch to the foundations of our democracy. It is well developed in the movements that go by such names as community revitalization and community organizing. What is new is the increasing use of engagement techniques for public education.

The fundamental purpose of any public engagement initiative is to channel a community's concern, apathy, or anger into informed and constructive action. It calls upon citizens to reinvest in their public institutions - not only their money, but their time, energy and commitment as well. Three broad characteristics are common to this widely used strategy for achieving social change:

Public engagement for public education sits squarely in the context of this strategy for civic reinvestment. Initiatives may be labeled public conversation, parent involvement, school/community partnerships, community organizing, or even standards setting and implementation. They may have their impetus in the school system or in the community. But regardless of where it begins, public engagement for public education is a purposeful effort to build a collaborative constituency for change and improvement in schools.

The concept of engagement for public education is particularly compelling for two reasons. First, schools - as public, or "common," institutions - present a ready emblem of democracy and public life. They command the attention of concerned citizens as few other institutions do. Second, engagement initiatives can stir community conversation and action - obtaining the participation and buying the time - that will help efforts to improve schools to move forward.

What are the underlying conditions that drive Americans - educators, parents and citizens - to do this work? The reasons are easily stated but complex in their implications.

An 18-month study by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform looked at a rich collection of schools and communities across America engaged in widely diverse kinds of activities for better schools. Collectively, they reveal some common areas of focus for school improvement.

The schools and communities using this tool for change believe that it has enormous potential to move them further along the road of reform, to restore the mutual trust and shared responsibility that must exist between schools and their communities, and to promote greater student and school achievement. The Institute's research shows that educators, parents and citizens are raising their voices together for change. Their commitment offers ample testimony to the powerful promise of public engagement to improve public schools. For anyone concerned with the future of public education, and for the future of our children, their efforts offer reason for hope.