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'Making The Public The Leaders in Education Reform'

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For more than a decade, policymakers and pundits have researched and debated the most effective ways to improve our nation's public schools. Since A Nation at Risk put the issue of education reform into the national spotlight in 1983, educators and experts have discussed how to "fix" a failing education system.

Although these discussions have generated innovative programs, too often they have remained in the realm of expert opinion. What educators are beginning to realize is that, without the support and engagement of the parents and community leaders at the grassroots level, any attempts at improving the public schools will be ineffective.

As we all know, parents and community members are frustrated with the public education system. Not only are parents losing faith in public schools' ability to educate their children, they are also increasingly mistrustful of educational innovations.

The religious right is well aware of this disenchantment, and their local coalitions have capitalized on this frustration. Religious conservatives engage parents around their fears and insecurities. They know parents demand accountability for their public schools, but they teach parents how to cast blame instead of how to craft well-reasoned critiques. Their coalitions offer simplistic solutions to complicated questions of public education reform.

This brings me to my point. It is important to understand that "public engagement" is not mobilization around fears and frustrations. Nor is it another easily applied formula for education reform. Meaningful public engagement is a long-term process requiring a patient investment of sustained effort. Rather than being just one part of a strategy to improve public education, public engagement should be at the center of the effort. It is not a question of bridging the gap between "leaders" and the public: It is a matter of making the public the leaders in education reform.

When parents and community members are truly engaged, they are organized to act on their own values and visions for their children's future. They do not just volunteer their time for school activities or drop their opinions in the suggestion box. They initiate action, collaborating with educators to implement ideas for reform. This kind of engagement can only happen through community institutions--public schools, churches, civic associations. These institutions provide the public space where people of different backgrounds connect with one another, listen to each other's stories, share concerns; this is where they argue, debate, and deliberate. In these institutions, individuals transcend the boundaries of their private lives to form public relationships. In the context of these public relationships, parents and community members can initiate conversations around their core concerns and values. These conversations go beyond the discussion of surface problems and complaints. Through these conversations, people develop the trust and consensus needed for action.

The Industrial Areas Foundation is a network of just such broad-based institutions. Our members teach families how to become engaged in the public life of their communities, including their public schools. Over the past eight years, the Southwest IAF education initiative has taught parents and community leaders how to shape the decisions that affect their children's education and how to hold the school accountable for high academic standards.

Here in Texas, 60 schools in 12 cities formalized their relationship with local IAF organizations and the Texas Education Agency as part of the Alliance Schools Initiative. These Alliance Schools have made a public commitment to fully collaborate with parents and community leaders to improve student achievement. IAF education organizers help build that relationship with the community.

Organizers teach parents, teachers, and administrators how to initiate one-on-one conversations about their visions for school improvement. Organizers encourage them to raise questions and think differently about the possibilities for their children. They organize door-to-door visits, where teachers and parents meet community members and invite them to school meetings. Schools invite parents to serve on core leadership teams with teachers and school administrators to shape decisions about school improvement.

IAF organizers hold regular training sessions with parents and community leaders on everything from how to read a school budget and speak before the school board to how to negotiate with elected officials. They teach parents that accountability does not mean blaming educators and administrators, but taking responsibility for negotiating solutions in partnership with them.

Many Alliance Schools receive waivers and grants from the state education agency to implement their own innovative ideas for education reform. These are schools that have built strong constituencies in their communities, strong enough to leverage the political support for these waivers and grants. The schools are free to experiment with interdisciplinary instruction, team teaching, alternative assessment, block scheduling, and other innovations tailored specifically to their campus. Alliance Schools initially engage parents around their most urgent concerns for their child's well-being.

However, when parents become full partners with teachers, they become as interested in innovative educational theories as the educational experts themselves. In his several visits to Alliance Schools, Harvard University professor Howard Gardner discovered that Spanish-speaking parents from low-income communities were asking the same questions about learning and assessment methods as were his education researchers.

At the most successful Alliance Schools, the number of students passing the state standardized academic achievement test has increased, dropout rates have declined, attendance rates have improved, and parents attend meetings at the schools in record numbers. These schools have been successful because they have changed the very culture of their school from bureaucratic to collaborative. Through hundreds of one-on-one conversations, regular meetings with parents, and negotiations with elected officials and administrators, a different understanding of "the system" has begun to emerge. The rule-driven, hierarchical, command-and-control mentality has given way to a more collaborative atmosphere. It is this atmosphere that sustains reform efforts.

The Alliance Schools do not present themselves as perfect models of success, nor do they pretend to have all the answers. But the parents, teachers, and principals at Alliance Schools will ask difficult questions. They are willing to engage the community in rigorous, extended conversation about the complicated yet fundamental issues of education reform.

Principals learn to see themselves not as compliance officers of the district, but as leaders of a team. Teachers learn how to negotiate rules and regulations and contribute their creative ideas to the classroom. Parents become equal decisionmakers at the table with teachers, principals, and district officials. They are no longer peripheral to changes taking place in their public schools. They have become the true leaders of education reform in their communities.

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