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Public Engagement for Public Education: Joining Forces to Revitalize Democracy and Equalize Schools

reviewed by Jack Schneider - March 15, 2011

coverTitle: Public Engagement for Public Education: Joining Forces to Revitalize Democracy and Equalize Schools
Author(s): John Rogers and Marion Orr (eds.)
Publisher: Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
ISBN: 0804763569, Pages: 344, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

School reform today is dominated by billionaire philanthropists, top-down accountability systems, and high profile urban school chiefs striving to identify “what works” and to take those solutions to scale. This approach to educational change, characteristic among the nation’s most ambitious reformers, has succeeded in generating enthusiasm and ratcheting up expectations. So far, however, it has failed to solve the nation’s perceived schooling woes.

In part, such efforts have fallen short because they fail to wrestle with the full complexity of school improvement, as well as the added difficulty of adjusting to variously distinct local circumstances. So if entrepreneurial thinkers, deep-pocketed donors, and aggressive mandates haven’t done the trick, what will? Perhaps, as the contributors to this volume suggest, the answer is greater public engagement.

But what does public engagement mean, exactly? And what does it look like? The authors frame their volume as a field-mapping one designed to bring together the “diverse activities” that they believe constitute the landscape of public engagement for public education.

The book is divided into three sections, the first of which examines the context of public engagement, and the last of which is dedicated to four case studies. In between, contributors explore the five “streams” of engagement identified by the editors in their introduction: coproduction, democratic governance, community organizing, alliances, and social movements. This organizational scheme highlights the five streams framework that is clearly the book’s key contribution—a contribution that will no doubt be borne out in the footnotes of future scholars.

The structure of the work also, however, draws attention to some of its shortcomings, some of which—like the lack of a parallel approach across all chapters—may be endemic to edited volumes. The middle section of the book, for instance, is focused on the five streams of engagement, but is made up of only four chapters. Three deal with a single stream each, and a fourth takes on two streams—a seemingly minor issue, especially given the fact that the two-stream chapter is one of the strongest in the book. Still, the merging of two streams into a single chapter raises questions about the broader conceptual framework. Are we to conclude that some streams are more interrelated than others?

A parallel approach is also absent in terms of the focus of the book’s middle chapters. Four streams—coproduction, community organizing, alliances, and social movements—are all chapter headliners (even if two of them are merged into a single chapter). But a fifth stream—“democratic governance”—is dealt with only indirectly in a chapter titled “Democratic Institutions, Public Engagement, and Latinos in American Public Schools.” Tellingly, the chapter’s shortened title, appearing in the top corner of each page, is “Latinos in American Public Schools.” It’s an interesting chapter, and makes several compelling points about the uniqueness of the Latino population when it comes to questions of public engagement. But it provides a thin treatment of democratic governance, and its focus on Latinos raises questions about the absence of corresponding chapters on African-Americans, rural populations, and other groups unequally served by public schools.  

While the volume’s organization highlights the five streams framework, it has the unintended side effect of marginalizing the case studies that make up the last part of the book. Those cases, examining public engagement in Chicago, Los Angeles, Mobile, and Philadelphia, provide some of the thick description required to bring a relatively abstract concept into focus. Yet, separated from the analysis in earlier sections, they lose some of that capacity and often drift into something closer to advocacy journalism.  

Still, the book makes a number of strong contributions, and at its best it begins to reveal a picture of what public engagement is good for in public education. One comes away from it feeling, for instance, that insider knowledge about the community is something that clearly matters, and that an organized public can be incredibly powerful in driving policy forward. No small feats given the current reform climate.

Is this book the ultimate authority on public engagement for public education? No. While it firmly establishes that some elements of public engagement matter—community knowledge, for example—it leaves as open questions the particular nature of that influence. But one book can hardly be expected to write the final word on any matter, and that isn’t what the editors of this volume set out to do, anyway. Scavengers will certainly put particular chapters of the book to work; but one can only hope that the big questions the book raises will not be left forever unanswered—that it will be put to use in service of the broader aims envisioned by its editors.  

Those who do take up this line of inquiry might, in addition to building upon this volume, also examine its fundamental assumption: that parents and activists should direct their energies toward the public schools. The schools, after all, already shoulder the responsibility for solving many of the nation’s woes, and the multiple claims made on the schools pull educators in many different directions. In a zero-sum game, how are time and resources best spent? Should they be directed toward the schools? Or should they target other issues like jobs, housing, and healthcare? Where, exactly, does public education fit in the broader spectrum of public engagement? When, and in what particular capacity, do we want the public engaged in schools? And by public, who exactly do we mean?  

These are questions without simple answers. But in an age in which policy elites are determined to find simple solutions to complex problems, advocates of public engagement would do well to continue wrestling with the problems of democracy in all of their messiness.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 15, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16366, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 2:35:43 AM

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About the Author
  • Jack Schneider
    Carleton College
    E-mail Author
    JACK SCHNEIDER is Robert A. Oden, Jr. Postdoctoral Fellow for Innovation in the Liberal Arts at Carleton College. His is also the author of Excellence For All: How a New Breed of Reformers Is Transforming America’s Public Schools (in press).
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