The Purpose of
Parent Engagement Programs
Building Parent & Community Stakeholder
Voice, Agency & Influence in Schools

For the blog focusing on "state and local school systems and lessons learned," click here.  


Part I
Politics & the Purpose of Parent Engagement Programming
By Stephanie D. Robinson

For a democratic polity to exist it is necessary for a participatory society to exist,
i.e., where all political systems have been democratized... through participation so it can take place in all areas. Carole Pateman, 1970

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All parents and community stakeholders should understand the original  purpose of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 . Does anyone remember what Senator Robert Kennedy said about poor black children and/or why he wanted their  parents to have access to a reporting requirement before he would support the passage of ESEA 1965?  

Please note: Senator Kennedy believed "the lives of black children were being wasted." He believed that the educational system itself was responsible for creating an educationally deprived system. His major concern was that educators did not have the wherewithal to be responsive to their constituencies.  He did, however, trust poor parents and the public to take on the vital role of demanding change and improvement because he knew that parents had a right to know how decisions were made and how funds were spent within educational systems."  
(For more info on this topic, click here .)

After ESEA was enacted, state authorities basically ignored the reporting mandate, etc. There was little or no oversight of states and ESEA's implementation across the nation. In response, a review of ESEA Title One in 1969 was prepared by organizations interested in the rights of the poor. They said:

"We make this review because we feel that the accepted experts have failed to inform the public honestly about the faulty, and sometimes fraudulent, way in which Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 is operating in many sections of the country." Click here to read this report. 

​​​​The 1970 ESEA reauthorization, therefore, included a comparability requirement. "Comparability required that services provided to Title I schools must be comparable with those provided in non-Title I schools within a district. States and districts were held  responsible for ensuring that all students had access to comparable services regardless of whether they attended high or low-poverty schools (Jennings, 2000; Robelen, 2005)."  For more information on the comparability requirement, click here .

But, by 1971 state and local authorities complained about the comparability provisions --- even though they were failing to educate their students. 


​​Today, the comparability loophole still exists.   (For more information on the "history" of the ESEA comparability provision, click here .)  But, would it exist if the public had addressed this controversial political loophole that harms poor children and misleads the public  --- decades ago  --- since it goes against ESEA's original purpose? Would it exist if there had been a nationwide public outcry or if the voices of parents and community stakeholders were actually being heard? Of course, not  --- for it originates from a premise that believes that children of color do not deserve a quality education.

Will the new "Democratic Class" address this loophole or long standing embarrassment to the U.S. educational system? Will they help parents address  political or elite capture of school-based decisions?   Will they also recognize that the purpose of parenting programs and the need for them in every state should go without saying. . .  (Note: Trump is currently only funding 10 of them)? Will they ensure that parent and community stakeholders voices are heard? This goal creates buy-in and the legitimacy of the programs but it also addresses power imbalances between parents and schools, a goal that allows parents to know who is truly motivated (or has the political will) to "urgently" support school effectiveness  --- without excuses.  

Given these facts, it does not make any sense for parent or family engagement programs to be  controlled by state and local public school system  officials, school leaders or teachers' unions  (otherwise these groups, associations or organizations would be called status quo engagement groups, etc.) nor should school representatives assume that they can speak on behalf of parents and community stakeholders. . . After all, state and local authorities have not been successful in promoting high, quality opportunities to learn for all students or equitable practices in schools, which means they tend to have a different view of the purpose of public school systems.   This can be proven not by what they say --- but by what they, actually, do.  History, in and of itself, is a testimony to this fact.

Unfortunately, educational systems have a hard time changing their habits --- even if their practices are politically inspired and unfair as Frank Keppel, the architect of ESEA, learned in the mid-1960's after he was fired for standing up for children rather than a politicalized educational system (Click  here/page144 and here/ page 319 --- to learn more).  For example,   PTAs were once criticized for being an arm of school principals, etc. who used parents to promote school policies without asking for their input.  They were essentially puppets who were taught what to think and what to do. It did not matter if school-based policies were effective policies or ineffective policies.  It did not matter if teachers were effective or ineffective teachers (teachers were always considered  effective) or school officials were effective or ineffective, school representatives simply decided how everything in schools  should be perceived and how students should be defined.  There was simply no room for improvement with this school-based approach firmly in place.

This type of paternalistic parent programming then was normalized as if school officials and teachers had some type of "exoteric knowledge" that parents did not have even though schools were failing to serve their students.  The new reauthorization of ESEA 1965 or the Every Student Succeeds Act  or ESSA addresses this problem (according to Senator Lamar Alexander)  by stating that parents are responsible for determining the processes for fairness (e.g. access to quality research based standards, curriculum and assessments, teacher and leader effectiveness, quality classroom instruction that leads to student learning, etc.?)  and equity and/or opportunities to learn in their state and local school systems (?). 

