by Ullik Rouk

The Calling the Roll Program

Since the early 1990s SEDL has been interested in methods of public discourse that connect policymakers with the public. At that time, communities in each of the states in SEDL’s region—Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas—were experiencing deep divisions over curricular and instructional reforms, including standards, literature-based reading, sex education, and HIV/AIDS awareness programs. In response, several chief state school officers on SEDL’s Board of Directors asked the regional laboratory to probe for reasons behind the public’s discontent with state policies. This request led SEDL to investigate methods, other than the more traditional hearings, panels, testimonies, and polls, that might connect policymakers with their constituents around issues of public education.

By listening to what constituents say and taking their education expertise, experience, and values seriously, policymakers gain valuable information and demonstrate a commitment to the communities they serve.

Since an early edition of Insights, entitled "Education Activism of Cultural Conservatives," SEDL has been reviewing the relevant literature as background information to the question of connections between policymakers and the public. Current research and theory about democratic political philosophy, policymaker knowledge utilization, and policy change reveal two important concepts in public education policy development. First, policy development is a dynamic interaction among interrelated processes and second, sound policymaking relies on the processing of complex knowledge. In considering the policy development process in this way, the question became, "How can the participation of ordinary people in discussions with their policymakers bring them into this dynamic policymaking process and contribute to policymakers’ decision making toward solving state education problems?"

To pursue this question SEDL decided to focus on study circles, a form of deliberative dialogue, because the study circles structure would allow policymakers and the public to interact differently than they might be able to using more traditional methods. Study circles have been used by more than 200 communities in the last decade as a community-wide process for local problem solving around such questions as education reform and racism. The process lends itself to having a range of impacts from the personal or individual to small group or community wide.

As an established model for facilitating dialogue among members of the public, study circles have the basic purpose of enabling people to constructively discuss an issue of shared concern. The process is a semistructured, multistep approach to engaging people over time in small group discussions. Study circles generally consist of eight to twelve participants. They meet for four to six sessions of two or more hours each over a period of a month or longer. Discussion in study circles usually progresses from sharing of personal experiences about education, to deliberation about different perspectives on education issues, and finally to the development of a common sense of direction and consideration of potential action that might solve problems identified by study circle participants.

In "Calling the Roll," a set of 15 community-wide study circles took place from September through November of 1998 in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Arkansas Friends for Better Schools (AFBS)—an alliance of advocates for public education representing education, business, civic, and religious organizations—guided and assisted the implementation of community-wide study circles in five cities and towns across the state. AFBS estimates that 374 people attended those study circles. The League of Women Voters of Oklahoma (LWVO) coordinated the study circles in that state. More than 500 people attended those study circles. Across both states, 24 policymakers agreed to participate. Those policymakers were state legislators and other key state-level education decision makers. In the end, four policymakers were unable to attend any of the sessions, while several others were able to attend from one to all four sessions of their study circle.

As part of the study circles process, participants typically receive a discussion booklet about education, prepared in advance by the Study Circles Resource Center (SCRC) to give them some common knowledge about the issues to be discussed. For the "Calling the Roll" program, SEDL and its partners prepared supplemental discussion materials on the issue of accountability, which was the topic selected in both states. Participants received the supplemental materials during the first study circle session.

The overall investigation of study circles had two goals: (1) to explore how the participation of policymakers in study circles with their constituents affects the state education policymaking process and (2) to learn about the process of implementing a statewide program of study circles on education that includes policymakers. To address the goals, SEDL staff surveyed and interviewed state and local coordinators, a sample of participants, and the policymakers who participated in the study circles to learn about their expectations, experiences, and viewpoints. In Arkansas and Oklahoma, implementation took place at the community rather than the state level. The research data are therefore unable to answer questions of how a statewide program is planned and implemented. Nevertheless, state policymakers’ experiences yielded important information about their satisfaction with the process for connecting with constituents that has implications for planning statewide programs in the future. Analysis of interviews and survey responses identified two themes that emerged as important ways study circles were able to build bridges between policymakers and constituents: increasing information flow and building relationships. In addition, SEDL’s policy research suggests two preliminary findings (that are beyond the scope of this study) regarding the impact of study circles on the public’s degree of civic participation. These were activating a broader constituency and initiating or supporting policy action.

Study Circles Bridging the Gap Between Policymakers

Study circles can provide a structure for enhanced information flow and relationship building.

Increased Information Flow
Study Circles improve information flow by facilitating:

  • access to diverse perspectives
  • information exchange
  • reality check on policy directions, and
  • reevaluation or change in perspectives

Building Relationships
Study circles build relationships by strengthening:

  • personal networks
  • mutual credibility, and
  • personal commitments toward public education

Participating Public & Nonparticipating Public
Study circles can provide a process for encouraging civic participation. A stronger civic capacity has potential for activating a new and broader constituency who can initiate or support education policy action.

Next Page: Study Circles Increase Information Flow

Published in Insights on Educational Policy, Practice, and Research Number 13, November 2000, Policymakers Build Bridges