The Maze of Mistrust

How public engagement goes awry in school districts and why dysfunctional relationships persist
By Steve Farkas/School Administrator, February 2016

In 1993, a qualitative study by the Kettering Foundation titled “Divided Within, Besieged Without: The Politics of Education in Four American School Districts” called attention to the dysfunctional relationships operating within school districts.

Steve Farkas has studied public engagement in public schools for more than a quarter-century. (Photography by Yoni)
Relying on in-depth interviews with school and community leaders and focus groups with parents and teachers, the report portrayed school districts beset by fragmentation, turf wars and political infighting. It predicted reform initiatives would be derailed by the central office-teacher divide, by the prevalence of distrust and miscommunication and by the distance between education professionals and the citizens in their communities.

Twenty years later, knowing that much had changed, Kettering asked the FDR Group to replay the research with a new set of school districts. We again relied on the case study method, paying several visits to each of four districts, conducting one-on-one and focus group interviews with over 100 parents, community leaders, teachers, board members and central-office and school administrators.

We selected districts with an eye toward geographic and demographic diversity. The smallest served fewer than 1,000 students and the largest more than 70,000. One was in the Northeast, two in the Midwest and one was in the South. One was a large-city district, another was a small-city system and two were suburban. One district served mostly low-income families, two were mostly middle class and one was mostly affluent.

The title of the report, “Maze of Mistrust,” telegraphs one of its key themes, that the dysfunctional relationships within school districts not only have failed to improve but may even have gotten worse. Public engagement strategies meant to allay suspicions and repair relationships often exacerbate the problem.

Shortchanged Parents
The school district leaders we interviewed were convinced they needed more than board meetings to connect with their constituencies. In each district, they routinely employed techniques they themselves called public engagement: town meetings, focus groups and surveys, and strategic planning.

But we found that instead of building trust, these efforts often led to greater disengagement and even mistrust. For example, in one district, the superintendent and board were close to adopting an open-enrollment policy that would open the schools to families living outside district lines. Expecting some resistance from parents and residents — the district was adjacent to a struggling urban school system — they launched a series of community meetings.

“I was astounded that we had nobody last night,” said the superintendent. “This would’ve been the fifth meeting now because we had two board meetings that discussed open enrollment and then we had our two town meetings, and then last night was the fifth meeting over a three-month time period.”

The board passed the measure without a dissenting vote, but the leadership was uneasy. From their perspective, they still did not have a good handle on how residents really felt about the initiative. Did people just not care? Was there hidden resistance that would come back to haunt them? Or was the outreach badly executed?

A focus group with the district’s active parents explained the unexpected quiet. In part, they thought many people were too busy to show up and had deferred to their leaders. But several who attended the meetings had a gloomier explanation. They felt the meetings were merely an exercise in public relations, an effort to win attendees over rather than elicit concerns and real discussion.

They believed the district leaders already had decided to commit to the initiative. The meetings were held for the sake of appearances. One parent described his experience by saying, “It’s not meaningful engagement. … Engage me in a way that’s meaningful, that’s about educating our kids. We don’t have that. There’s a meeting, and they come in and they do a polished presentation, and it’s not negative, it’s nice, but as far as being messy and getting parents’ real reactions and truly engaging them, I think that’s scary for educators.”

These parents sat quietly through the meeting but left resentful of the process.

Disconnected Teachers
We found district leaders investing serious time communicating with their teachers because they knew that teacher passivity or active resistance can doom a reform.

One superintendent catalogued his outreach: “I go out to every building every month, and I have an open meeting. I have a teacher focus group every month that I just bounce ideas past. We have standing student focus groups, too, that I run every month. Because you’ve got to have feedback groups. You’ve got to have structures. I have evening hours every Monday night, no appointments necessary, anybody can come in — office is open. Staff stop by because they figure, ‘I know he’s there, and I’m going to go bend his ear.’”

It’s hardly news that teachers feel out of the loop when it comes to district initiatives. They often become jaded as reforms are introduced with fanfare, then withdrawn when implementation goes awry or leadership changes. One veteran teacher recalled the myriad reforms she had cycled through: “They keep on getting on the bandwagon of these big ideas, but the implementation is just not there. We’ve gone from site-based management to total quality management. Now we’re very data-based. They have no idea of what we teachers actually do. They haven’t been in the classroom for years and years.”

Many teachers were unimpressed or even disdainful of the engagement efforts of their district. In fact, the above superintendent’s outreach made the central office-teacher divide worse. Teachers felt that while the superintendent presented the meetings as a genuine effort to listen, he was actually trying to persuade them to go along with the program.

