Re-Connecting Communities and Their Schools Through Authentic Dialogue
by Monte Roulier, National Civic Review, Spring 2000

Early in 1997, a group of citizens of Rapides Parish in central Louisiana were in despair over their communities' K-12 education system. The superintendent had filed a lawsuit against the school board and district, and the local paper had reported allegations that a school board member awarded a job in exchange for sexual favors. In addition, charges of mismanagement and corruption related to busing contracts were leveled at both the central administration and board. Some school board members had received threats--and charges of racism were rampant The local newspaper happily provided space for public debate, comment and polls over who was to blame. Was it individual board members, the entire board or the superintendent? Because the majority of board members were at war with the superintendent, and because teachers and students were feeling as though few cared about their needs, public confidence reached an all time low. Finally, a small group of citizens decided it was time for the "community" to intervene.

This initial group quickly grew into 120 citizens who met regularly over a period of nearly one year-engaging others members of the community on what it would take to rebuild the public confidence and begin implementing fundamental solutions. This diverse group of citizens, representing every identifiable interest or perspective, created a safe atmosphere for inquiry, sharing and learning. They ultimately pulled most of the warring decision makers-board members, the new superintendent and key administrators--into the dialogue.

It did not take long to figure out that the real problems had little to do with the various individuals who were being blamed. Robert Lynn, a volunteer leader of this group said, "I will never forget the moment we came to the stark realization that governance was the chief problem in our education system" [1]. Lynn and others concluded that for many reasons the community had disengaged from the governance--the guidance and leadership--of their community's schools. The community dialogues produced sixteen strategies built upon five principles broadly supported by the community. As a result this community has begun to discover its own formula for success and healing by resisting simple solutions, by redefining the broader community's role, and by building its capacity for on-going and authentic dialogue. (This is not to suggest that progress came without struggle and set-backs; transforming a culture poisoned by "zero sum politics" to one of productive dialogue does not come easily.)

Unfortunately, Rapides Parish's example of the power of effective public engagement is more of an anomaly than a rule. Education issues are perhaps the most divisive issues communities must grapple with. Too many communities have lost the reason and the hope for public engagement in their schools, and those who haven't lost hope don't know where to begin. This article will attempt to point to some practical ways to build a productive culture of community engagement in the governance of public schools-focusing on the need to re-discover the practice of authentic dialogue.

The Public and Educational Change: The Current Situation and How It Developed

The majority of Americans believe in public education and want good public schools. They are not ready to abandon the concept, but that support appears increasingly fragile [2]. It seems Americans perceive that a substantial number of public schools are in trouble and getting worse. Part of this perception is undoubtedly shaped by news stories based upon the controversies over the quality of instruction and inequity in the distribution of resources-in addition to sometimes sensationalized accounts of sex, drugs, violence and general uncivil behavior incubating at public schools.

These complex challenges confronting society today are having a major impact on our educational system. For example, most of our communities are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. As a result, many communities are struggling to answer "who goes to what schools, what should be taught, and how do we teach our students to live together with respect." The widening income gap being felt in many communities also poses questions about equity and choices. In general, there is a great difference in the income and tax revenues between urban and suburban communities, and unfortunately students with greater needs go to the schools with the fewest resources.

There, too, is growing concern about the values, or lack of values, held by our young people. A significant and increasing number of children are growing up in single parent homes, and in most two parent homes, both parents work. This means fathers and mothers spend less time with their children, thus teachers often find it necessary to take on parenting tasks before they can perform their role as educators. Obviously, the traditional family structure and its underlying values hierarchy have undergone profound changes. In light of concern over this issue, communities often struggle to agree on what values are most critical and how much responsibility (or blame) schools should have for shaping the values of their students. Furthermore, dramatic changes in our global economy are raising questions about the nature, quality and configuration of K-12 education. These are just a few of the formidable challenges that make up the context for discussions of educational change.

At least two important factors complicate the meeting of these challenges: the increased role for government and educational experts, and the whole culture of organized advocacy. Both have conspired to create a less engaged public, uncertain of its in the governance of public schools.

