On July 12, 1999, results from a new national opinion poll were released, indicating that more than 60 percent of Americans feel disconnected from government—including the public schools.

While the report, “Americans Unplugged: Citizens and Their Government,” received little press in the educational community, its findings are cause for alarm for everyone who believes that public schools fuel democracy.

“This poll underscores our nation’s challenge in the next millennium,” said Patricia McGinnis, president and CEO of the Council for Excellence in Government, which commissioned the study. “We have an anemic democracy, badly in need of involvement and ownership by its citizens.”

Cutting across all age groups, this trend is most severe with the very age group that is producing our future students, young people ages 18 to 34, and with those most likely to vote on our millages, tax levies, or bond issues: senior citizens.

Is it any wonder our public image is so collectively awful? Like Pogo, “we have met the enemy and it is us.”

The weight of evidence is overwhelming: If we want public education to survive in the next millennium, we have to do a better job of reconnecting and re-engaging our citizens. And that means, among other things, more and better communication.

“The research is real clear,” said Don Barbacovi, a former teacher and school administrator who now heads product development for Voice Poll Communications.

“The number one issue with government in general is a lack of trust,” Barbacovi said. “What we know, not only from national surveys but from good anthropological kinds of research, is that the stronger the connection between the individual and the institution, the higher the trust. The old saying that familiarity breeds contempt is not true. Familiarity breeds contentment.”

Based in Everett, Washington, Voice Poll is an interactive system that enables school leaders to quickly and easily plug into key people for input, guidance, opinion, and advice on a regular basis.

Combining proprietary software with TATI (totally automated telephone interviewing), Voice Poll lets districts touch base with thousands of people at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods.

Currently in 250 school districts in 48 states, Voice Poll typically works like this: Poll participants are notified of the survey via a post card, letter, eMail, or fax and given the dates and times for the survey and a code number. Participants then call the designated number at their convenience, and using their touch tone phone, they answer the survey.

Results are tallied instantaneously. Clients can then plug into the Voice Poll web site (using password protection for confidentiality) to review the results, including charts and graphs, in “real time” as they’re being compiled. A final report is available within hours of the last participant’s phone call.

Costs range from $3,500 for a single survey to $60,000 for a top-flight system (which runs on MS DOS) and training for districts that want to become more self-sufficient.

“When you try to find out what people are thinking, you accomplish two things,” said Roger Pawley, chief executive officer of Voice Poll. “First, you’re improving your relationship with them, and secondly, you’re getting information. With this technology, we’re translating that effect across hundreds of thousands of people very quickly and economically.”

The downside? Since respondents aren’t randomly selected, results can’t be validated as representative of the entire survey pool. So, while Voice Poll is an incredibly useful, two-way communication tool, it doesn’t replace other forms of research, including focus groups, telephone polls, and paper and pencil surveys.

“I always tell my clients that the primary purpose of this tool is for listening, trust-building, and communication, not research,” said Lyn Chambers, APR, president of A la Carte Communications in Littleton, Colorado.

A school PR veteran, Chamber’s firm specializes in educational communications, marketing, and public relations. “You need as many different forms of asking the community for advice and feedback as you can,” she said. “This happens to be a very visible, fast, and convenient tool for getting that feedback on a regular basis.”

In addition to community and public opinion polls, districts are using Voice Poll to gather feedback during community task force meetings, training sessions, student summits, and as part of the strategic planning process at both the school and district levels.

Phone banks and touch pads can be set up in high schools, shopping malls, church lobbies, libraries, grocery stores, video arcades, and senior citizen centers to capture hundreds of opinions in a compressed time period.

In the wake of the Littleton school shooting, some high schools also are looking at the system as a way to gain student insights into issues of safety and school climate.

“If you want to build trust, there are three things you need to do,” explained Barbacovi. “One, great two-way communication. Not one way; schools are so good at one way, but there has to be some sort of consistent feedback loop so parents can give info as well as get it. Two, easy access to information. And three, a sense of participation. We know that the more touches you make, the more ‘asks’ you make, the higher the trust level will be. There’s a very strong relation there.”

Resources

“Americans Unplugged: Citizens and Their Government.” The Council for Excellence in Government, 1301 K Street, NW, Suite 450 West, Washington, DC 20005, phone (202) 728-0418, fax (202) 728-0422.

Public Agenda Online, “Kids These Days,” “Cities, Suburbs and Schools: Would Citizens in Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee Support Greater Collaboration?” Deborah Wadsworth, Executive Director, 6 East 39th Street, New York, NY 10016-0112, phone (212) 686-6610, fax (212) 889-3461.

http://www.publicagenda.org

Voice Poll Communications, Roger Pawley, CEO, or Don Barbacovi, Director of Product Development, (800) 621-9785, roger@voicepoll.com or don@voicepoll.com.

http://www.voicepoll.com