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Professional Opinion

Reversing the trust deficit

How to reconnect and re-engage school leaders with their communities

Today’s education system is facing a debilitating threat in the form of a “trust deficit” that is undermining school and district leadership. As trust in our education leaders declines, so does student learning due to delayed education reform, decreased student achievement and fractured communities.

These may sound like drastic outcomes for the loss of something as ephemeral as trust, but this kind of damage is taking place in districts nationwide, such as Chicago, Ill.; Oakland, Calif.; and Ferndale, Wash., where school administrators are struggling to assure an emotional public that closing underutilized buildings is the right choice when faced with challenging school budgets. And, just this week, a statewide curriculum system developed by 20 Texas Educational Service Centers was ended because of a perceived Anti-American Agenda.

What’s driving this lack of trust? Some blame can certainly be placed on the influence of social media, where an outspoken few can focus undue attention on school issues only tangentially related to academics. While vocal opponents of school administrators have always spoken their minds at school board meetings or in letters to the editor, the amplification effect of the social media bullhorn now makes it possible for a single tweet to derail the best-laid plans for education reform, diverting leadership’s time and attention away from truly critical issues.

And trust in school administrators has also been affected by demands for change from outside of the school community. Thanks to sky-high expectations of those who fear American students will be unprepared to compete for jobs in our global economy, policy experts are now pushing reform and regulations down to schools without seeking any input from school administrators, teachers or parents. Faced with eroding community trust, it’s more crucial than ever for district leaders to take immediate action that shows commitment to transparency and collaborative decision-making. And the way to do that is by embarking on a “listen and engage” campaign that focuses on some key components.

Bring in all voices–not just the loudest

There is nothing wrong with folks who comprise what we call the vocal minority. They are merely doing what a democracy like ours allows — perhaps even requires — them to do by participating in the issues that impact us all. It is wrong, however, if those are the only voices heard on these key issues. The disengagement of the vast majority of stakeholders distorts the picture and may potentially rob our communities of the civic capacity needed to tackle our biggest and most pressing challenges. School leaders need to embrace the responsibility of engaging a broader audience — and then engage that audience effectively.

Seek an informed debate

When districts do reach out to a broad audience, their call for discussion often sounds too technical and jargon-laden. Asking parents what they think about Common Core, Teacher Professional Development or “Inquiry-Based Instruction” likely will not lead to a constructive or useful dialogue. Most parents need to understand exactly what those terms mean and where the ideas originated from in order to make informed decisions.

Foster positive morale

Most educators work in public education because they’re passionate about teaching, not because they expect a big payday. Yet, so-called experts continue creating money-based incentive systems, such as pay for performance and mandated superintendent salary caps. The former is killing teacher morale, while the latter has seen the unintended consequences of a sharp rise in superintendent turnover, early retirement and a shortage of well-qualified public school leaders. Everyone from the Secretary of Education to all 50 state governors and legislators needs to understand that “flogging shall continue until morale improves” is not an effective basis for educational reform. Rather, they should look to the corporate world’s practice of directly involving those most impacted by consequential decisions, a much more valuable way to bring about change while fostering morale.

In an environment where trust in leaders is in short supply, we need less talking and more listening. We need to create ways for all public education stakeholders — superintendents, teachers, parents, students, community members and policy makers at all levels — to gain a deeper understanding of what’s happening in our schools and why. In the absence of a solid foundation of trust, even the best ideas will be regarded with suspicion and changes will be costly if not impossible. We can and must do better.

—Suhail Forooqui is chief executive officer of K12 Insight, a Herndon, VA-based technology and communications firm that helps school district leadership better engage in conversations with parents, teachers, staff, students and the general public on critical district issues. He can be reached at