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Who is responsible for education in a community? Implications of living in the education silo.

In most communities today, the word "education" has been reduced to mean "what the public schools do." Whenever a community issue is perceived as involving "education," the common belief is that it is a matter to be handled within the walls of the school building.

At the core of this belief is a concept that permeates the landscape far beyond the world of education. It is called the silo effect. This is a phenomenon that occurs when system components fail to communicate with each other. Organizations such as schools, civic bodies, and even individual citizens find themselves operating out their own small world. Problems and their solutions become compartmentalized and assigned to the most logical organization.

This silo effect has created norms of interaction that have embedded themselves in the American way of life. One of the casualties of this belief is the weakening relationship between the public schools and the communities in which they reside. Today, schools and their communities are fast becoming separate entities that act as though they have nothing in common other than the geography they occupy. Each has come to view the other's problems as not their responsibility.

A Fundamental Problem for Schools and Communities

The silo effect is reinforced by the way school officials and communities talk about education. The language that is used rarely helps to create a connection between the personal lives of citizens and the schools. School officials talk about education issues in vague and technical terms that don't spark any connection for the average citizen. In turn, citizens talk about their schools as though they are some sort of add-on to the community that takes care of their educational needs. This silo effect has grown to be a fundamental problem for our schools and communities. Not only does this increase the isolation of the schools, limiting what they can realistically accomplish, but citizens also curb their potential to enhance the community's progress as they narrow their beliefs about who can provide education. Too often, they end up excluding themselves as potential actors who could make a difference.

Whether the issue is academic achievement, student discipline, adequate funding, or drug abuse, school officials and citizens alike put it in the "educational silo" and reduce it to "what the public schools do." This narrow perspective of where these problems fit and how they can be worked out severely limits the options and creativity needed for resolving them.

How Problems Are Discussed

Consider the example of illegal drug use in a community. It is often broken into two silos: law enforcement and education. The former becomes the responsibility of the police, and the latter is handed to the schools. For the rest of the community, unless the problem directly affects a family, it is someone else's problem to fix. It isn't a dilemma for the community, except perhaps to demand that the schools and police do their jobs. When such an issue is dumped into someone else's silo, it is rare that its complexity is openly discussed and widely understood. Instead, it is often defined in overly simple terms that someone else should take care of. Simplistic mantras become the conventional wisdom of the day:

* Just throw them out of school.

* They wouldn't have gotten away with it in the school I went to.

* I'm glad my kid isn't there anymore.

When people tend to evaluate their schools (and other civic institutions) in such a way, it easy to see why the level of trust communities hold for their schools is declining.

Addressing the issue of student achievement is another example of the limiting nature of the silo effect. School officials talk about student performance in ways that tell the story of how the schools are performing and what they are doing to get better. Data are reported to document improvement and to describe goals. The community is then left with a fistful of graphs, tables, and charts from which to draw meaning. Seldom, if ever, are community representatives assembled to respond to questions such as:

* What do you think this means for our community?

* Why is school achievement for our youth a matter of concern for everyone?

* What information can we provide to help you to decide how we are doing?

Or, even at a more basic level:

* How can our schools and community work together to solve problems?

* What kind of a school system do we want?

Typically, the implication is clear that the only parties that really need be concerned are the schools, students, and parents. There is no room or need for anyone else to become directly involved or concerned. After all, this is a teaching and learning issue, which is what schools do.

These messages give the impression that the achievement level of the community's children does not have any bearing on the day-to-day life of citizens who no longer have children in the schools. Even parents are left to wonder what effect learning has on them. So, with no direct personal stake, the average citizen is hard pressed to see how or why he or she should become involved in this hazy notion of academic performance. As this becomes the normal relationship between the schools and community, each will naturally drift into its own silo.

Not only does this leave the schools with the sole responsibility to improve student performance--a role accepted as appropriate by most school personnel--but it also sets off a cascade of unanticipated consequences. When average citizens can no longer see a relationship between the work that the schools are doing and their personal lives, they are less likely to financially support the schools, which, in turn, presents a host of difficult budget choices.

