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Abbott History

Section IV
Building Civic Support for Reform in the Abbott Districts

Introduction

Policy studies on the transformation of poor urban communities have included as one critical variable the nature and magnitude of civic support or civic capacity. These studies have found that urban transformation requires the commitment and engagement of its diverse constituencies and that successful change involves collaborative efforts among these diverse groups around a common change effort (Jones & Bachelor, 1993; Putnam, 1993, Stone, 1989a). This variable has been found to be particularly useful in models that have been applied to the study of the economic rejuvenation of urban communities, and has demonstrated significant explanatory power in understanding the transformation of such cities as Atlanta (Stone 1989b), Boston, and San Francisco (Mollenkopf, 1983). Also, it has been suggested that successful implementation of educational reform policies will rest on the development of a broad base of civic support. Such broad base support is viewed as critical to reform efforts as the limited resources in urban school systems makes it virtually impossible for them acting alone to successfully carry out major complex reforms (Orr, 1996). The ability of the Abbott Districts to generate support around the current reform is thus pivotal for ensuring the sustainability of the reform.

Civic capacity refers to the ability of local leaders to build and maintain effective alliances among representatives from governmental, business, non-profit and community-based sectors to work toward a collective problem-solving goal (Civic Capacity and Urban Education Project, 1993: 5). The relevance of this concept to the educational changes that are being enacted in the Abbott Districts is best understood by the ‘double-helix’ conceptualization of school reform. Hill, Wise and Shapiro (1989) posited that school change involves two strands of activities. An internal strand that focuses on the changes and innovations that are occurring within the school, and the internal capacity of the system to support and maintain its change efforts. The second strand pertains to those institutions and groups existing on the periphery of the system, whose support both symbolically as well as in the form of resource assistance is necessary for the reform to be successful.

Several studies have investigated districts’ capacity to support comprehensive reforms. These studies have focused primarily on the internal capacity of these systems, and have concluded that many districts lack the internal capability without assistance to successfully implement the demanding elements of comprehensive reform models (Massell, Kirst & Hoppe, 1997). Within the context of the present study, an attempt was made to measure the level of civic support which the Abbott Districts have been able to harness for previous reform efforts as well as the current ones. The assumption was made that the ability of districts to garner support for Abbott would be influenced by the base of support that existed in prior reform efforts. In addition, we further assumed that a district’s ability to create a sound knowledge base on Abbott in its community would qualitatively impact on the level of support it was likely to receive. We hypothesized that these relationships would be affected by the severity of underlying structural problems and particularly the level of poverty in the community.

Findings

Quality of Civic Support for Prior Reform in the Abbott Districts

The quality of support which the Abbott Districts received in prior reform efforts is presented in Table 4.1. The information contained in the Table indicates that support for prior reform has been more forthcoming from the Districts’ school boards, teachers unions and parents than from any other group. School boards were noted as being strong supporters of previous reform efforts in the Abbott districts, with 45% or 10 out of the twenty-two districts rating the support received as excellent and seven rating the support as good. However, about one fifth or five districts rated the support of their boards as fair to poor. Local teachers unions provided strong support to reform efforts in at least 12 districts. Eight out of the 12 districts indicated that this support was excellent, while 4 rated the support provided by the unions as being good. On the other hand, 8 districts rated the cooperation from the unions as being either fair or poor.

Much has been written about the low level of citizenry concern about, and engagement in public education in the urban districts. However, as is evident from the Table, parental support for reform is perceived as being high in most of the Abbott districts. Almost 80% of the districts rated the quality of support received from this constituent group around previous reforms as being either good or excellent. Support from local city politicians, religious and community-based organizations was perceived to be decidedly much weaker than parental support but stronger than that received from other civic groups . For example, in slightly over a half of the Abbott districts (52.3%), local politicians support for educational reform was perceived to be either fair or poor. Seven districts indicated that local politicians provided very

Table 4.1
Quality of Support Received from Key Civic Groups Around Prior Reforms

 

Quality of Support for Prior Reform

Civic Groups

Excellent

Good

Fair

Poor

School Boards

45.5

31.8

13.6

9.1

Teachers Unions

40.0

20.0

25.0

15.0

Citizenry-parents

33.3

47.6

14.3

4.8

City Government

23.8

23.8

19.0

33.3

Community-Based Organizations

19.0

33.3

28.6

19.0

Private Corporations

9.5

28.6

28.6

33.3

Foundations

--

28.6

23.6

47.6

Religious Institutions

9.5

38.1

23.8

28.6

Institutions of

Higher Education

9.0

28.6

38.1

14.3

Advocacy Groups

20.0

20.0

45.0

14.3

Note: Number of districts responding-22

little assistance to their reform efforts, while 4 districts rated the support received as fair. However, ten districts reported receiving the strong backing of their local politicians in their previous attempts to improve schooling. Community based organizations were noted as lending quality support in about half of the districts (52.3%) and religious groups in about 48% of the districts.

