Partnerships For Reform

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In more than 30 years as a self-styled school reformer and critic of the educational status quo, I have learned one lesson over and over from observing or being involved in many, many failed reform attempts and a few wonderful successes.

Significant changes at the school level are most likely to happen when there is consumer demand for change and when the reform effort includes families and communities in partnership with educators. Such a simple lesson. But so hard for educators, administrators, and political leaders to learn. Or, perhaps I must blame my teaching skill, not the reluctant learners.

I want to try one more time. The double lesson of consumer demand and family-community-teacher partnerships should be applied today by those who are interested in capitalizing on the opportunity that the Goals 2000: Educate America Act presents to move significantly toward more equitable and effective educational opportunities for all American children.

Goals 2000 offers a rare opportunity for thousands of American public schools to begin realizing their own potential to become more effective and to contribute to the kinds of comprehensive change needed if those ambitious goals are to be closely approached. The opportunity is rare because it combines both local and national initiatives. This time the formula is as it should be: an emphasis on action and decisionmaking at the school and district levels, with leadership and assistance expected from the state, all under an umbrella of broad national economic, political, and social goals. These goals add up to a vision with broad-based, nonpartisan appeal: more opportunities for all children, an educational system that helps the country compete better in the world and at the same time promotes social justice, humane values, and better citizenship.

Educational reform will remain a trickle instead of the tidal wave that a national campaign such as Goals 2000 really requires, unless there is a greatly increased consumer demand for local action. There won't be much local action unless educators in schools take the initiative to take the risks involved in reaching out to the families and communities they serve in planning and executing the reforms.

I think I need to be a little more specific to make the lesson clear. Who are the consumers? I mean students, their families, and community organizations and agencies that have a direct stake in the lives of these students and their families--churches, neighborhood groups, settlement houses, tenants' associations, local businesses and civic clubs, libraries, social-service and health agencies, youth groups, the police, and local politicians. I mean people of color and those who are poor as well as those who are white and more affluent.

What is "demand"? By demand, I mean advocacy for changed policies and practices, a willingness to become aware of existing conditions in the educational system--results, needs, problems, limitations, assets, resources; a willingness to express dissatisfaction with these conditions when they are inadequate; and to push for new policies and practices in schools, families, community agencies, universities, and governments at all levels. Demand also includes a willingness to assess proposed reforms, support those one agrees with, argue against those one doesn't like, and participate in the execution and pay the costs of the changes that are decided on.

Without external demand most organizations, including schools, will do what comes naturally to organizations: They will operate tomorrow and next year as much as possible as they operated yesterday and last year. Organizations want to minimize instability. Significant educational changes have seldom been initiated from inside educational institutions. External demands, catalysts, and help seem to be essential if reform is to be achieved, not just talked about.

Without such demands for reform in education, the squeakier parts of the social system will get more attention and more grease.

Right now there is not much evidence of substantial local demand for either Goals 2000 or for comprehensive school reform. The poll data show upticks in parent ratings for the public schools, with more than half now giving their local public schools grades of A or B, and only about a third saying their schools need "major reform." Studies over several years have shown that lower-income parents often give even higher ratings to their own children's schools than do middle-class parents, even though these schools often have higher rates of student failure, lower test scores, and poorer conditions than the schools attended predominantly by the children of middle-class families. Many educators take these levels of apparent satisfaction as justification to keep things pretty much as they are, or advocate "minor changes," despite the fact that the educational system continues to fail with millions of low-income and minority children and to fall far short with millions of others in preparing them for the demands the country will face in the 21st century.

These abundantly documented shortcomings have led to numerous demands for change over the past 20 years, but these demands for change--call it restructuring, renewal, reform, or call it Goals 2000--have come largely from national and state leaders and organizations, commissions, studies, federal and state court decisions, Presidents, secretaries of education, governors, corporate executives, and some members of Congress.

There have been many important federal and state legislative initiatives that have resulted from these demands, including Goals 2000, which has bipartisan origins if not continuing strong bipartisan support.

National and state calls for reform and legislative initiatives have not generated widespread local demand for the kind of systemic, comprehensive change suggested by Goals 2000, even though the press reports lots of local political interest, action, and controversy about school issues. Considerable opposition to reform is coming from conservative political organizations or fundamentalist Christian groups opposing such things as "outcomes-based education," health clinics in schools, or multicultural education. And there are many other local groups and individuals supporting or opposing proposed changes of a specific kind.

