The Purpose of
Parent Engagement Programs
Building Parent & Community Stakeholder
Voice, Agency & Influence in Schools
By Stephanie Leigh Robinson
​June 2017

Part II

“We are Americans, not only by birth and by citizenship but by our political ideals. . . . And the greatest of those ideals is that ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL.”
                                                                                                            W.E.B. DuBois 

The Purpose of Parent Engagement Programs
The Continuation of Concerns. . . ​

. . . lack of "essential courses in math and science" in segregated schools,  lack of AP courses (overall) in segregated schools, lack of resources in segregated schools, lack of textbooks in segregated schools , lack of discussions explaining the NAEP, TIMSS, PISA and state test scores and what schools are doing to improve the scores, lack of discussions explaining the comparability loophole and the supplement/not supplant provisions, lack of discussions focusing on best practices and lessons learned or the implementation of gold and evidence-based programming --- and even the unfair distribution of effective teachers across  districts, and, of course, weak school accountability plans and/or or the lack of enforceable accountability plans (or fines, sanctions or penalties based on accountability research) as if the U.S. is classism and racism-free, etc.?  
(Note: If the state and local parent program representatives have not brought up most of these concerns "or, at least,  discussed how the achievement gap is being addressed" it is surely a telltale sign --- or a huge hint that they are not  serving the information needs of parents and community stakeholders. Moreover, they are not representing public school parents and community stakeholders from a rights-base d democractic
standpoint or with democracy in mind ---  and are, instead,  in all likelihood, representing the one-sided views of current  school officials who continue to overlook  or fail to promote  prgramming focusing on equality.  


Based on this incomplete list of state, district and school accountability concerns where the questions keep multiplying --- will parents and community stakeholders ask  states and local school systems to do the right thing and utilize the ESSA flexibility provisions to address these longstanding issues? Have parent programs prepared parents and community stakeholders to ask questions about these concerns or to discuss these critical topics connected to student achievement? Most importantly, are parents and community stakeholders prepared to ask Secretary DeVos why state, district and school officials (in each state), to date, are currently developing the plans that will, in essence, cause them to hold themselves accountable for their own actions, including the ways in which they will be responsive to parents or the public (which, by anyone's definition, is a very bad idea for obvious (historical or current) reasons --- if not for the very clear conflict of interest it perpetuates? Have parent programs discussed this concern? (Unfortunately, some states have already turned their plans in.)
This example shows why It is, therefore, up to parents and community stakeholder to contribute to these discussions. With their involvement, the ESSA state plans may be prevented from becoming yet another
example to add to the long list of concerns that represent the U.S. gaming of the educational system,
which includes loopholes and/or practices for clientelism, discrimination, racism (and even the exploitation of children through school choice according to a well-known former politician), etc. that far too many
parent programs ignored in the past. This requires an in-depth understanding of power structures and
power processes, including how parent program goals are addressing state, district and school-based inequities such as low standards and modified educational content in classrooms, specifically for children
of color (refer to the aforementioned examples of school-based problems). Programs without this focus
or component in place are contributing to the accountability gaps in schools by overlooking power 
imbalances, which abound in any school culture that does not implement high-quality transparency
and accountability mechanisms and strategies.  
Due to the critical importance of teacher effectiveness then, they must, without question, take part in the conversations centering on state teacher evaluation plans. These plans must be tied to student results, a crucial requirement that will allow all stakeholders to have access to (timely)  objective ---valid and reliable information about classroom instruction, which parents need --- (even though the teachers' unions object
to any evaluations tied to any thing their members actually accomplish or do not accomplish in real
classrooms in real time). Given the fact that  "teacher effectiveness" is no longer defined by credentials or tenure and the term "highly qualified" is no longer valid under ESSA (or at the federal level), parents and community stakeholders must make every effort to join the statewide discussions that determine how their state will define this concept. Furthermore, they must participate in the political discourse underscoring the importance of school ratings (a topic that many school officials are downplaying to prevent the public from distinguishing between a school that is educating its students from one that is not).
They must take part in decision-making focusing on ESSA indicators that should offer critical information about school leader and teacher effectiveness, etc. or something school-based and useful in support
of student achievement. And, most importantly, they must contribute to the political discourse focusing
on state standards, a topic  that  continues to show that the public school system is not based on bipartisanship but, instead, based on the special interests of unions and politicians (i.e., consider states
such as AL, IL, VA, FL., etc. that have lowered their standards at the educational expense of children. That they are capable of overlooking equity and equality --- or unequal conditions in schools but have no problem in promoting child and family deficit models, etc. is a travesty. (Note: Head Start students do well until they enter the public school system. They lose ground when school leaders decide to provide them with a modified curriculum that's not aligned to high-quality standards.). Please refer to my blog post  focusing on state standards.