Private corporations and foundations, on the other hand, based on the data furnished in the Table, were perceived as being the most disengaged groups in the urban districts. Only a handful of districts reported receiving quality support from these groups as they embarked on previous reforms. Institutions of higher education and advocacy groups were also viewed by the districts as being weak in their support of previous change efforts. Indeed, about 60% of the districts perceived the support which universities have provided to be fair or poor. A comparable number of districts (59%) expressed similar sentiments in their ratings of the support received from advocacy organizations.

The level of overall support received from these various civic groups was found to be quite uneven. Based on the data, it was evident that some Abbott Districts have been able to establish a firm base of civic support around previous reform efforts. However, there were a number of districts for whom civic support for reform has been weak and fragmented. These districts have been unable to garner the same degree of support from their boards or external groups to support their change efforts as the former group.

Knowledge about and Support For Abbott Reform

The knowledge base of the major civic groupings around the Abbott reform process as it is unfolding in the districts is perceived to be quite uneven. As one would expect, the local school boards and teachers unions were thought to be the most knowledgeable about the districts’ implementation efforts, followed by advocacy groups. About 43% and 57% of the districts felt that their school boards and teachers unions were very knowledgeable about

Abbott. In contrast, local politicians, private corporations, foundations and religious institutions were thought to have the least amount of knowledge on Abbott, with

Table 4.2
Level of Civic Group Knowledge About Abbott Reform

 

Level of knowledge

Civic Groups

A Lot

Some

Very Little

School Boards

42.9

47.6

9.5

Teachers Unions

57.1

33.3

9.5

Citizenry-Parents

4.8

66.7

28.6

City Government

14.3

23.8

61.9

Community-based

Organizations

9.5

52.4

38.1

Private Corporations

--

14.3

86.7

Foundations

--

14.3

86.7

Religious Institutions

--

38.1

61.9

Institutions of Higher education

14.3

42.9

42.9

Advocacy Groups

19.0

61.9

19.0

Note: Number responding-22

corporations and foundations perceived as being the least informed. Although slightly more than half of the districts in the study indicated that institutions of higher education had some knowledge about their Abbott Reform activities, a significant percent (43%) noted that these institutions had very little or no knowledge at all about their activities.

Given the unevenness in the level of awareness about Abbott in these communities one may hypothesize that the level of support around the reform is likely to reflect this pattern. Table 4.3 supports our hypotheses. Districts are getting their strongest support for Abbott from their local boards (62%). Only one district indicated that it received minimal support in its attempts to implement the Abbott remedies. Interestingly, the local teachers unions

Table 4.3
Level of Support Received For Abbott Reforms and Implementation from
Key Civic Groups

 

Level of Support

Civic Groups

A Great Deal

Some Support

Very Little Support

School Boards

61.9

33.3

4.8

Teachers Unions

38.1

42.9

19.0

Citizenry-Parents

23.8

57.1

19.0

City Governments

4.8

47.6

47.6

Community Base Organizations

4.8

57.1

38.1

Private Corporations

 

 

23.8

76.2

Foundations  

14.3

85.7

Religious Institutions  

38.1

61.9

Institutions of Higher Education

14.3

33.3

52.4

Advocacy Groups

9.5

42.9

47.6

Note: Number of Districts responding-22

while seen as being very supportive of Abbott in some districts (about one third), were viewed as being only somewhat supportive in 43% of the districts, and of no support in 4 districts. Private corporations, foundations, and institutions of higher education continue to exist on the fringes of the reform. As can be seen from the data in Table 4.3, 86% of the districts indicated that they had received no support from foundations. An equally large percent, 76% made the same observation for private corporations. In the case of institutions of higher education, the percentage of districts reporting minimal support around Abbott was 52%. One interesting finding in the Table is the relatively higher percentage of districts who reported very little support for Abbott from religious institutions as compared to the support received from this group in previous reform activities.

While our previous analysis allowed us to establish the relative role being played by these civic groups, it is equally important to determine the overall level of civic capacity that exists in any Abbott district. Thus, the question may be raised as to how broad based is the support for Abbott. In addressing this question, we developed three levels of support. Broad-based support is said to exist if districts reported receiving some or a great deal of support from at least six civic groups. Minimal support exists if districts are being supported in their reform efforts by less than five of these groups. A moderate base of support exists if districts have the backing of five groups. Based on this typology we have 11 districts in the Abbott communities with a fairly solid base of support. In these districts

Table 4.4
Correlates of Civic Support for Abbott

 

Level of Civic Support for Abbott

Knowledge

Base of Civic Groups

History of Civic Support

Prior Reform History

State Aid

Level of Civic Support for Abbott  

.63**

.60**

-.10

-.25

Knowledge Base of Civic Groups    

.56*

-.06

-.50*

History of Civic Support      

.20

-.33

State Aid        

-.27

** Significant at p< .01; *p<.02

at least six of the major civic style groups who we would expect to have a stake in reform efforts have been supportive of the districts. There are approximately three districts with a moderate base, and six districts who virtually are undertaking this major reform effort with little or no support from their communities. Indeed, among this latter group, one district reported receiving support from only one group.