But what does fairness and equity look like at the state and local levels in reality when it comes to parenting programming? Are parents and community stakeholders determining how fairness and equity are supported at the state and local levels based on school effectiveness? If U.S. test scores are any indication of what goes on in American classrooms --- probably not. In fact, the absence of this goal is a telltale sign that the ESSA state accountability plans omitted parent and community stakeholder voice even though they were asked to serve on committees. This request has never guaranteed that they would be heard. Based on these omissions, these plans could only be called weak plans --- or vague plans that parents would have never supported if they knew that Secretary DeVos would approve plans that would work against the needs of children in far too many instances.   Yet, effective  plans are important to parents and community stakeholders for they, too want the same life chances for their children as any other American parent or caregiver.  They, too want their children to obtain a high, quality education that leads to the American Dream. 

Historically, these types of weak, vague and fragmented practices were blamed on (excuse the expression) "poverty pimps" who would show up and say that they supported underserved children but who  would just receive salaries or some type of status --- for doing nothing (when all of was said and done). They would also refer to children of color as a "different population" that was, in reality, redefined by their very own unconscious need to attach stereotypes to children of color ( including their choice of  invalid research findings ). These stereotypes were useful in explaining away school-based failures. Yet, young children were expected to exist in these school environments that constantly promoted a climate of low expectations perpetuated by public school representatives.  Black parents felt defenseless in these school environments as Kennedy knew. As a result, communities would complain about these entities that were charged with helping them address the political realities connected to schools. 

Today, U.S. public school systems, of all places, must (as a whole) guarantee that these programs represent (and promote) democracy --- and, in turn, create genuine public opportunity spaces for parent and community stakeholder voice, agency and influence without delegitimizing their right to participate. That is to say --- based on lessons learned, school-based parent programs must be rights-based in structure and/or in form and never limit the overall information needs or choices of parents and community stakeholders. From this perspective,  parent centers should not be chosen by educators for they have different goals due to the proliferation of special interest groups in schools.  This approach only sets the stage for conflict of interests or questionable goals . that can harm students. (Cronyism does not serve public school systems well at all.) In this light, their role should be to work with parents (and their third-party representatives) to ensure that they are equipped with the tools, data or i nformation that they need or require ---- to make their own informed, meaningful and/or essential decisions about their child's education.  This approach not only prevents conflicts of interest from occurring but parents do not have to deal with stereotypes or insensitive school representatives in a space where their needs and experiences should be honored and acknowledged rather than overlooked or denied.

Most importantly, this approach gives parents and community stakeholders the power to require parent programs to  truly support them in discovering if states, districts and schools are willing and able to determine if student achievement is truly tied to excellence and equity --- on any given day in American classrooms --- anything less perpetuates a myth --- about the very purpose of the U.S. public school system, let alone parent programs. As it stands "state superintendents to teachers unions tend to prefer a hands-off implied directive that includes overlooking detailed prescriptions for real interventions.  Clearly, they have their own special interests to embrace but   many times at a cost to parents and community stakeholders.  This is also a telltale sign that the relationships are unequal and there is no speaking on behalf of the students.  If the relationships were equal schools  would have never been supported in   lowering standards for children of color.  (Note: " If standards are too low, desirable reforms go unimplemented. . . On the other hand, districts only reform if they are convinced that the risks of noncompliance are genuine. . .") But they are wrong to think that the public will not notice  how they are harming the  life chances of their students by promoting these  inequitable practices .  That they routinely say that they speak for parents and community stakeholders is another sign the parenting programs are not serving parents and community stakeholders. 

Parents and community stakeholders must, therefore, participate in schools at the systemic level of analysis. The purpose of parent programs should always begin there. They must ensure that states , districts and schools are, indeed, held accountable for school effectiveness based on answerability and enforceability (if not fines, sanctions, etc. . . Note:  As quiet as it is kept, schools improved with these strategies ), both of which are key components of accountability. 

Based on flawed decisions that were made without transparency and accountability in mind, the achievement gap is, in fact, wider than it was in 1992 --- (even though school officials congratulate themselves for a wide variety of things that they have not done since the enactment of ESEA 1965 . Pa rents and community members, therefore, must be able to determine or assess if their elected officials and school officials are acting in the best interest of parents and their children. they can only meet this goal by showing up and making sue that their voices are heard.  They must determine if  the programs referred to as "effective parent or family engagement programs" are actually programs that meet this standard. If these programs are not taking the lead in focusing on critical issues tied to student achievement (in a timely manner) --- parents and community stakeholders must determine if they serve any purpose at all.