Impact of Increased Role of Government and Experts

Americans have been delegating responsibilities for their schools for most of this century. The public's leadership role was deliberately diminished as the country began to adopt the science of management, accompanied by professionally trained administrators. It was reasoned that by applying more scientific forms of management, schools would be run more efficiently and competently [3]. Professional management has arguably brought tremendous benefits, as well, leveraging educational and financial resources. However, embracing scientific or professional

Management served to remove citizens from their schools (this was part of the larger Progressive movement that relied on professional management for increased effectiveness in government and other institutions).

David Mathews, president of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation and former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, believes there is much evidence to support the fact that many Americans no longer believe the public schools are their schools [4]. Mathews is not alone in believing that professionally set standards, expert-driven school reforms, and increased financial control by state governments are some of the reasons that the public feels a greater distance from public schools systems. The lack of a public voice and the appearance of unresponsiveness to public concerns have had a significant impact on the way the public views their schools.

Increased direction and mandating of "standards" by states has bred a degree of suspicion and resistance to state direction on the part of local educators and the public. The purposes and probable effectiveness of educational changes promoted by national reformers and adopted or mandated by state policy makers meet with increased skepticism from the an American public according to national, statewide and local public opinion research, as well as experiential evidence from many states and communities.

An important cause of public skepticism and resistance to yet more reform arises from the public's many years of experience of being asked to accept and support both politically and financially one new idea after another. Proponents of particular reforms, often educational experts and administrators, have an unfortunate tendency to oversell what they want, and promise or require results too soon, as in the case of many state mandates. (Honest, open dialogue would temper public expectations and decrease the vulnerability of educators to charges that this, too, failed to work as promised.)

Too often, the public is expected to support specific reforms when there is a lack of clarity within school systems and individual schools, and throughout the public about the vision and goals for educational improvements. In these circumstances, there is, in fact, little coherence among suggested changes. Consequently, the public has no framework within which to judge the appropriateness or necessity of proposed and/or adopted education reforms. Lack of internal clarity about the goals and purposes of change also prevents teachers (the first and probably most effective point of communication with parents) from helping parents to understand how the purpose and relevance of specific reforms are related to the development and educational progress of their children.

Recently, more public engagement seems to be a common and increasingly popular answer to many of our social challenges, including education. Frequently what one means by public engagement is not clear. Many local educators and administrators have had disappointing experiences with more public involvement. They rightfully worry that citizens want to be overly involved in staff and faculty decisions, dabbling in day-to-day curriculum decisions. Some worry that angry special interest groups, who view them as the enemy, want to force "silver-bullet" solutions. The view that this is all public engagement really entails is understandable but unfortunate. It prevents local educators and administrators from realizing the longer-term educational benefits that come from working with a more middle-ground public.

These perceptions of the public have, unfortunately, produced ever greater public relations and marketing campaigns-not the dialogues essential to engaging the public. State and local meetings to "involve the public" all too often appear pro forma to the public: meetings to tell members of the public about already made decisions and to measure public reaction, or to promote already crafted legislation or local policies. This is not to say that state and local policy makers do not assemble advisory groups, commissions, and task forces that frequently represent different sectors and organizations. But these groups clearly do not draw from the general public nor do they provide civic space for open dialogue with the broader public.

It should be noted that the Institute for Educational Leadership and Public Agenda, in a joint project to demonstrate new strategies for engagement, have also found that local educators, particularly teachers, are genuinely concerned about the isolation of the public from the schools and about the absence of safe civic spaces for true dialogue [5].

Impacts of The Culture of Advocacy

The rancorous, politicized public debate that surrounds education issues keeps many citizens uninvolved. The politics of advocacy, in which small special interest groups attempt to force their strategies and solutions on a community, is the common mode of operation for dealing with school issues. It is an approach that has largely failed. As David Chrislip, author on community and leadership issues, points out, "The politics of advocacy has failed to solve problems, failed to prevent the division of society, and failed to engage citizens effectively in public life. When advocacy works, it leaves us divided, When it does not, it leaves gridlock. As parochial interests take precedence, communal needs are neglected" [6]. The politics of advocacy has resulted in communities laden with disconnected individuals characterized by anger and distrust.

