March 9, 2007
a brief history of community engagement in education
Arnold F. Fege has contributed an excellent overview article to the current issue of the Harvard Educational Review entitled, "Getting Ruby a Quality Public Education: Forty-Two Years of Building the Demand for Quality Public Schools through Parental and Public Involvement." Fege's narrative introduces seven views about public involvement, which I have numbered sequentially below. All of these views contain at least fragments of truth and should be considered as we begin the debate about revising No Child Left Behind (which is the main federal law governing pre-college education).
(1) President Johnson believed that poor children received inadequate educations because local authorities either lacked sufficient money or preferred to spend it on other kids. Thus he designed the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, 1965) so that it earmarked funds for poor students. But Senator Robert F. Kennedy believed that money was not the only problem. School systems could be discriminatory or corrupt. His solution (2) was to require school systems to "collect objective measures of educational achievement ... at least annually" so that parents of poor kids could assess how well their schools were performing and organize for reform. This was an explicitly political strategy. It was included in ESEA at his insistence.
Apparently, good data were rarely collected--partly because schools received no help in measuring outcomes, and partly because there were no penalties for failing to assess. Between 1965 and 1982, Congress tried a new strategy, which was (3) to support parental involvement in schools, especially by requiring parental advisory councils. The most significant version of this reform was the Educational Amendments of 1978.
However, critics charged that (4) these councils were dominated by small groups of parents with axes to grind--special interests that didn't represent their communities. Activists organized themselves around special programs or needs, not to represent broad concerns. On the other hand, a later analysis by the esteemed scholar Tony Bryk apparently found that (5) the councils actually did build civic and political skills, especially over the long term.
In any case, Congress increasingly lost faith that school districts would spend public money effectively to benefit disadvantaged kids. Congress also lost confidence in organized parents' groups. Instead, No Child Left Behind (6) required that assessments of outcomes be written by professionals at the state or federal level and allowed parents to remove their own children from schools found to be failing under those assessments. I think Congress sincerely wanted to empower parents--but as individuals, not as members of communities.
Arnold Fege--like my emeritus colleague Clarence Stone, David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation, and a few others--believe that (7) community participation is essential and must be written into the next version of No Child Left Behind. Only community participation can create public support for school funding plus accountability so that the money is well spent. We can build on 40 years of experience to do this right. Above all, we need to require--and enable--school systems to generate valid data, but these data must be understandable, relevant, broad, and responsive to public concerns.