What can happen when there is a lack of strong, positive local demand for change is illustrated by a recent event in Connecticut. The New York Times of May 4, 1994, reported: "An ambitious plan to remake Connecticut's public schools has died in the legislature, a target of resistance from teachers and vigorous opposition from some parents. But its fate seemed most rooted in the failure of its advocates to convince the public, particularly suburban parents, that sweeping change was needed."

The Connecticut plan, which was similar to ones being considered in many other states and was the product of a year and a half of work by a blue-ribbon commission, included higher standards for all that children should learn, innovative approaches to assessing and reporting student learning, and "a fundamental restructuring of public education." But, if the Times report is correct, suburban parents were not convinced that their schools were failing and the plan's natural allies, the parents of city children, were rarely heard from. The reform died.

What should be done by those who believe that significant reform is needed and are ready to seize the opportunity presented by Goals 2000, which includes federal funding for planning and development work?

My experience and studies over the years suggest one path that can possibly lead to success--no guarantees, of course, but these ideas have a good basis of research and tested practice. School leaders, including superintendents, school board members, principals, and local teachers' union officials, should reach out to families and communities to develop collaboratively family-community-school partnerships that include but go beyond parent and community advocacy for change. The "to develop collaboratively" in that sentence needs to be underlined. The underlining says that school officials and politicians should not by themselves design elaborate programs or plans for others to carry out, but should rather listen to teachers, families, and community representatives to find out what they think the educational and social problems are that might be addressed by family-community-school partnerships and then to develop and jointly carry out plans.

Stronger local demand from parents and others in the community interested in children's success is most likely to grow when many parents and community residents are involved in a variety of positive ways with the school. Parents who become aware of the weaknesses, needs, and deficiencies in a school as well as its strengths and potential are much more likely to support calls for reform than parents who are kept in the dark about the real conditions.

Schools that want to have parents as advocates for fundamental change and supporters of the school and school district's reform efforts should welcome parents as full partners in the education of the community's children and offer a diverse menu of opportunities for participation.

The old, traditional "Ozzie and Harriet" approach to what has been called parent involvement won't do it. It has often been trivial, disconnected from the mainstream efforts to improve education. Our research and experience over the last few years points to very different approaches.

What's needed is a comprehensive approach to partnerships that is built into the school's plans for reform or restructuring, where the partnerships are designed to meet particular needs and requirements of the plans being developed to promote the social and academic success of all of the students.

Fortunately, for those who are interested in developing such partnerships, there are many good examples of successful efforts across the country: the schools involved in James Comer's School Development Program, Henry Levin's Accelerated Schools Project, Johns Hopkins University's Success for All Program, and the Institute for Responsive Education's League of Schools Reaching Out.

In many of the schools in these programs, educators and parents are redefining the traditional meaning and practice of "parent involvement," beyond the Ozzie and Harriet model, to partnerships that include all members of families and also community organizations and agencies that have a stake in children's development. They are offering diverse activities that are linked to increasing student achievement and that are sensitive to the different interests, needs, scheduling limitations, and capacities in the school's family and community constituencies.

Many of these schools are seeking comprehensive programs of partnerships which will include activities of at least six different kinds including advocacy. The following are six categories of programs, developed by Joyce Epstein of the Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning, one of the U.S. Education Department's national research and development centers:

  1. Schools help families meet their basic responsibilities for raising their children. Schools that are reaching out for partnerships will recognize that helping parents be better parents and helping families function better helps children as well as adults and contributes directly to children's academic success. Some of the schools in our League of Schools Reaching Out program, for example, train parents as home visitors to work with other parents in their own homes or community centers to improve parenting skills and learn about child health and nutrition. "Family centers," which have become a standard feature in many league schools, and in many other schools as well, offer workshops and counseling to parents on a wide variety of problems, such as housing or getting job training.
  2. Schools communicate with families about school programs and children's progress. Schools that seek new and effective partnerships will devise varied and sensitive ways of communicating with families well beyond the five-minute, wait-in-line-to-talk-to-the-teacher conference approach or the annual open house. Good communication will be on two levels: about each child's individual social and academic development and achievement, and about school curriculum, programs, achievements, problems, conditions, and needs and opportunities for family and community participation.