Equally important, they must understand why  state assessments are important and then always take the lead in contributing to the discussions that support high-quality assessments tied to high-quality standards. For instance, 

         "State assessment systems provide essential information that States, districts, principals, and teachers             can use to identify the academic needs of students, target resources and supports toward students                   who need them most, evaluate school and program effectiveness,and close achievement gaps among             students. A high-quality assessment system also provides useful information to parents about their                   child’s advancement against and achievement of grade-level standards. The Department’s peer review           of State assessment systems is designed to provide feedback to States to support the development and           administration of high-quality assessments.  (Department of Education, 2016)
With parents and community members involved in all of these discussions, the agenda(s) and/or the agenda items change.  School failure begins to have meaning or a rhyme and reason claim attached to it that has nothing to do with child deficit models. With an organized presence of parents and community stakeholders paying attention to how children are educated in schools, their concerns and issues are brought to the fore--- and, in the process,  the very democratic purpose of educating all U.S. children can
take center stage and broaden, if not elevate, the discussions that have remained stuck on the limited views of school officials, teachers' unions, school leaders, lobbyists, etc. 

Parents and community stakeholders, therefore, must always receive information firmly grounded in best practices and lessons learned tied to school effectiveness and, in turn, count on their parenting programs
to serve as the starting point for these discussions. This information must include but not be limited to information about high-quality, research-based standards, high-quality, research-based assessments, high-quality, research-based professional development for leaders and teachers, high-quality, research-based classroom instruction as well as highly-quality, research-based instructional and teacher practices, etc. For example, they should always have access to  teacher quality data (especially pertaining to inexperienced teachers) in order to remain up-to-date on school effectiveness and how it is being supported.  

Equally important, these training programs must serve as the channels for parents and community members to understand  how student success is defined and measured in states, districts and schools for each ESSA subgroup. (The super group concept that state officials are supporting should not be accepted by parents and community groups since such an approach hides
student achievement data pertaining to each racial group. This information is needed to ensure that each group has access
to the resources that it needs to achieve.)     Holding schools accountable for student achievement is chief
among these goals. Given this fact, parents and community stakeholder must ask if the tests are  aligned to research-based high-quality standards, a high-quality, research-based curriculum and classroom instruction and how schools support this, on-going, critical effort so teachers are not teaching to the test but to a research-based curriculum. (Some states are actually saying that the students should create their own tests.) The student growth models should be reviewed as well so parents and community stakeholders understand how school officials are defining progress or if it is based on rigorous goals with timelines in mind that see poor black students as equal to white students in their ability to achieve --- rather than comparing poor black students with other poor black students. 

This step includes tracking and identifying (for the sake of all children) all of the inequitable practices in states, districts and schools, including but not limited to information about inexperienced teachers who provide classroom instruction to a disproportionate amount of poor children of color based on low standards and a modified curriculum (causing the students to score lower on assessment tests or the NAEP, the PISA, the TIMSS, and their state assessments).  They must also learn and understand, from school officials, how this information will be disseminated, explained, and verified or how it will be used to change these discriminatory practices at the state, district and schools levels --- which are still in place in many   states .  

