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


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

Part I

Parent or family engagement programs should not 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. . .    U.S. public school systems, of all places, must (as a whole) 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, 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. In this light, their role should be to equip parents and community stakeholders with the tools, data or information that they need or require ---- to make their own informed, meaningful and/or essential decisions about their child's education.

This, of course, means parents and community stakeholders should be 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. Parents and community stakeholders must, therefore, participate in schools at the systemic level. They must ensure that states, districts and schools are, indeed, held accountable for school effectiveness based on answerability and enforceability (i.e., fines, sanctions, etc.), both of which are key components of accountability. They must expect school officials to be responsive to their mandatory information needs (in a timely manner). If not, these omissions will simply keep perpetuating the current situation that we now have in the U.S where the achievement gap is, in fact, wider than it was in 1992 --- (even though school officials congratulate themselves for a wide variety of things they have not done when it comes to the education of public school children). 

Why is this happening? According to a Public Agenda survey 
most U.S. parents do not know what school officials do. They do not even know their names. They do not understand "the key factors affecting public education quality" --- even though "65% of parents  do wish that they were doing more to support their children's education in comparison to only 34 percent of parents who state that they are satisfied with the way things are.” They do not know how power imbalances in schools are addressed or if school systems are doing anything to address this problem, especially due to the latest 12th grade NAEP scores via the expert (?) state, district and school-based decision-making strategies, across the nation, that have produced these results.    

Based on this information, we do not know if the state, district or school representatives have ever circulated any useful or identifiable, easy to use tools, methods or techniques with the goal of improving educational awareness-building efforts (overall) based on the specific information needs of parents and community stakeholders. (For instance, do these tools or awareness-building efforts include questions about the decisions that are made by state, district and school officials, specifically pertaining to inequitable practices that harm public school students, particularly children of color? Do parents and community stakeholders know how state, district and school-based decisions or non-decisions are contributing to low test schools --- year after year --- decade after decade?) Moreover, we do not if the school officials (or parent program representatives) actually have a proven track record in building --- on a regular basis ----  genuine collaborative partnerships with all stakeholders (beyond parent cliques)--- to ensure that all parties are  --- and will always  be --- members of legitimate, inclusive school communities.

In other words, parents and community members must be able to determine or assess if 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) just what is their purpose? From this stance, parents and community members must decide or come to the conclusion that  they are simply insensitive to their needs or incapable of building their capacity so that they can take part in the discussions driven by lessons learned stemming from race relations and the best practices of high performing schools. 

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, especially since the "power and authority" of education have been handed to the states with little federal oversight. With this goal in mind, parenting programs must do more than just support the status quo, they must take on stronger leadership roles in asking the questions that lead to positive student outcomes at the systemic level. 

Their purpose --- or the very  focus of parent and community stakeholder engagement programs, from this
perspective, is not a consultative one but one in which their representatives build and strengthen state, district and school "social inclusion" efforts at the systemic level of analysis. These efforts should lead to stronger participant voice, agency and influence capacities (or participation), a need that has yet to be fulfilled, along with partnership goals that have not be reached, ---  an aim in which parents and community members are, indeed, trained and invited to sit at the table(s) where educational decisions are made and solutions are determined. This purpose is mandatory if parents and community stakeholders are to become the missing link in school reform efforts where the political preferences of white conservative politicians and political unions (and lobbyists) have dominated the K-12 educational discussions for decades with little  success. 

A current example of this purpose and need would be for parents and community stakeholders to take part in the conversations centering on the ESSA state accountability plans . " At the crux of the debate are questions about who gets to speak on behalf of racial minorities and low-income children, and what school accountability should 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 is: will school officials work,​ collaboratively with parents and community stakeholders to determine what the content of the plans will be or how they will be developed and implemented? (And yes, in some states, parents and school officials do truly believe that they are already working together with school officials. For example, in some states, they have even been asked to apply . . . "as in fill-out an application" if they want to offer their input on critical issues. In turn, the status quo, who will ultimately filter through these applications are the ones who will also decide whether or not certain applicants will be asked to sit on the committee(s) to address this goal --- which is a very thin interpretation of democracy if it is democracy at all.) And still, if student achievement is, indeed, the goal (a goal that must be thoroughly formed and reviewed from many angles),  have the most recent NAEP scores already proven that these partnerships are not and never were partnerships at all (anyway) --- if certain policy preferences still remain in place that work against children or positive student outcomes ---  especially when (again) the achievement  gap is wider than it was in 1992?  

For instance, are the school officials (in spite of President Obama's belief that they would do the right thing) still choosing to implement, in their states,  lower standards for children of color  and placing in their classrooms inexperienced, ineffective teachers who, in turn, provide their students with a modified curriculum or ineffective classroom instruction, causing the students to score even lower on tests?  The lower standards, of course, harm the life chances of children by overlooking equality, equity and excellence in public schools --- or a quality education for all students. That is to say that this practice creates  problems that support the school to prison pipeline, a school-based stategy that should be shared with parents of who will, more than likely, disagree with the status quo and unions, etc, who define them by deficit models or who promote  caste-based discrimination .