The recruitment and selection of local school boards offer a tremendous opportunity for public engagement and leadership. Unfortunately, many of the ugliest and most divisive campaigns have been waged over school board seats. Candidates' campaigns are designed to win elections, not to strengthen communities. Powerful and divisive "wedge" issues-such as creationism versus evolution or traditional versus revisionist history--are sought to beat their opponents by polarizing the electorate. The net affect on their communities is mostly negative. (One of the sixteen strategies developed by the citizens of Rapides Parish dealt with changing the culture, quality and civility of school board elections.)

Once elected, there is no question the most dysfunctional school boards are those whose members practice the mirror theory of representative government. Members of urban and suburban school boards, in particular, often believe their primary responsibility is to represent their disparate constituencies-fighting for parts and paying less than adequate attention to the whole system [7].

Authentic Dialogue: A Key Part of The Answer

Unprecedented challenges for public education require new approaches to communicating, making decisions and solving problems. The current issues in education manifest the multitude of core, and sometimes intense, values held by the public. In addressing these complex issues how we make decisions is as important as the actual decisions made.

There is no shortage of possible strategies and solutions to improving education outcomes. The challenge is to find a means of getting the whole community to agree on an approach and move forward with it. That might mean not everyone shares the same degree of enthusiasm for the each approach, but the community can move forward because all interests feel that their voice and values were heard and understood.

More communities, though, are realizing that no group will succeed unless the diverse needs of the entire community are addressed. Increasingly, business leaders, community activists, educators, and religious leaders are seeking alternative processes to sort out differences and develop principles on which they can agree. While there are many different governance structures and decision making approaches, those that foster meaningful dialogue with the full public are most likely to have long range success. Fortunately, astute school administrators, elected officials and other citizen leaders are beginning to view these dialogue-based approaches and the culture of dialogue as an asset rather than a threat.

In many communities there has been in particular a distance between educators and business. In Wichita, Kansas, the educational process and quality of schools has been a major source of conflict. Disputes revolved around what should be taught, how it should be taught and the relative impact education has on the economic community. Fortunately, the business community, including representatives from Beechcraft and Learjet, joined the political, educational and other citizen leaders to get beyond unfruitful debate. Consequently, a planning process based on deep and widespread dialogue surfaced major (and inaccurate) assumptions each group help about others' positions, as well as new ideas, new relationships and shared values. The community of Wichita then signed a manifesto committing themselves to certain educational reforms. One initiative that came about as a result of the dialogues (a business-education partnership) won the prestigious Arthur D. Little Award for Excellence in Economic Development [8].

Some communities feel they have had too much dialogue and not enough action, feeling as if all they do is talk. Most of these communities are probably not engaged in authentic dialogue. So what exactly is authentic dialogue? An excerpt from a paper prepared by Shelly Bernman provides an insightful distinction between dialogue and the most common form of public discourse, debate:

Dialogue is collaborative: two or more sides work together toward common understanding.
   Debate is oppositional: two sides oppose each other and attempt to prove each other wrong.
In dialogue, finding common ground is the goal.
   In debate, winning is the goal.
In dialogue one listens to the other side(s) in order to understand, find meaning, and find agreement.
   In debate, one listens to the other side in order to find flaws and to counter its arguments.
Dialogue enlarges and possibly changes a participant's point of view.
   Debate affirms a participant's own point of view.
Dialogue reveals assumptions for reevaluation.
   Debate defends assumptions as truth.
ialogue causes introspection on one's own position.
   Debate causes critique of the other position.
Dialogue opens the possibility of reaching a better solution than any of the original solutions.
   Debate defends one's own positions as the best solution and excludes other solutions.
Dialogue creates an open-minded attitude: an openness to being wrong and an openness to change.
   Debate creates a closed-minded attitude, a determination to be right.
In dialogue, one submits one's best thinking, knowing that other people's reflections will help improve it rather than destroy it.
   In debate, one submits one's best thinking and defends it against challenge to show that it is right
Dialogue calls for temporarily suspending one's beliefs.
   Debate calls for investing wholeheartedly in one's beliefs.
In dialogue, one searches for basic agreements.
   In debate, one searches for glaring differences.
In dialogue, one searches for strengths in the other position.
   In debate, one searches for flaws and weaknesses in the other position.
Dialogue involves a real concern for the other person and seeks to not alienate of offend.
   Debate involves a countering of the other position without focusing on feelings or relationship and often belittles or deprecates the other person.
Dialogue assumes that many people have pieces of the answer and that together they can put them into a workable solution.
   Debate assumes that there is a right answer and that someone has it.
Dialogue remains open-ended.
   Debate implies a conclusion [9].

Noting these distinctions, it is not unreasonable to conclude that most of our time spent on educational issues is through debate, an approach that has limited utility. Most communities find themselves engaged in is an incoherent and sporadic debate, often exacerbated during school board elections or when there is a school bond referenda. Debate is about winning a position, not about finding the best solution or course of action. Dialogue is a process by which a community seeks a higher level of mutual understanding-a prerequisite for moving to consensus on an action or solution.

Of course, dialogue will not always result in complete agreement, but it should always result in greater understanding of the issues and perceptions held by fellow citizens. Thorough dialogue is likely to result in increased respect for others with different opinions and an increased sense of possibilities for acting in concert. Dialogue is an ongoing process and a capacity developed by a community over time. It builds community ownership, generates new solutions and strategies, and increases the likelihood of taking a course of sustained action.

Active public participation through dialogue is perhaps the only way to really empower individuals to give them a sense of ownership. By being involved in meaningful ways the critical public demeanor is quickly dismantled. More energy is expended in seeking to "make things work," rather than in placing blame

Alternatives to authentic dialogue have shown unsatisfactory results. The time, money and energy spent trying to sell the public on an exclusively expert-driven strategy is enormous, and the chances of success are minuscule. Participatory dialogue simultaneously sells the outcomes and the strategies. The chances of special interest groups blocking implementation of agreed upon actions is greatly reduced if they are involved and joined by a middle-ground public in the process. The risk of dramatic program changes shifting with each and every new political alliance is also reduced.

Engaging the public for the wrong reasons, however, compromises results. Involving the public in decision making is not simply a means for appeasing an alienated public. The public will know when it is really being heard and valued, the results being exhilaration and renewed interest. Engaging the public to give them a false sense of ownership is guaranteed to fail.

While it is easy to see the link between dialogue and community ownership, it also easy to underestimate the lay public's potential to generate valuable ideas and solutions. Effective public engagement through dialogue results in a wider range of viable and acceptable solutions to problems. Dialogue is about learning. Involving the full diversity of community interests and perspectives in the process increases learning exponentially. It is as though the entire community is putting together a jigsaw puzzle, with each individual contributing knowledge and expertise on some piece of the overall puzzle. Having a more complete picture and realistic picture as seen by the entire community allows more fruitful, comprehensive solutions to evolve. Over reliance on professionalized responses and technical expertise can limit the development of innovative solutions.

In South Carolina, for instance, a former teacher decided there was something she could do after being involved in a dialogue on education. She began to tutor children in a low-income housing unit. Older students were recruited to act as tutors to the younger children and eventually a class for adults working toward GEDs was added. The Homework Club grew in popularity, spread to other housing units and now has 450 members at five sites in three communities. Elementary teachers in these communities see it as an invaluable resource. The Homework Club helps students who normally would not keep up with their classmates because of limited classroom resources. People in shared dialogue generate the creativity and will to act that would not come about otherwise.

Shared Governance: Where To Begin

Involving citizens in education issues, and in the actual governance of their schools, does present many challenges. Many citizens who are willing to be involved don't find many productive avenues for participation. Others have concluded that they are unqualified, unprepared and overwhelmed by the issues. Still others feel that the atmosphere is too politicized and negative to waste valuable volunteer time. Research suggests that people find the discussion of reform and reorganization too technical to be coherent and too removed from their concerns to be relevant [10].These are a few of the realities and attitudes that serve as barriers to citizen engaging in discussion about their schools, barriers that will certainly take much time and effort to overcome.