In an arena where lobbyists and unions abound, parents and community stakeholders must also take on a political role and ask how these parent groups function or if they function at all in serving underserved children this political climate? For instance, they must ask what these programs are doing to address the need for effective teachers and sound practices that do not harm children of color (e.g. unfair discipline practices). In other words, they must ask if they are interpreting school practices in a way that serves children rather than the status quo? Do these parent program representatives  speak out against flawed policies that impact children, especially children of color ? (Note: Based on my first administrative job in East New York/Brownsville/NYC, I can attest to the fact that: " As long as there are inequalities in funding, instructional quality, and student outcomes and differences about how children, their teachers, and their schools should be publicly assessed, politics are necessary. . . And as long as there are inequalities ---strong and vibrant local community organizations will continue to be necessary to represent their concerns and demands." ) Have they worked in a low income neighborhood or are they afraid of the parents and the students so much so that they are afraid to work in the neighborhoods where the concerns exist? Are they insensitive to the root causes of  failing schools? 

This is a bold strategy but it empowers parents and community stakeholders to address power imbalances or longstanding inequalities that arise from politics or special interest groups that abound in the public school system --- generation after generation. Any program that does not address power imbalances is not serving parents, community stakeholders or students, effectively. This means parent leaders must address race relations or understand the issues important to underserved parents. In turn, parents and community stakeholders must determine if these groups are motivated enough to fight for quality schools and instructional quality or promote the practices of high performing schools --- with no excuses --- with all  children in mind, including underserved children of color.  

With the emergence of a wide range of changes and developments taking place under ESSA (the latest reauthorization of ESEA, our nation's education law), parents and community stakeholders are needed more than ever to join the conversations about accountability in schools. With ESSA, the states are operating with little or no federal oversight in spite of their historical failures in serving children.  

Their purpose --- or the very  focus of parent and community stakeholder engagement programs, from this
perspective, is not a consultative one but as collaborators in which their representatives also ensure that state, district and school representatives remain focused on best practices and lessons learned at the foundational level. These efforts should underscore the importance of strong stakeholder voice, agency, and influence by focusing on state, district and school capacity building goals are that are tied to the needs of parents and community stakeholders , a need that has yet to be fulfilled.  Unfortunately, many schools have already given up on 5 year old students. Parents must also ask school officials what type of program they have in place to recruit effective teachers. 

Equal partnership and collaboration goals then should be a part of this process but, to date, these goals have not been reached across the nation except on paper. These identifiable goals must have opportunity structures, processes and platforms for parents and community members to explore "what works in education" based on real-life school community topics of concern to them --- if procedural justice and inclusivity are to be honored. They, therefore, must always have a seat at the table(s) where educational decisions are made and solutions are determined. They must also choose who  participates in these meetings and decide what research entitities are invited to offer solutions for school reform efforts (AIR? AERA? etc.) so off-the- cuff entities with no record of working with children of color are hired.  

Since the public school system would not exist without parents and community stakeholders, a point that should be acknowledged by the status quo, school authorities must honor their status as an integral part of any decision-making body. This purpose is mandatory if parents and community stakeholders are to become the missing link in school reform efforts  where the political goals and preferences of conservative politicians and political unions (and lobbyists) have dominated the K-12 educational discussions for decades with little success.  " At the crux of the debate is who gets to speak on behalf of racial minorities and low-income children, and what school accountability would look like in the age of Donald Trump."  Within this political environment where values and motives are displayed and decisions are made --- in which parent programs must operate ---  the question overlooks the need for parents to speak for themselves or to contribute to any and all collaborative educational efforts.  And yes, in some states, parents and school officials do truly believe that they are already working together with school officials.

Capacity development programming should be determined not only with research organizations but in conjunction with civil rights organizations. Given this fact, parents must know if schools are promoting  a modified curriculum  for children of color  and placing in their classrooms inexperienced, ineffective teachers who, in turn, provide their students with ineffective classroom instruction, causing the students to score even lower on tests?  Are they still promoting  deficit models or caste-based discrimination?  These practices also render any and all test scores  meaningless if schools are, in fact,  creating the conditions for failure  to occur as many studies have already proven --- with, at least, "76 percent of school officials admitting that they have significant gaps in expertise in supporting low performing schools, a number that has increased to 80 percent." Clearly, parent input is needed to bring transparency and accountability  to the center of all school based programming.

Programming must focus on  multiple constituencies of education practitioners and/or community members " who are more than willing to offer this information to parents. Robert Putnam, of course, (in his research), long ago, taught us that regions with lots of associations enhance effective governance, anyway.  But, we also know from Theda Skocpol, etc, that: "when people of different partisan or theoretical positions converge — not only in posing questions but also with a sense of where the answers might lie — a new "agenda" is born." This new agenda must include parents and community stakeholders. 

Parents must also understand the roles of school officials. They must question and challenge state, district and school officials and their school-based decisions that have  created the conditions in schools that work against student achievement,  including how their low expectations of children of color continues to create a profound burden for children to carry.    The lack of political will  by state officials should also be called out for what it is, especially when they fail to serve students, including  disabled students They must also let their political representatives know if topics important to parents and community stakeholders are ignored ( Lukes, 1974 ).  Have parent programs focused on school-based transparency and accountability concerns? Please refer back to Pateman's quote or refer to her theory to reflect on why national, state, district and local representative systems alone are not enough to promote democracy or why citizens must participate in decision-making --- by focusing on:

  • comprehensive public school safety concerns
  • ESSA goals, funding and its implementation (and timeline), including how the ESSA flexibility provisions can be used
  • IDEA  goals, funding and its implementation
  • state research-based standards aligned with research-based curriculums
  • high-quality classroom instruction and if teachers are actually teaching the research-based content and if students are learning the content
  • student achievement tied to high-quality research-based standards
  • Test scores and/or   invalid test scores  that overlook the need for valid, reliable and transparent scores for parents to review
  • the disproportionate number of inexperienced teachers placed in classrooms serving children of color
  • the high number of inexperienced administrators placed in segregated schools
  • disproportionality --- or the high numbers of children of color placed in special  education
  • the lack of federal oversight over special education funding
  • the lack of oversight by "some" states" who are using Title One funds to underwrite teachers' pensions," etc.  
  • the high numbers of pushouts  based on unjustifiable reasons (i.e., poor classroom management skills of the teachers, high teacher absenteeism and its impact on student outcomes --- leading to student absenteeism and truancy)
  • the high teacher and administrator turnovers in segregated schools  
  • the promotion of value added models without explaining them
  • the promotion of student growth models without explaining them
  • the lack of opportunity structures for understanding classroom instruction tied to high-quality research-based standards
  • the weak teacher evaluation plans
  • the nonexistent school official and leader evaluation plans
  • the low expectations for children of color or “the soft bigotry" of low expectations by teachers and administrators specifically directed toward children of color
  • the lack of parent options in certain states due to the unions, etc. 
  • the gaming of the system by states that are: " only measuring their school's academic performance rather than individual students 
  • the gaming of the system by states that  "place students in a super subgroup to mask the achievement gap"
  • the gaming of the system by states that "do not count subgroup performance in a schools overall rating ," allowing them to receive a high rating  even if their students are failing academically.
  • invalid research findings that bigoted educators ( Ruby Payne's research )  use to explain black children rather than utilizing research that supports student learning (Research organizations are not always ethical and should, therefore, be carefully reviewed with this fact in mind.) 
  • the promotion of segregation if not overlooking the research that focuses on supporting children in becoming culturally competent adults who can operate and compete  in a global world .  

With all of this said, one of the worst things that can happen to parents is for them to "not" know what is
truly happening in schools. These school-based concerns can be attributed to a wide variety of factors that require exploring and studying. 

And so It should be a chief requirement of parent programs to understand best practices and lessons learned tied to high performing schools as well as the school-based problems that prevent students from learning.  Even though these concerns can seem insurmountable, they can be addressed since many politicians simply expect parent and community stakeholders to never show up. After all, the power of public education systems across the nation, according to ESSA, lies there --- rather than in the hands of Washington politicians (DeVos/Trump) if stakeholders show up and challenge the status quo. Writing letters and calling elected officials is how the comparability provision was changed. The same strategy can be used to reverse it. 

Have they defined state rights' from a historical perspective so they know how to address these problems in the present? Have parents and community stakeholders (at the state and local levels) also focused on lessons learned connected to the "civil rights safeguards?" Do they know what they are? Have they, at least, questioned school officials on why inexperienced teachers are placed with children of color, disproportionally?  Do they understand the definition of teachers who are "class ready," where they are placed and why? Do they understand the definition of   school ratings  and the timeline for identifying and intervening in struggling schools, and the reason why indicators of school quality should also focus on teacher and leader effectiveness? Has their state offered them a comprehensive school governance analysis and the evidenced-based research that supports effective school leadership. . .  To expand on this list, please refer to Part II. . .

This list is, of course, incomplete and will never be completed --- or even near completion until the vast majority of participants  joining these discussions are parents and community stakeholders or the public. It will not be completed until all schools support and promote equity and excellence. For Part II of "The Purpose of Parent Engagement Programs, click here.  

As a result, the 1970 comparability provision and its enforcement was significantly watered down. Legislators decided to exclude staff salary differentials for years of employment from     comparability calculations. Districts no longer had to consider how teacher quality—as evidenced by teacher salaries—varies between schools. Second, the Department started only requiring districts to report student-staff ratios instead of student-certified staff ratios, allowing districts to count paraprofessionals as full  teachers. Staffs at “comparable” schools can now include widely varying numbers of actual teachers. Beginning in1981, during President Reagan's Administration, enforcement of the Title I comparability provision became essentially non-existent.  For more information on this topic, please click here