What factors impact on a district’s ability to generate support for its reform efforts? Although the data does not allow us to explore this question fully, we attempted to look at the relationship between civic support for Abbott and the historical base of support that has existed in the communities prior to Abbott. Other concerns were the knowledge base of community groups, the extent of prior reform activities, and a measure of resource scarcity as reflected in reliance on state aid. These inter-relationships are summarized in Table 4.4 in the form of correlation coefficients. An examination of the coefficients reveal that support for Abbott is significantly related to knowledge base and a prior history of strong civic involvement. Districts with higher levels of civic support for Abbott were more likely to have informed constituents and were also more likely to have a tradition of civic support for reform than those with lower levels. The ability to create an informed community in turn was significantly related to prior civic history as well as dependence on state aid. The more economically deprived the district was, the more trouble it had in building a sound knowledge base in its community (-.50). Indeed, the poorer Abbott districts were apt to engage in fewer reform activities prior to the Abbott rulings, and to have a weaker history of community support and a lower level of support for the current reforms. In contrast, districts that had experiences in forging relationships around previous reforms were more likely to indicate that groups in their communities were knowledgeable about Abbott. These districts one may surmise already had established linkages which could be redirected to support Abbott.

Impact of Civic Support on Districts’ Embracement of Abbott Remedies

The centrality of capacity as a variable, which influences successful implementation and subsequent sustainability of reforms has been repeatedly addressed in all the major studies of complex reform efforts. In these studies, it has been pointed out that capacity encompasses not only the factors that may be internal to the institutions undergoing transformation, but also those factors or variables that are relevant to the nexuses of relationships in the environment in which the transforming institution finds itself. The preceding analysis attempted to clarify the level of support emanating from the wider community for Abbott. Through this analysis it was established that there are distinct differences among the districts with respect to this factor. The question may thus be raised as to whether or not the districts’ willingness to embrace the remedial measures in Abbott is influenced by the level of civic engagement in reform. Table 4.5 provides an explication of these relations.

As can be seen from the data in the Table, the single most important factor that influences how willing districts are to support Abbott is the history of civic support for prior reforms. Embracement of the system-wide, elementary and secondary remedies were all significantly impacted by the level of civic support for prior reforms. The correlation coefficients are .654, .604 and .590 respectively. In other words, Districts that have had a history of community involvement and support around previous reform efforts tended to embrace the Abbott remedies more readily than districts without this history. Ironically, this played a more significant role in influencing districts’ support for Abbott than current support. One may conjecture that Districts, based on their previous reform efforts are well aware of what is needed to forward this complex and ambitious reform. Districts which have had to struggle through previous reform initiatives on their own are therefore, more tentative in their support of the remedies than those who enjoy support for reforms from their communities.

Table 4.5
Correlation Between Support for Abbott Remedies and Selected Factors

 

Support for System-wide Remedies

Support for Elementary Remedies

Support for Secondary Remedies

Civic Capacity –Abbott

.31

.32

.29

Civic Capacity History

.65*

.60*

.59*

Prior Reform Activities

.32

.22

-.11

Poverty Level

.26

.61*

-.18

*Significant at p< .01

The economic conditions of the school systems influenced only the level of support for the elementary remedies. The direction of the relationship implied that the poorer school districts were inclined to be more supportive of the elementary remedies than those that were relatively better off. It is quite plausible to suggest that the need for pre-school and other early childhood programs is more dire in the poorest of the Abbott Districts.

Conclusion

Studies on educational change in such cities as Pittsburgh, Boston and St. Louis (Jones, Portz & Stein, 1997), Baltimore (Orr, 1996), Detroit (Hula, Jelier & Schauer, 1997), Chicago and New York (Gittell, 1994), have all demonstrated that the ability or inability to form a broad based coalition of civic-style education interest groups is significantly related to the degree of educational success enjoyed. Within the context of Abbott, the data is unequivocally clear that the neediest of these districts are experiencing great difficulties in activating civic capacity in support of the current reform. These districts appear to lack the necessary organizational resources that can be marshaled on behalf of building institutional linkages for forwarding Abbott. Simply reconstituting the governance structure of a school to allow for the voices of the community in influencing school decisions is not enough. For the Abbott districts, the connection between school and community in the reform process must entail the solicitation of support both symbolically and in the form of resource assistance from key groups in the community.

Our data indicates that several of these groups are perceived as having a marginal status with respect to educational change. The business community, foundations, local governments, religious institutions and institutions of higher education in particular have, based on the findings reported a tangential relationship with the Abbott districts. While some districts report being the recipients of broad-based support, there are several for whom this simply does not exist. Assisting the latter group of districts in building local capacity and coalitions around Abbott is thus an imperative. However building institutional linkages in support of Abbott in these districts may be challenging given their smaller economic base, lack of organizational resources, and a structure of public and private sectors which may not lend itself easily to coalition building around education change.