It is also true that it would be impossible to have all the major interests and perspectives dialogue before each and every decision on education is made. Communities need to sort out which questions are the jurisdiction of the entire community and which are best left to technical expertise of administrators and professional educators. What is important is that community dialogue can provide the context, overarching values and direction the community would like to see the schools pursue. This is the essence of governance.

Governance is comprised of the authorities, roles, structures, processes and relationships that run a system [11]. Effective governance requires that the individuals, interests and organizations that comprise the governance structure be clear about roles and expectations, processes for working together, and focus on broad desired outcomes or directions. As discovered in Rapides Parish and Wichita, it is easy for false assumptions to perpetually keep communities and their education systems in gridlock, trapped in massive direction swings and conflict.

Parents, students, administrators, and citizens representing all sectors of community must consistently consider fundamental questions about education: What's our shared vision and underlying values for education, what are expectation for key leaders, what are the responsibilities of the entire community toward schools, what are acceptable ways of making decisions, resolving or living with differences and sustaining change? These are questions that can only be addressed with the attitudes and principles inherent in dialogue. (The questions attached at the end of this article are examples of questions that can help communities avoid operating with false assumptions and stay focused on critical governance concerns.)

Governance is fundamentally different from management, although they share features such as monitoring and oversight. Governance is broader and deals with "big-picture" policy and direction setting. It deals with ambiguous problems and trade-offs. Clear boundaries need to be drawn between the broader community's role in governance and that of paid experts, teachers and administrators.

Although there is no single right way to engage the full community effectively in dialogue, there are some broadly applicable principles. The following, based on successful community experiences, should be considered in setting up any form of community dialogue:

  • Roles, responsibilities, desired outcomes (i.e. to share ideas, to get input on a possible opportunity, to actually decide on an important reform) and the process (the how, i.e. consensus) was clear.
  • Traditional leaders-school board members, principals and superintendent-were able to listen and participate as true partners (not abusing there formal power in the discussion)
  • Extra effort was made to ensure that technical jargon was clarified and that necessary background information was provided up front.
  • A convenient, neutral (if necessary) meeting site was selected
  • Neutral facilitation and meeting recording was provided
  • The tasks were appropriate for the size of group (mix small and large group discussion)
  • Ground rules were established and followed by the group


America's public schools were designed to fulfill certain essential public purposes-for example,

to provide opportunities for all and to develop a citizenry capable of self-government.

This public institution has a special place because it is foundational to the effectiveness of our democracy. It is ironic that this institution's public allegiance is waning, and that the skills and abilities necessary for self-government-community participation through effective deliberation-have to be part of the equation of any and all solutions.

Currently few spaces are available for interaction to take place across sectors, socio-economic lines, neighborhoods and race lines. This precludes coming together and developing accord on direction--a requisite for shared ownership and sustained action. Without effective mechanisms, traditions and practices for engaging the full public, the future for public education in America looks uncertain at best. A continued lack of meaningful, effective engagement is likely to produce an irreconcilable gap between education experts, educators and administrators and the broader public. It also means that small, well-organized advocacy groups across the political spectrum will continue to impose their agendas over a less organized public. The sudden reversals in philosophy and policies that occur as political alliances change will become typical. And impasse will become the norm. The end result: public disenchantment and nonsupport, and poor educational performance.

This negative scenario can be avoided when communities acknowledge and act on the fact that education reform and change needs to begin with the broader community. We know that many of the challenges being experienced by our public schools are clearly outside the control of schools, for they stem from deeper problems in society such as the breakdown of the family and other social norms of behavior. These are complex issues that can only be addressed by the whole of community. Acknowledging the interdependence that exists within our communities and the limitations to the mirror theory of representation that forces blinders for the whole system and whole solutions is essential.

It is clear that the public has not been a full or effectively engaged partner in the change efforts of its public schools. Since each school system faces its own unique set of challenges, there is no single effective governance structure for all communities. All school systems, however, could significantly benefit by improving their capacity for authentic dialogue both within their system and along with the public they serve.

Our communities seldom have real dialogue-an authentic and open discussion that leads to shared learning and values, and more trusting relationships. It is what we gain from dialogue that is requisite for ensuring that public schools continue to play the vital role for which they were designed.

It is only through a process of open dialogue and engagement that we can re-engender the "public will" to create and sustain the necessary changes public education will require as it enters the twenty-first century. What is at stake for our communities and country cannot be overstated.


These questions can be used for a first time public dialogue, a more participatory district planning process, for neighborhood focus groups, or any other creative ways communities might wish to use any or all of them. These are the types of questions that communities must continually ask themselves if they hope to effectively engage the whole community in the governance of their public schools.

  1. What makes you most proud of your schools? What are our schools' greatest strengths?
    • In what ways does the community currently support schools and education?
    • What organizations are actively involved in supporting schools?
    • What keeps other organizations or sectors from being more involved with schools?
  2. How critical are our schools to our community? What's their real impact?
    • In what ways have schools in this community changed over the last 20 years?
  3. What are your greatest concerns about your community's schools?
  4. What are the 3-4 greatest challenges or issues facing schools? 3-4
    • What will these issues or challenges be 5-10 year from now?
  5. What keeps us from addressing those issues?


  • What are the most essential things our schools must accomplish? (primary purposes)
  • Does the community have shared sense of vision for our schools-what does the ultimate picture of success looks like? (doesn't have to be an explicit statement)
  • Is the school system currently driven by a vision/mission? Why or why not?
  • Whose role is it to define vision for schools?

Roles and Responsibilities

  • What are the primary responsibilities and expectations of our school board? Superintendent? Principles? Teachers?
  • What are the primary responsibilities and expectations of parents? General Public?
  • What role do businesses and other community organizations have in improving schools?
  • How much agreement is there regarding these roles and expectations? How have these various groups met expectations?

How We Work Together

  • How would you characterize the current relationships between schools and local businesses, community organizations, the media, other sectors in the community, and parents?
    • -How effective is communication between and among these various groups around educational issues?

      -How would you describe the channels of communications between the community and your schools? How could they be improved?

  • Are the forums where various groups and sectors can meet and effectively communicate about educational issues?
  • Is the public as informed about education issues as it needs to be? Who's responsible ensuring the public remains informed? How could it be improved?
  • How are key decisions made? Is public involved in broad, strategic decisions?
  • How would you characterize the involvement of the community? of parents?
  • How would you characterize the process for election of school board members?

Sustaining For The Long Haul

  • What can we do better in our homes or daily lives to positively affect schools?
    • -What would it take to get you involved or more involved in supporting the schools?

      -What types of activities would excite you enough to be more involved with schools?

  • How do we improve the lines of communication for learning, sharing, deciding and taking sustainable actions?
  • What are some creative ways to get business and other community organizations more involved?
  • How do we begin to build a culture of dialogue and shared ownership for our schools?
  • How could learning from this dialogue apply to your current activities? Are there any obvious next steps?

  1. A Report to Citizens from Community Stakeholders in Education: For Our Children...Move Forward in Rapides Parish Education. Alexandria, Louisiana, 1997.
  2. Johnson, J. Assignment Incomplete: The Unfinished Business of Education Reform. Washington DC: Public Agenda, 1995.
  3. Mathews, D. Is There A Public For Public Schools. Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation Press, 1996, p.15.
  4. Mathews, D. Is There A Public For Public Schools. Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation Press, 1996.
  5. Johnson, J. Assignment Incomplete: The Unfinished Business of Education Reform. Washington DC: Public Agenda, 1995.
  6. Chrislip, D. Transforming Politics. Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership, 1995, p.4.
  7. Danzberger, J., Kirst, M., and Usdan, M. Governing Public Schools: New Times New Requirements. Washington, DC: The Institute for Educational Leadership, 1992, p.94.
  8. Henton, D. Grassroots Leaders For A New Economy. 1998
  9. Berman, S. Paper for Group of the Boston Chapter of Educators for Social Responsibility, 1996.
  10. Mathews, D. Is There A Public For Public Schools. Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation Press, 1996, p.8.
  11. Nadler, D., and Spencer, J. Executive Teams. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998, p.193.