M. Elena Lopez and Holly Kreider of HFRP present a framework of authentic parent participation in school reform and its implications for evaluation.
Although educators closely scrutinize how this reform impacts students and teachers, they pay less attention to how it is changing the parameters of parent involvement. As parents and community members learn about school performance and achievement gaps among students, they seek greater participation in the basic decisions that affect their schools. Beyond providing input on school plans, they strive toward authentic participation.
Derived from the study of public administration, the concept of authentic participation refers to people’s “deep and continuous involvement in administrative processes with the potential for all involved to have an effect on the situation” (King, Feltey & Susel, 1998, p. 320). In the context of school reform, authentic participation can be
1. A community of parents committed to school improvement
2. Relationships of trust between parents and schools
3. Development of parent participation and leadership skills
4. Parent opportunity to influence the process and outcomes of an issue
5. Parent participation in a deliberation process where all participants are on an equal footing
6. New roles for school administrators and teachers as partners who listen to parent
concerns, work with them on issues, and engage them in open dialogue
These seven elements offer a framework for developing a parent engagement strategy and evaluating it as well. Below we offer examples of parent and community efforts that reflect these elements of authentic participation..
A Community of Parents Committed to School Improvement
Through formal training and informal networking opportunities, the Parent Services Project (PSP) nurtures a core leadership group in several schools in Marin County, California. It focuses on building a sense of community among parents as a prerequisite to issue identification. PSP’s Mauricio Palma notes, “The building of relationships between parents happens through an informal process of dinners and bagel breakfasts. During these times, issues begin to surface in conversations. Then we help people reflect on these issues, such as student safety, nutrition, and homework port.” With confidence gained by their PSP experience, Latino parent leaders at one elementary school pressed the district to allow them to participate in hiring a new principal for their low-performing school. The candidate of their choice, a Latino who shared a similar immigrant experience with the parents, is now principal and has begun to improve the school’s performance on state tests.
Relationships of Trust Between Parents and Schools
Development of Parent Participation and Leadership Skills
Through the Prichard Committee’s Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership (CIPL) parent leaders learn about Kentucky’s standards and how to use school achievement data to initiate school projects that strengthen student achievement. Parent leader Chuck Matthews is implementing a project in which local churches offer parent and community support to a school with low student test scores. He convened pastors who committed their churches to “sponsoring” teams of students— by having congregation members support the students through activities such as mentoring, recognizing children’s accomplishments during church services, and serving as advocates in the school when a student’s parent is unable to do so.
Matthews explains that he gained principal and teacher buy-in by presenting a plan that could meet the school’s family involvement goals, proposing clear measures of progress, and soliciting teacher participation in identifying the priority needs of each team of students. An evaluation of CIPL pointed to the importance of such skills among its parent leaders. Parents had to become “bilingual” to converse well, not only with parents, but with school personnel about important educational issues in order to effect change (Kroll, Sexton, Raimondo, Corbett & Wilson, 2001).
Parent Opportunity to Influence Process and Outcomes
Boston Parent Organizing Network (BPON), a network of community-based organizations in Boston, Massachusetts, helps build the capacity of its member organizations to help parents take action around educational policy. Director Michele Brooks’ past relationships with the school district and BPON’ credibility and respect have facilitated entry into conversations with the school superintendent and mayor.
When the superintendent planned to restructure the family and community engagement component of the system by moving it several levels down the bureaucracy, BPON opposed the change. Brooks recounts, “We felt it would muffle the voice of parents. We wanted them to have a direct line to the superintendent who after all works for parents … We really fought and came up with an alternative plan that included having a Deputy Superintendent for Family and Community Engagement … We now have this plan in place … and we can push for the way we want things to happen.”
Parent Participation in a Deliberation Process
As communities have access to school data and find out their schools are failing, Parents for Public Schools has noted a growing rift between parents and schools. In Lancaster County, PPS parents were not satisfied with how the state reported school performance. Labels such as “satisfactory” and “unsatisfactory” did not capture the strengths and weaknesses of schools. Parents conducted their own research on the schools and developed a report card that gave a multi-dimensional assessment of each school. Susan DeVenny comments, “Our goal is to help schools improve where there are problems, but the assessment has to be fair and you have to look at multiple factors.”
More Information About the Parent Organizations
Parents for Public Schools
Parent Services Project
Parents United for Responsible Education
Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence
New Roles for School Administrators and Teachers
The Parent Services Project combines the principles of family support with community organizing approaches. A key challenge and task is to have schools develop an awareness of family support principles and make them an integral part of the ways schools relate to families. Mauricio Palma describes these principles in the following manner:
- Families must be engaged in making decisions that affect the lives of their children.
- Families have ideas and concerns and can contribute to decision-making.
- Family leadership must be defined not as just attending a 30minute meeting to sign documents that need to be sent to the state, but a range of experiences that allow them to put their dreams into practice and help shape what happens in the school.
- Schools must create a dialogue with parents about what’s needed to support children’s school success.
- Schools should “do with” families rather than “do for” families.
- A relational culture must be established that transforms parent-parent and parent-teacher “connection” to “communion.”
Local Administration Supporting Authentic Participation
Parent representation on local school councils in Chicago, Illinois is a powerful example. Chicago’s School Reform Act of 1987 requires elected local school councils with a majority of parents on each council. Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) had a key role in passing the act, and now offers training to parents serving on local school councils (LSCs).
Julie Woestehoff, PURE Director, explains the many impacts of these changes. Schools are now very closely scrutinized in Chicago. Monthly local school council meetings which are parent-chaired provide a place and people to whom parents can bring concerns and have them addressed. Chicago now has a special environment, a formalized process, and political machinery for parents to hold schools accountable. Parents elected to LSCs have also caused changes in the educational leadership to better reflect diversity of the community.
Adourthus McDowell, a PURE parent and LSC member, invests considerable time holding the system accountable to parents. He explains that even though funds have been earmarked for public participation and support, the system tends to monopolize the process and use rhetoric. School systems need pressure to reform, and parents must be prepared for the “long haul” for real changes in the system to occur.
Implications for Evaluation
King, C. S., Feltey, K. M., & Susel, B. O. (1998). The question of participation: Toward authentic public participation in public administration. Public Administration Review, 58(4), 317–326.
Kroll, J., Sexton, R. F., Raimondo, B. N., Corbett, H. D., & Wilson, B. (2001, November). Setting the stage for success: Bringing parents into education reform as advocates for higher student
achievement. Lexington, KY: Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.
Mattingly, D. J., Prislin, R., McKenzie, T. L., Rodriguez, J. L., & Kayzar, B. (2002, Winter). Evaluating evaluations: The case of parent involvement programs. Review of Educational Research,
Copyright © 2013 President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted with permission from Harvard Family Research Project. Since 1983, HFRP has helped stakeholders develop and evaluate strategies to promote the wellbeing of children, youth, families, and their communities. To learn more about how HFRP can support your work with children and families, visit www.hfrp.org.