Improving Schools: What Do We Need from Our Community

To get from A to B, we are going to have to take the plunge into the community’s cultural core, and we are going to have to go deep enough to influence the hearts and minds of the people who ultimately control our schools. We are going to have to address the nostalgia, amnesia, mental models, and the attitudes and beliefs that hold the status quo in place. To get from A to B, we need to go through C. 

The quotation is lifted from Jamie Vollmer’s book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone, a text that describes Vollmer’s journey from public education critic to advocate, convinced that we cannot get from A (where we are with public schools) to B (where we need to be) without going through C (the community).

A former CEO traveling around the country to extol his business solutions for fixing public education, Vollmer does not shy away from disclosing his moments of comeuppance while speaking to educators and facing first hand the obstacles deeply entrenched in the culture surrounding our schools.   Think about it.  We are that culture.  We’ve been to the PTA meetings and public forums.   We have no trouble getting hundreds to show up, listen to the speech, divide into small groups, get excited, and generate great ideas.  Some of those great ideas actually get implemented.  But what really changes?

What Vollmer proposes instead is The Great Conversation, a positive, ongoing discussion between educators and the people of the communities they serve.  In his book, he describes the progress we need to make and four prerequisites:  understanding, trust, permission, and support.

Community understanding:  The community has to understand the kinds of schools we currently have and what they were designed to do.  Vollmer refers to them as models of schools we remember with a mix of nostalgia and amnesia.   As I recall, those schools divided us into thinkers and doers and prepared us for a world that rewarded both castes with decent wages and quality of life wherever we landed.     But we don’t live there any more.   

We live in the 21st century where many of our beliefs, traditions, and assumptions have migrated, but haven’t made the shifts necessary for life in the new environment. As a community we have to understand that old models cannot address 21st century aspirations.  We must also understand that public schools benefit the whole community, whether we have children in them or not.

Community trust:  With all the complexities of education, the community must trust educators to do their jobs, and educators must be seen as working for the community, not as aloof professionals who happen to be in the community.  Mistakes will be made.  Money will be needed.  Emotions will run hot.  Vollmer calls “trust” the lubricant that keeps the process moving forward during the difficult times. 

Community permission:  Yes. You read it right.  Vollmer insists that because we can’t touch a school without touching the culture of the town, we need conversations from which we can harvest yes votes (at election time or in informal meetings) and green light nods of approval by listening carefully to what the community says about itself and its schools.  Fortunately, when we gain understanding and trust, permission follows.

Community support:  Schools cannot fulfill society’s enormous collection of demands by themselves.  It will take all of us to build the understanding, develop the trust, affirm the permissions and support changes that will be difficult but necessary.   The four prerequisites are the resources contained in C that we need to get from A to B.

Vollmer’s book goes into much greater detail with informed suggestions for a way forward, along with this reason for a deeper dive into its premises:

...conditions are finally right for all Americans to do their part.  To join together in common purpose and help their educators create the schools we need, and, in the process, build the communities of our most noble dreams.   Public education is a miracle, and this is its most hopeful time. 

 We have made progress in schools, for sure, but I think we can agree that we need to move much further and faster.   It just makes sense to me that we need a movement focused on C—the community—as the next bold step for improving public education.    With that in mind, Schools Cannot Do it Alone by Jamie Vollmer is worth a read, and definitely worth a conversation.

“It just makes sense to me that we need a movement focused on C—the community—as the next bold step for improving public education. ”