School officials, as public servants, of course, should discuss with all parents and community stakeholders how their children's identities are predetermined, based on their socio-economic status , before they even enter public school classrooms as if all poor children are bound to fail. These same school officials, however, are silent about their own low expectations of low income children. And yet, there are a multitude of school based  problems that parents and community stakeholders need to discuss, including anything that has to do with accountability, especially teacher effectiveness tied to student test results. School officials then are not only undermining democratic ideals by speaking on behalf of parents and community stakeholders without being asked to do so, they are also forgetting that there are two sides to any story. In this sense, for parent education to be legitimate --- parents and community stakeholders must understand how opportunity structures and processes for discussions will be supported and how power imbalances with school officials will be addressed. 

As quiet as it is kept, NCLB, a bipartisan law set out to address this type of gaming of the system by mandating high standards, annual tests, targeted interventions for children attending low performing schools, strong accountability mechanisms tied to school effectiveness --- including the 2014 student proficiency "deadline for all students" that was added to the law "to address school official sloth based on their feeble attempts to meet deadlines in the past." Note: Under the previous president or Clinton (and prior to the passage of NCLB) --- only two states addressed the achievement gap (as mentioned) and very few implemented best practices tied to high-quality standards for these same states failed to create high-quality standards.  Given these facts, the NCLB legislation exposed   the lack of political will , if not the lack of morality of the school officials --- who did not hesitate to use ineffective practices, along with loopholes that prevented public school children from receiving a high quality education --- or even from counting at all,  a practice that applied to disabled students, too .

Are these tactics still in use by school officials under ESSA?  Are deficit models still in place and/or will school based failures once again be explained away by blanket statements about the socioeconomic status of public school children as if all children of color represent a monolith? If so, were the deficit models used by the partnerships to "influence, determine, and shape agendas at state, district or school meetings? Was there any "expected, overt conflict or disagreements about this topic" by parents and community stakeholders? If not, was the subject brought up, explained and discussed, at all, by the parent programs (Lukes, 1974) (Note: Black politicians have confronted state officials about the use of deficit models in the past.)  Did school officials limit the time and space for questions by parents and community stakeholders about this discriminatory or deficit ideology? 

With this power play in mind, did the school officials deliberately fail to focus on the problems originating from ineffective policies or strategies at the state, district and school levels? Did the school officials create school cultures, and therefore, school climates and environments based on "excuses" for school ineffectiveness or reinforce a norm that allowrd them to dominate  school meetings and (again) limit any in-depth discussions or disagreements on current policies by the parents and community stakeholders? Were the parents and community stakeholders expected to support and promote state and local public school system strategies that had already failed to serve public school students based on the latest NAEP scores --- through these partnerships, if they were mentioned at all? 

Were the parents and community stakeholders aware that their interests were suppressed, overlooked or
limited in favor of their school officials' accountability preferences that were, in all likelihood, based on
unenforceable accountability goals or plans without penalties, sanctions, fines or consequences
for ineffectiveness?  In this light, were power imbalances and their impact on the decision-making processes
discussed by the parent program --- or did they acknowledge that "imbalances in power relations affect a person's capacity to make effective choices?" (Ruth Alsop, 2004) 

In these partnership roles, were all parties aware of the initiatives that were successful in addressing the achievement gap, a common goal (hopefully) in which successful programs are distinguished from those that are not successful? Did they understand how the achievement gap was being analyzed, including what insights, best practices, lessons learned --- or what gold and evidence-based research studies were being utilized to support the effective implementation of programming aligned with the student achievement goals. Were school districts discussed that support  student progress without timelines in which deficit models are used to overlook strategies focusing on high quality standards tied to a rigorous currriculum, high-quality classroom instruction, etc.)? Could these types of scenarios, in fact, happen if parents and community stakeholders were aware of the enabling context(s) for all parties to contribute to the discussions centering on state, district and school-based decisions that serve public school students, first and foremost? Would having the know-how to ask challenging questions about best practices and lessons learned change the outcome(s) of the meetings? 

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.) --- a list that includes but is not limited to:  the lack of awareness of ESSA or an in-depth review of ESEA/ESSA Title One, including how the ESSA flexibility provisons can be used; the lack of an in-depth understanding of IDEA;  the lack of awareness of low standards for children of color (in contrast to the "higher number" of white 12th graders who are not proficient in math, science and reading even though they have better access to school-based resources --- but whose standards were not lowered); the modified curriculums for poor children and/or children of color; the invalid test scores that cover up ineffective school leaders and teachers; the high numbers of inexperienced teachers place in classrooms, the high number of administrators placed in segregated schools; the  disproportionality --- or high numbers of children of color placed in special  education; the high numbers of pushouts tied to children of color 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; the harsh discipline practices leading to higher suspensions and legal expulsions of children of color in contrast to white students who commit the same acts.  

It should also be a chief  requirement of parent programs to understand why conservative, white politicians want or wanted President Obama/Secretary King's   school accountability regulations  overturned. Have they discussed how these issues can be addressed at the state and local levels anyway --- since the power of public education systems across the nation, according to ESSA, lies there --- rather than in the hands of Washington politicians. This means parents and community stateholders (at the state and local levels) must focus on the much needed "civil rights safeguards emphasizing where inexperienced teachers are placed or why there's the need for class-ready teachers in all schools. They must discuss the importance of school ratings , 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 and engagement --- if not a school governance analysis --- or why it is a bad idea for states to use super-subgroups to discriminate against groups of children who need support), etc. 

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. To expand on this view, additional topics include. . .  For Part II of "The Purpose of Parent Engagement Programs, click here.  

By Stephanie Leigh Robinson