For instance, they must have access to the exact number of  teachers who are actually trained to teach research-based, high-quality content in classrooms and understand where the most experienced teachers are placed. They must remain up-to-date on information about research-based, high-quality professional development programming tied to teacher effectiveness, instructional leadership effectiveness and/or school effectiveness, including how the goals are defined and if they are met by the leaders and  teachers after they complete the training programs.

To remain proactive, they should request information about superintendent and principal data-bases pertaining to the top leaders in the field of education, including information about where and why they are successful. They should receive information about high turnovers in districts, states, and schools and learn where and why the turnovers are happening. They
should request information about Colleges of Education or, at the least, the high performing ones that are producing highly-effective educators and if  these databases are used for hiring purposes.  Moreover, they should remain up-to-date on the roles and actions of unions/lobbyists and how their political actions are impacting school-based decisions and/or  classroom practices.  

This means parents and community stakeholders have the right to  expect school officials to explain their decisions to them and, in the process, provide them with concrete data or in-depth information pertaining to the specific steps that they took to  arrive at a decision. They should also expect school officials to explain if their  decisions were supported by gold and/or evidenced-based studies or best practices and lessons learned. If parents and community stakeholders are asked to attend a training program run by school officials, they must also ensure that they took part in its design or, at the least, took part in the development of a needs analysis (and the interpretation of its results) to support a systematic process in which the gaps between the current school conditions and the school's overall goals are acknowledged, addressed, monitored and tracked. 

This crucial, necessary step is an integral part of any school community that recognizes the "prerequisites" pertaining to the legitimacy and  buy-in of overall educational decisions stemming from strong relationships and interactions between school representatives and community members.  By building their knowledge
base --- or their leadership capabilities in these critical areas, parents and community  stakeholders will be empowered to  better understand "the pertinent ways" in which school representatives , currently, support or --- even impede and ignore equity and fairness
 concerns at the state, district and local levels. (For instance, under President Clinton only two states had plans to address the achievement gap but it was not information that was widely disseminated by parent programs across the nation.)

Having access to this type of information on which the  best effective training program should be based sets the stage for programming that serves all stakeholders at the systemic level, a requirement that must be met  if parents and community stakeholders  are to truly work collaboratively with school officials and teachers in supporting student achievement.  With all of this key information in mind, parent programs must represent parents and community stakeholders, without utilizing deficit models, but must always see parents and community members as the first-line of support for students.
They must also be very careful about allowing them to relinquish their right to parent. They, instead, must assist them in learning about the "factors affecting public school quality," and/or the fair distribution of state, district and school resources. In doing so,  they will find  that the parents and community stakeholders are actually served and placed in a position to promote and represent a culture of inquiry fostering equity and excellence in public schools tied to student achievement.
Our checklist then is a starting point for parents and community members who want to be taken seriously by all school representatives. Respecting this democratic goal, however,
 begins with an awareness of what parents and community stakeholders want and do not want from school officials.  First of all, they do not want school officials to speak on their behalf. This means that they do not  want manufactured or cosmetic-type school information handed to them after educational decisions have already been made at the national, state and local levels. These stakeholders, instead, want to explore and discuss real issues, in a timely manner and, at a deeper level, where the answers and solutions exist for all public school students, not just some. They want to debate subjects from a systemic level of analysis by supporting “shared public spaces where knowledge is created, exchanged and used.”  In sum, they want access to opportunity structures and processes where they can actively contribute to the conversations about effective and proven solutions  for student success.  
From this perspective, opportunities abound for the 65% of American parents who wish to support their children's education. For instance, they can collaborate with other parents and community stakeholders  by embarking on a journey that leads to "doing more" for public school children --- by  "learning more" about the public education system.  And, if they stay the course and remain committed to the public school system, they will also find that they are "the participants" whose wishes have, indeed, come true based on their very own involvement in creating new opportunities for change to happen --- opportunities that include  becoming a part of a world class "inclusive"  public  education community in the making. . .