In a society whose citizens have demanding family and work responsibilities, few Americans have the time, expertise, or the inclination to throw themselves into the challenge of making schools better. Like people who inhale second-hand smoke, Americans are increasingly breathing "second-hand democracy." Rather than taking major steps to address the issues that can ensure quality public schools and teaching for all young people, Americans seem content to watch a small, committed group of activists take the lead.
In fact, fewer than half of Americans say they are actively involved in public schools. Many want to help but in limited ways and often only when motivated by a life-or-death crisis.
The following report, Action for All: The Public's Responsibility for Public Schools, is based on a national survey of those who are registered voters -- who, perhaps not coincidentally, are the Americans most likely to take civic action. The report seeks to assess the extent to which the public is supporting -- or failing -- its schools. In an era of accountability in public education, the report seeks to define what the public should be held accountable for. More specifically, the report is designed to provide some useful answers for educators and policymakers about a range of issues: How does the public define its own responsibility for public education? What motivates the public to act? What kind of information does the public need to become better informed, and to whom does the public look to for reliable and trustworthy information?
This report is the first product of a new partnership between the Public Education Network (PEN), the nation's largest grassroots advocacy network for school improvement, and Education Week, the nation's newspaper of record in precollegiate education. Each year for the next five years, PEN and Education Week will release a new national survey that will further explore different aspects of public responsibility for public schools.
The bad news is that Americans say they have only three hours or fewer available to them each week to do anything to improve public schools. The good news is that the public actions required to ensure that schools are improving are not that difficult, expensive, or time consuming.
What Americans say they can and should do is to better perform their traditional civic duties -- becoming better informed about education, increasing the pressure on elected officials to do whatever it takes to get better results for a broader range of students, and exercising their responsibility to vote as knowledgeable education consumers.
In fact, if Americans were to do one thing that could make schools better it would simply be to become "education voters," who know the issues, know the candidates' positions, and use the power of the voting booth to improve schools.