    Many approaches are used: Newsletters are distributed in the native languages of the families, telephone calls are made about student successes as well as problems, home visitors carry information in person, report cards include more than letter grades, notes report student successes, meetings and parent conferences allow time for two-way teacher-family communication.

    Community media such as local radio stations, area weekly newspapers, and cable-TV stations carry school messages as well.

  3. Parents and others in the community help the schools as volunteers, aides, and members of audiences for school events. Schools wanting to reach out are finding a wide variety of resources. Parent-teacher associations recruit and train parents and other volunteers to assist children, teachers, and administrators in classrooms, offices, lunchrooms, and playgrounds. Community residents serve as mentors for children and youths needing positive role models. Schedules are varied to enable more parents to attend school events, and these events reflect the diverse cultures represented in the school and its communities. Senior groups organize foster-grandparent programs.
  4. Family members are involved in learning activities at home. Comprehensive partnerships mean providing a variety of ways to help families monitor and assist their own children's learning at home. Teachers develop interactive homework aligned with children's classwork and provide learning materials that parents can use at home. Community organizations offer after-school homework and tutorial opportunities. Parents who are less well-educated and self-confident are helped to see the important contributions they can make to their children's education.
  5. Schools collaborate and exchange services with other community agencies and institutions. Many schools seeking comprehensive partnerships as a part of reform or restructuring programs will develop collaborative arrangements with health and social-service agencies to provide services to children and their families. These may be school-based, located in other community agencies, or both. Many schools will seek to revive the community-school concept and offer services and educational programs for parents and other community adults.

    Comprehensive partnership also can mean drawing on community resources to enhance the curriculum. Local businesses and larger corporations will expand their concept of partnerships beyond small donations of money and equipment. School reform will be seen as including using the community as a learning resource for young people and using the school as a learning resource for the adults in the community. Service to the community by students and teachers is seen as a kind of exchange for services the school receives from the community.

  6. Families are involved in decisionmaking, governance, and advocacy. If partnership programs are to be truly comprehensive, family members and other key stakeholders will have many opportunities to participate in setting school policies and making decisions about school priorities and programs, through school councils, policy boards, principal-selection committees, program committees, and parent associations. Schools will help parents develop leadership and decisionmaking skills. Some parents will participate in independent community organizations interested in school issues.

In all of the categories, the schools seeking new styles of partnership are designing special ways to reach all of their parent and community constituencies, especially those educators often labeled "hard to reach." This usually means socially marginal and poor families.

As I see it, the need for a local demand for reform is closely linked to the development of a comprehensive approach to family-community-school partnerships. The partnerships can contribute strongly and significantly to a school's efforts toward reform. The partnerships themselves become a part of a new school structure in which responsibility for children's academic and social success is shared by educators, families, and other community organizations and agencies. The partnerships help to create a constituency for reform.

It is fortunate that Congress added parent participation to the list of national education goals included in the legislation establishing Goals 2000. It is encouraging that Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley is talking about launching a national campaign to spur family participation in education at the same time that the Education Department is seeking through town meetings and other public-relations efforts to stir public interest in Goals 2000.

The parent-involvement campaign should be linked to all of the Clinton Administration's other education initiatives, including the reauthorization of Title I and Head Start. The goals in Goals 2000 will never be achieved unless substantial progress is made toward real school reform in thousands of American schools. The parent-participation goal should be seen as a way to help achieve all of the other goals.

Progress toward reform is most likely to happen if there is consumer demand for it to overcome institutional resistance to change. To get reform going, educators must be willing to light up the fires of consumer demand, something they are usually afraid to do. I contend that a workable and relatively safe way to proceed is to move family-community-school partnerships out of the wings and into the center of school-reform efforts.