This was how one teacher felt about his monthly focus group: “They’ll put out the feelers like they want our opinion, but they’ve already made up their minds. They’re going to do it anyway. Many things that are proposed to us for our opinions and our impressions, I know what it’s about from the get-go. This is you softening us up for the idea; this is you introducing the idea, then repeating it again until it happens whether we agree to it or not.” The skepticism might be seen as reflexive, but teachers acquire it through experiences and it builds on past disappointments.

Gathering Dust
A couple of districts had used strategic planning processes to build consensus over direction and vision. Using workshops with teachers and interviews with community leaders, school board members and active parents, the process typically became an exercise in formality, and most people recognized it as such. One new superintendent used it as a way to get acquainted with his district. The strategic vision document that emerged was typically vague, broadly aspirational and quickly irrelevant.

“We did that once. Does anyone remember?” asked a veteran teacher. “They got representatives from each grade and we talked about priorities, and they did the same thing with other schools. The board was in the report, too. That’s just it — it was just a report.”

One district’s strategic planning process with teachers dramatically backfired. The teachers were initially reluctant to participate, skeptical that the exercise was going to matter. Finally, after they were pressed to speak frankly, they opened up with anger that had been pent-up for years. From seemingly minor complaints about the condition of the teachers’ lounge to accusations that a high school principal was incompetent, the conversations turned nasty and destructive. What had started as an engagement effort ended with teachers attacking building administrators by name. The high school principal resigned within a year, and the superintendent left shortly thereafter.That district’s experience — open hostilities — was unusual. More typically, teachers and parents will politely sit through, or opt out of, a process. The district has their jobs or their children, so they have strong incentives not to rock the boat and become known as troublemakers.

Let’s Run a Survey
For two superintendents and their school boards, public engagement meant conducting annual opinion surveys that tracked parental and teacher satisfaction and concerns. One district used a firm that specialized in conducting school surveys inexpensively. This meant delivering a preconstructed questionnaire that had been fielded in dozens of other districts.

The survey results were routinely positive and noncontroversial. Our interviews indicated that parents and teachers saw these surveys as irrelevant at best. Ironically, district leaders also told us they did not expect to learn anything useful from the surveys. It was getting harder and harder to get teachers and parents to fill them out. But to drop the surveys might be taken as a signal that the district had stopped listening, so the survey was destined to be fielded yet again.

The survey — a tool intended to bolster public engagement — had become another example of the disconnect between district leaders and teachers and parents. It’s like the waiter who comes around to ask diners if “everything is all right.” Most people know that this is a polite routine and that no one is expecting a real answer. But if you are unhappy and the social context requires you to say that everything is fine, you could become unhappier still.

Final Thoughts
Divisions among district stakeholders show no signs of abating since the 1993 study, despite the advent of public engagement strategies. The distance between school districts and their communities also shows no sign of diminishing. Citizens and community groups tend to see school leaders as standing apart from them.

Advocates of school-reform initiatives should plan on running into destructive district dynamics that will inevitably sabotage their most carefully designed reforms. They also should not assume that employing public engagement strategies will relieve the problem.

Almost all of the 10 friendly and smart critics who reviewed a draft of “Maze of Mistrust” shared a similar complaint with me: “You point out important problems but offer no solutions — what are your recommendations?”
I didn’t have anything to say then, and I have to admit I still don’t have any new answers. After all, public engagement strategies have great potential as far as solutions go and we see what happens with them. That they’ve had negative consequences probably says more about how they’ve been implemented than the strategies themselves.

In this study, district leaders mostly used public engagement techniques to manage, coax or reassure key constituencies. Winning support for their initiatives and assessing possible trouble spots were the objectives. We saw that many parents, teachers, principals and community residents grew to understand this – and resented it. In the end, the strategies designed to reconnect districts to their constituents and ameliorate divisions among stakeholders often made those relationships worse.

The estrangement between citizens and governing institutions — and between front-line professionals and the leaders of their organizations — is not a problem that can be solved with the right techniques. There are dispositions and habits of mind and behaviors among leaders and citizens that will undermine efforts to bridge the gap between them, regardless of the techniques used. This is because when leaders are sure they have the right answer, they will regard citizens as a force to manage not engage. And when citizens regard public institutions merely as providers of services paid for with their tax dollars, responsibility for what those institutions do will not be theirs. The problem is a problem of democracy.

Steve Farkas is president of the Farkas Duffett Research Group in New York, N.Y. E-mail: