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


Introduction

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  these programs 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 (as mentioned) is 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 is rarely discussed with parents and community stakeholders. But, it should be discussed in truthful terms for it is based on deficit models or caste-based discrimination . This practice also renders the test scores meaningless since the 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 support school effectiveness or to ensure that the needs of children are represented. 

If parent education representatives are agreeing with teachers's unions without discussing the issues from the standpoint of parents and community members, (particularly parents of color who should have access to meaningful information so they can make informed choices about  crucial concerns --- with some type of proof that capacity building happened) they are not serving parents. If parents are prevented from making their own decisions (about schools no matter where they are located) based on what they perceive as the best choices for their children, including about school choice programming, etc., then school officials and the unions, etc. are ignoring the stakekeholder engagement clause.  If unions can use their power to promote policies that: " cap standardized testing measures at 65 percent of a school’s accountability score,  and prevent the state from using vouchers and charters as school turnaround interventions, bar the creation of a state-run school district  and require districts and the state to negotiate any school improvement plan with the local teachers union" as if they have some type of "exoteric knowledge" that parents do not have  they are wrong --- they are even wrong from a historical standpoint. Before they can speak for parents with any type of authority or moral standing they must first explain why so many schools (in MD, for example) did not have one student that was proficient in math and reading on the latest state assessments.

Currently, parents and community stakeholders know that far too many politicians, historians and researchers like to blame the  socio-economic status of students  for a school's failure but such a strategy only serves as a distraction or a waste of time and does nothing to solve school-based problems. When this happens, parents and community stakeholders must remind school representatives, etc. that there are far too many examples of poor children succeeding in high performing schools that do not use a child's socioeconomic status or even the achievement gap as an excuse for failure, a fact that proves that their theories about poor children are invalid and unreliable. Based on these concerns, the bottomline for all stakeholders should be that --- parents must make their own decisions about schools. For this goal to be achieved, they need objective, timely, accurate data. They also need objective, timely, accurate data to hold school officials and teachers accountable for student achievement, a goal that was established with the enactment of ESEA 1965. Without this goal in place --- schools cease to be schools. 

Unfortunately, the majority of school officials have been silent (for years) about how they create the conditions in schools that work against student achievement,  including ignoring how their own low expectations of children of color, in particular creates a profound burden for children to carry. This same charge falls on parent education representatives who never speak out against policies that work against children. Clearly, 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. What sense does it make for a school system to cap the weight of standardized tests at 65% if objective academic measurements allow parents and community stakeholders to know who was actually  taught high-quality content and learned the content tied to the same high quality standards (the Common Core) and aligned tests? School officials and the unions then are not only undermining democratic ideals by  dominating the discussions about what parents want and need in a school system they are also overlooking what children need as well without any reference to best practices and lessons learned. In this sense, for parent education programs to be legitimate --- parents and community stakeholders must have access to research-based information and, in the process, 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. Why? They 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

Parent education leaders, without question, should address the problem of deficit models and their use, a key topic that should be discussed by any educational collaboration or partnership. Parents who serve on any task force should let all parents know who is "influencing and shaping agendas at state, district or school meetings and if school officials  control the discussions or prevent disagreements from occurring. For parents who are allowed to speak at meetings (in some districts they are not) they should let their political representatives know if topics important to parents and community stakeholders are ignored ( Lukes, 1974 ). (Note: Black politicians have been one of the few groups confronting  state officials about the use of deficit models and lower standards for children of color.)  They should let them know if school officials limit the time and  space for questions by parents and community stakeholders pertaining to, let's say, student growth measures --- or even discriminatory or deficit ideologies.

Power imbalances, on all levels, should be discussed by participants of parent education programs as well. They should discuss whether or not school officials deliberately fail to focus on the problems originating from ineffective strategies or the lack of capacity at the state, district and school levels.  They should question certain norms that are reinforced (i.e., again --- in some states parents cannot speak at meetings) that limit any in-depth discussions or disagreements on current policies by parents and community stakeholders.  They must center on the definitions of terms used by school leaders so all stakeholders have a shared understanding or shared language not only for the ESSA requirements focusing on teacher effectiveness but also for the school culture, school climate and school environment --- to determine if the current definitions are based on "excuses" for school ineffectiveness.  Parent education programs then should discuss whether or not parents and community stakeholders are expected to automatically support public school system strategies without any formal discussions about state, district, and strategies that have already failed to serve public school students based on their latest NAEP scores. This includes discussing school-based problems associated with parent education programs. For instance, are the parent education representatives agreeing with school officials over the needs of parents and community stakeholders ---  even before an indepth discussion takes place about any issue in question?

Were the parents and community stakeholders (who still participate in the parent education programs)
aware that their interests were suppressed, overlooked or limited in favor of their school  officials' accountability preferences? Were their preferences 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 the fact 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 and strategies are distinguished from those that are not effective? 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 distract the public from focusing on high quality standards tied to a rigorous currriculum, high-quality classroom instruction, etc.)? 

Could these types of scenarios happen if parents and community stakeholders were aware of the best 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? For instance, "In heavily Democratic New Orleans, the guiding principle has been not just to create options but to try to make sure they are good ones." With this goal in mind, are parent education programs ensuring that parents are armed with the best information so they can distinguish between good choices and bad choices --- supported by best practices and lessons learned to ensure that each choice can deliver on its promises? 

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