State leadership is badly needed to encourage educators at the local district and school levels to move more vigorously toward family-community-school partnerships as a part of school reform. State leaders, governors and their staffs, the legislative leaders in education and human services, the state education and human-services-agency heads and staffs, the education and citizens' organizations--can make it clear that schools should reach out: that reform is needed and that partnerships are one key strategy to achieve it. There are multiple policy strategies that each state has, if it wants to advance partnerships in actual practice. Here are 10 examples, from dozens that could be listed:

  • Adopt a state policy (as California, New York, and Florida have done) which makes it clear that all local districts and schools are expected to plan and carry out comprehensive partnership programs. Offer local districts a model local-partnership policy, for their consideration and possible adoption. A state policy doesn't guarantee local compliance but it legitimates, "models," and encourages the desired response. State leaders can also work with state school board and administrator associations to facilitate the development of effective local-policy statements.
  • Add a requirement for specific preparation for partnerships in the state's certification law for teachers, administrators, and other school specialists. Washington State has such a requirement, but few other states do. Since few schools and departments of education offer adequate preparation for their teachers on why and how to work with families and communities, despite decades of urging by advocates, external encouragement would appear to be needed. Certification is a legitimate policy tool to this end.
  • Offer state tax incentives to employers who give employees paid time off to tutor or volunteer in a school; provide training and encouragement in the workplace for employees to encourage them to be actively involved in their children's education; or enter into long-term partnership arrangements with one or more public schools.

    A sprinkling of socially responsible employers have such policies now. Tax incentives would be likely to considerably increase these kinds of practices.

  • Provide incentives, technical assistance, and encouragement to districts to use a reasonable portion of their Title I money to support family-community partnerships (for example, for staffing family centers in schools, stipends for home visitors).

    Local-district response to the 1988 Elementary and Secondary Education Act encouraging the use of Chapter 1 for various kinds of parent involvement was disappointing. Few districts chose to allow schools to direct funds to parent involvement. State leadership can help very specifically following passage of the 1994 reauthorization to prod and encourage more districts to let schools set aside modest sums for family-community partnerships. I estimate that an investment of $150 per child per year for such partnerships would enable most schools to initiate comprehensive programs and contribute significantly to the new Title I's goals.

  • Extend the school day and school year to provide time for teachers to confer with parents and engage in other partnership activities. Lack of time by principals and teachers is often said to be the biggest enemy of partnerships. Adding time to the school day or week or year explicitly designed to provide time for school staff members to meet with and work with families and other community agencies could be helpful, could contribute directly to increased student achievement, and, therefore, could be cost-effective.
  • Provide for participation of parents, students, and other community representatives in school governance by directing districts to create school councils in each public school. A small number of states (for example, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Illinois--only for Chicago) have mandated local school councils. Such councils, when the legislation is carefully designed and faithfully implemented, can be effective mechanisms for allowing student, parent, and community representatives to be directly involved in school-level decisionmaking. Once such councils are established, state assistance will be needed to provide funds for training and support for council members.
  • Adopt by legislative or executive action financial incentives and mechanisms for merging funding streams from two or more state and federal agencies to facilitate local programs for coordinated or integrated service for families and children. Fragmentation continues to characterize both state and federal laws that provide health and social services to children and their families. Turf battles among agencies and the lack of specific financial incentives often hinder efforts of state and local agencies to collaborate or exchange resources. Making it possible for local programs to combine funds from two or more state and federal sources can reduce fragmentation.
  • Provide state funding for pilot school-linked social-service programs. There are many useful models for school-linked health and social services being proposed, and several are being implemented with some evidence of success. Kentucky and New Jersey are two good examples. State funding can help encourage such school-based programs as a way of reducing fragmentation for families seeking help across multiple bureaucratic lines.
  • Provide training and technical assistance from state agencies to schools and community agencies wishing to develop comprehensive partnership programs.

    Schools seeking to develop partnership programs often need help in the form of on-site technical assistance and facilitation and opportunities for training. State agencies can recruit and prepare individuals outside their own agency staffs to serve as providers of on-site technical assistance and facilitation.

  • Initiate a statewide program of education and support for parents of infants and toddlers. The Missouri Parents as Teachers program is one well-tested model. There are others that could also contribute powerfully to the goal of getting all children to enter school ready to learn.

Our studies show that state policies and state leadership do make a difference in local policies and practice. States that wish to encourage school-family-community partnerships have many useful models to examine and many options open to them. What is required is careful planning, learning from the successes and failures of other states, and the political will to act.

Vol. 14, Issue 06, Pages 34-35, 44

Published in Print: October 12, 1994, as Partnerships For Reform
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