How Community-Led, Community-Driven Can Overcome Education Culture Wars

Mar 7, 2024 | Leadership, Shift

How Community-Led, Community-Driven Can Overcome Education Culture Wars

by Rich Harwood, President and Founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation

Americans’ satisfaction with the quality of K-12 education hit an all-time low last year according to a Gallup poll. Many educational disparities and inequities have widened since COVID. In the meantime, education has become fertile ground for the ongoing culture wars. Chances are things will only heat up as local, state, and presidential elections loom.

But while education is often used to divide us, I believe it is actually one of the best issues to bring communities together. Just look at the example being set by Reading, PA.

In 2011, Reading was declared the poorest community in the U.S. It represents a rapidly changing America, shifting from a once predominantly White industrial town to 65% Hispanic. While it has made strides in the past decade, it remains beset by poverty, fragmentation, and youth violence.

Education progress in places like Reading may seem impossible.

There are good reasons for pessimism. Just look at the state of our education discourse over the past few years. Infighting at school board meetings, contentious debates over critical race theory, a rise in book-banning efforts. All of it feeding conflict and despair. Conventional wisdom says we’re too divided to take real action on a complex issue like education.

Reading is defying the odds. Why?

In Reading, The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation partnered with Centro Hispano, an organization with deep community roots. We engaged 36 leaders in in-depth interviews and held 16 community discussions, five in Spanish. A simple idea animated these efforts: under the right conditions, community-led education change can cut through the noise to create a shared agenda and the public will to take concrete action.

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The Reading agenda isn’t focused on highly-charged issues. Instead, people sought action on practical concerns like English as a second language; early childhood education; and after- and out-of-school activities. People want every child to succeed.

In my experience, people’s relationship to education reflects whether they see themselves as part of a larger community. In Reading, people insisted that these concerns were the responsibility of the whole community, not just the schools.

Like in Reading, we need to identify and carry out concrete, achievable efforts—starting in our spheres of influence and including folks from all across the community, not just educators—to restore people’s belief that we can make lasting progress on education. We must reawaken our sense of possibility and our innate capabilities to take collective action so that our youth can truly thrive.

Of course, more political leaders and media—and even sometimes local leaders—will need to stop filling people with fear, anxiety, and division. But we can’t wait for them. We must start now.

Reading didn’t wait. With backing from key local funders, 50 community leaders and residents joined together to act on their critical agenda items. And they’ve been producing concrete results when it comes to delivering English as a second language opportunities, expanding early childhood education access, and creating new opportunities for youth outside of school.

Reading is just one example. Simultaneously, Clarksville, TN, and Lexington, KY, two communities with entirely different demographics and challenges, produced their own agendas.

Clarksville, TN, was recently named the best place to live in the U.S. People new to the community are streaming in. New housing, schools, and roads are being built. And it’s proud to be home to Fort Campbell. But they’re struggling to manage their growth without leaving anyone behind.

Lexington, KY, is bustling with rapid growth, expanding job opportunities, an abundance of programs, and financial resources. But many people feel like their zip code determines their access to opportunities.

Despite their differences and unique inflection points, all three communities created a strikingly
similar agenda on education. The shared agenda items included:

1. Mental health and mentoring
2. After- and out-of-school activities
3. Pathways for success
4. Pre-K and early childhood education
5. Teachers who look like the community
6. Equitable allocation of resources
7. Community and student voice

You can dig deeper into these items and the process through which they emerged in our recent report, A Common Agenda: How Three Communities Overcame Societal Tumult to Create Educational Equity Agendas. The report also details how communities might ward off and overcome the narrow and divisive politics of our time and we’ll discuss this and more in our April 18th, ThoughtStretchers Education Community Online Event where we’ll be joined by Brigitte Blom of The Prichard Committee which is investing heavily in this work.

Each of these communities is not immune from the education culture wars. Yet they seek a fundamentally different path, one grounded in shared aspirations and collective responsibility rather than negativity and division.

All this has implications for how we achieve educational progress today. In these communities, the change wasn’t led by experts or political groups. There were no cookie-cutter agendas imposed on the community from a distant national organization or a top-down approach from the state government or a district. The agenda and actions being taken came from the community—both educators and non-educators—intentionally involving the community’s full diversity.

There is reason for frustration, even despair, at the conditions facing educators these days. But we need not let the culture wars distract us from turning our schools and communities into places where all kids thrive. From Reading, PA; Clarksville, TN; and Lexington, KY, we should take hope—authentic hope that it is possible to forge a new, practical path forward when we make educating our youth the business of the entire community.

Educators, if you’re interested in helping your community forge a different path, register for The Harwood Institute’s next Virtual Getting Started Lab to learn how to Turn Outward and catalyze a chain reaction of actions in your community.

Richard C. Harwood is the President and Founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization located in Bethesda, MD.

 

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