This week the National Journal is taking on the critical issue of parent and community involvement in turning around low performing schools. The conversation is spurred by Sec. Duncan’s commitment last week to require parent and community input in the turnaround process. He said
“Community leaders and parents must demand and support this change. Turning around a struggling school is hard, hard work. And there is no simple formula. The work must be shaped at the local level with all of the stakeholders at the table.”
Of course, he is right that without parental involvement and local community support, a turnaround effort is not likely to succeed. And the high poverty success stories across the country are steeped in community partnerships and parent engagement. But, a federal requirement to solicit input is more of a token gesture and by itself is not likely to lead to much.
The debate at the National Journal has highlighted two main points. On one hand, many see the critical role that parental involvement and community partnership play in supporting school turnaround. On the other hand, the skeptics point out that a federal requirement is not going to get you much. Both sides are right.
If low performing schools are good at anything, it is compliance. They know how to check the boxes to get the money. They know how to add new program after new program. In my visits over the years to struggling schools, these schools are not struggling because of a lack of programs and requirements. If anything, they tend to be over-programmed. They run a lot of programs – afterschool, mentoring, teacher training, data driven instructions … All the latest and greatest. They tend to have no idea if any of the programs or requirements are working. When the results come out that achievement is flat, the school leaders head off in search of new programs to meet the needs. Likely these turnaround schools will take this additional federal requirement in stride, have a couple meetings with a small group of parents and some community partners and keep on moving with their original plan.
This cynical view of the world does not mean that I disagree with the need for parent and community involvement – they are essential to school success. The question is how to form community partners and involve parents. For example, take the high performing charter school crowd. These schools may not seek input from parents and communities on the way that they are going to operate. Yet, at the same time these schools often have strong community partnerships and required parental involvement as part of their charter model. So, engagement in the planning stage may not be as important as ongoing role throughout.
What I found lacking in this discussion and from the related Broader Bolder debate is a framework for shared governance and accountability when there are community partnerships. If indeed education can not do it alone, and needs to partner with community organizations to address afterschool, health and social service needs of students in high poverty neighborhoods, then both the schools and the partners need to share the responsibility for the outcomes. While not an easy task, until there is a rational governance system with clear lines of authority, and share accountability for outcomes, the full potential of community partnerships will not be realized. How should this governance and accountability structure work? In the case of the Harlem Children Zone, Geoffrey Canada is the governance and accountability structure – he is responsible period. In other cases, schools and lead community partners have developed ways to share the accountability burden. For examples of those places that have started to work out the accountability challenges – I point you to a posting by Gina Burhardt in this debate. Education Sector recently hosted a convening that Gina facilitated to address this share accountability issue that included many of the groups that she referenced. While we recognize that K-12 accountability is difficult enough, until these shared accountability issues are worked out, knowing and measuring the effects of whether partnerships are working or not will have to rely on ad hoc studies like the one that Brookings released this week that is evocative but hardly conclusive.