Perhaps the most treacherous consequence of all is that there will be a growing belief that education is about only "what my child can get out of it" and that education is more about gaining a personal advantage than anything else. As this belief starts to take root, our communities will begin to forget why it is important to educate all children--not just from a humanitarian standpoint, but an economic one as well.


The implications of living in an education silo are causing the relationship between schools and communities to unravel. Each has come to view the other's problems as someone else's responsibility. The only time they seem to pay attention to the other's issues is when these concerns bleed across boundaries into their world, which often becomes a source of resentment.

Poverty, for example, is not a problem that the schools see as theirs to work out, but it poses severe problems for everyone when some children bring societal problems through the school house door. Likewise, when school districts fail to raise sufficient funding, it often becomes a great inconvenience for the community when the school buses stop rolling, class sizes increase, or sports are eliminated. However, given the way that schools and communities talk about these matters, there is little to induce anyone from the other silo to share ownership for the resolution of the problem.

The failure of the other guy to solve his own problems often breeds resentment because of the difficulty it creates for others. It is like the dilemma faced by the individual whose large oak tree provides shade to a neighbor in the summer but dumps piles of leaves in both yards to be raked in the fall. The benefits and the work are there to be shared. If not, resentment will build, and the relationship between the neighbors will deteriorate. This is especially sad when shared ownership for the problem may have eliminated it.

Everyone's Expectations Become Hurdles

The Santa Rita Collaborative, through its work with school superintendents, has observed these phenomena in many communities throughout Ohio. We believe that the tendency for school districts to operate in silos is increasing. Ironically, as funding becomes scarce and the accountability associated with high-stakes testing and state educational standards becomes more pressing, the expectations for the superintendent become more and more silo oriented. Sitting squarely in the front seat driving these standards for behavior are boards of education, school district staff, community members, and even the superintendents' profession.

Typically, boards of education expect the superintendent to address goals such as maintaining the fiscal solvency and keeping the public happy with high test scores. Quite often, their directives are for the schools to control the agenda and the word on the street. Keep good news in front of people.

The staff expects the superintendent to provide a good working environment with few interruptions from outside the walls of the classroom. The implication is that involvement from the outside slows progress, especially by those who don't have kids in school.

The community expects the schools to address all issues that carry the name "education." It expects that it is the school's job to figure out what the problems related to education are and how to fix matters. After all, schools are filled with professionals who have been trained to deal with these matters.

And, finally, the superintendents' profession speaks of leadership as something that meets everyone's expectations. Superintendents are trained to handle matters by breaking them down into their identifiable components: Student achievement is improved by addressing such things as standards, assessment, and pedagogy. Fiscal integrity relates to sound business practices. And community engagement is about providing information and receiving feedback.

The problem is that all of these expectations focus solely on what the schools need to do. Missing is any talk about education extending beyond the walls of the school building.

These expectations impede the growth of a community and its schools. In a sense, they handcuff superintendents from providing the sort of leadership that can change the way a community talks about its relationship with the schools. To provide the kind of leadership that changes the way educational issues are named and discussed in the community, superintendents must overcome entrenched cultural expectations.

Light at the End of the Tunnel

While implications of the belief that education is what only the public schools do are cause for serious concern, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. A growing number of school superintendents are beginning to question the widely held expectations for their work. Some are beginning to understand that the future of public schools is in the hands of the entire community, not just the school system. While these superintendents are beginning to think differently about how they talk with their communities, most of the behavior emerging from that thinking is for the purpose of gaining financial support. Still, we see signs that what these superintendents have learned from those experiences will eventually expand the scope of experimentation in a way that resists the conventional expectations for their work.

As we document these stories of experimentation--successes and failures--we hope to create a body of evidence that will help us to understand how superintendents can do their part to change community conversations around issues related to education. More important, we hope to see superintendents begin to question the current relationship between their schools and communities.

DOI: 10.1002/ncr.21122

This article is based on work undertaken by the authors in a joined research project of the Kettering Foundation, It is being republished with permission of the foundation.

Charles Irish is a member of Santa Rita Collaborative, a network of consultants devoted to helping schools increase their educational capacity.

William G. O'Callaghan is founder and owner of the Santa Rita Collaborative.
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Author:Irish, Charles; O'Callaghan, William G.
Publication:National Civic Review
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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