In 2002, McREL started a project to start a movement to bring education leaders and community members across the U.S. together to start an important dialogue to make sure that standards-based education lives up to the promise of leaving no child behind.  To support this effort McREL created a website that supported the dissemination of information about the project.  This site provided important research-based resources on standards-based education.  It also provided information about the schedule of events meant to bring educators and community members together to discuss the important issues to make the movement a success.

As IT Manager at McREL during this project I worked with a team to support the creation of the website and the deployment of the website on McREL hosted servers.  I also was invited to assist in the efforts of the National Dialogue events.

National Dialogue Description

The challenge has never been greater for America’s public schools. At the dawn of the 21st century, we are calling upon our schools to do something that no institution and indeed, no society has ever done. As U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige put it, “never in the history of human civilization has a society attempted to educate all of its children.”

To accomplish this goal, states, school districts, and schools all across the country have undertaken a movement of unprecedented scale in the history of American schools — standards-based education.

But now comes the hard part — making sure standards live up to their promise of leaving no child behind. It’s one thing to create standards, tests, and accountability systems, but quite another to find ways to make sure all kids actually reach those standards.

In response to this need, Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL), a nonpartisan, nonprofit education research organization in Aurora, Colorado, has teamed up with Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public opinion research organization in New York City to create and support community dialogues all across the country.

These three-hour dialogues are built on a simple process, called the National Issues Forums, which has been used in communities nationwide for the past 20 years to help them weigh tough choices on divisive issues.

FAQs from National Dialogue Project

Why was this conversation needed?

Most people agree with the notion of standards in principle, but have very different ideas about what they should mean in practice. Thorny questions emerge in most public conversations about standards. For example, whom should we hold accountable for student success? School leaders? Teachers? Parents? Students themselves? How much should our schools focus on testing and test scores? How much should student promotion be based upon assessment results?

In light of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and its heavy emphasis on standards, testing, and accountability, these questions will undoubtedly become even more pressing and school leaders will undoubtedly face many hard choices as schools and communities begin to grapple with how to continually raise student achievement and how to respond when they fail to meet state guidelines for improvement.

At the same time, many school leaders will probably find that the challenges are too great for their schools to tackle on their own; they will need help and support from their communities. School leaders across the nation have found that community conversations are an effective way to garner this support by beginning an open and honest dialogue with members of their communities.

What was the benefit of these conversations?

According to a recent survey conducted by Public Agenda, most school leaders find that their usual opportunities to interact with the public – school board meetings – are typically unpleasant experiences. Often, they serve as a venue for community members to grip or become dominated by a vocal minority of community residents, who exert a disproportionate amount of control over the schools.

School leaders who participate in community conversations, however, say they are entirely different, and have much more civil experiences, which give them far better insights into what their whole community wants from its schools. As a result, they’re better able to make hard choices or carry out big changes. For example, in 1996, the Nebraska State Board of Education worked with Public Agenda to create a series of community conversations on standards-based education. As a result of these conversations, Nebraska’s leaders were able to adopt a unique system of standards-based assessment and accountability – a significant policy change in that state – confident that they were in line with how a large number of residents expected schools to operate.

In addition, these conversations can also generate more interest among community members in school issues and a greater willingness to support schools. For example, quite often, participants collectively conclude that they need to band together as a community to help schools shoulder some of the burden of educating their children.

But are communities really interested in 'leaving no child behind'?

Many signs say they are. Education consistently appears as a top concern among the public, which is not surprising. It’s hard to find anyone who is not connected to education in some way – either as a student, parent, grandparent, taxpayer, or employer.

But more importantly, a recent poll conducted by Education Week found that a majority of Americans say they are willing to take a greater public responsibility for schools to guarantee that all children can succeed. Many people recognize that we all have a stake in making sure our schools prepare all of our children to live and work in 21st century – a time when there’s little doubt that low-skill jobs will be scarce, reading skills essential, and universal education the key to a stable and productive society.

What happens after the community conversation?

Obviously, the outcomes of the conversation depend on what surfaces during the event itself. But commonly, school leaders take what they’ve heard from their communities to guide future actions. In some cases, group of citizens and/or educators have decided to form team or committee to help their schools address issues raised during the event.

It’s also important to note that community conversations do not necessarily have to be single, one-time affairs. This process can be used to engage communities in ongoing conversations on a wide variety of issues. Public Agenda has, in fact, created a library of 14 community conversation starter materials on topics that include school safety, parent involvement, school choice, and school funding. These materials would be available to any communities participating in the National Dialogue on Standards-based Education.

In the San Jose Unified School District in California community conversations have become a regular way for the in to engage the public. The district has even established a Department of Public Engagement to carry out these efforts, which resulted in the district receiving national recognition from a national association of school communications directors.


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