Because education is a complex and diverse process, quality education for all children requires multi-sectorial strategies that are integral to overall development and success. Many partners must join in with education institutions, teachers, and faculty in developing practices and policies that make access to quality education the responsibility of the entire society.
This implies the active involvement of a wide range of partners – families, teachers, communities, private enterprises, and government and non-governmental organizations in planning, managing and evaluating the success.
Good schools cannot be regarded as a branch of bureaucracy. Instead, they are subsystems, highly interactive with all other parts of the social whole. The point is to give students, parents and teachers responsibility over their learning and provide a framework for shared accountability for success. This assumption of responsibility must embrace two indispensable areas: (1) participation in the decision-making process; and (2) regular and structured involvement, with evaluation and feedback.
For this to occur, we must unleash the energies of people to make education a concern of the whole community. We must create conditions and institutional environments for people to articulate their goals for education and to make their contribution to educational development.
Family and community participation is a sine qua non in education. It must engage people widely and actively as both beneficiaries and contributors. Education development must be seen as the business of families and communities. Engaging communities in education needs to be recognized as a basic principle of action within an overall development strategy.
As principles that guide this action, specific values must be recognized, such as:
- Accepting democratic practices and values as central to education;
- Giving family and community a prominent role to participate in events and processes that shape education for their children;
- Valuing and liberating the energy, creativity and spirit of family and community in the learning process; and
- Providing equitable access to opportunities for an excellent education for all children.
What does participation and engagement mean? To participate means being part of something. There are several ways to be a part of this: (1) use a particular service; (2) contribute resources, materials and labor; (3) attend; (4) be consulted on a particular issue; (5) get involved in the delivery of the service; (6) take part in the implementation of delegated powers; and (7) take part in decision-making.
It has been argued that the participation issue in education is not so much a problem of degree or quantity but rather of the quality of such participation (Coraggio, 1991).
Therefore, participation of community in education is “not only an agreement to follow, but an action decision to assume responsibility in considering the rationale, implications and potential outcomes of any particular process” (Shaeffer, 1992).
Community and family engagement in education, if understood as an empowering and formative experience, enables people to gain knowledge, awareness and democratic experience, as well as self-confidence, self-reliance, pride and autonomy. They can take action in the resolution of problems. It also enables them to share in the responsibility and accountability over the outcome of a process – in this case, an excellent and equitable education for all children.
In the context of education, engagement and participation is an expression of the overall development strategy of recognizing the critical role of people’s collective action in a democratic society, which includes political, social and economic arenas.
Engagement must have a sense of urgency about achieving a common goal – student access and success along the continuum of education from pre-kindergarten through college graduation. Through the expression of collective commitment to that goal, schools, universities and communities can formulate strategies to achieve results and engage families, students, business leaders, community-based organizations, policymakers and others in coordinated and effective actions.
This type of engagement implies a shared accountability for positive results. Shared accountability requires new paradigms that include learners and communities in the process of change, not as passive beneficiaries, but as active agents of change within educational systems. Students cannot be seen as passive listeners, faculty cannot be seen as passive executors of predetermined curricula, and parents cannot be seen as passive receivers of complaints and results.
Shared accountability means that schools and universities must become catalysts for engagement and create spaces and opportunities for public debate and consensus-building around educational priorities, targets, strategies and performance. It means teachers are given support and responsibility. It also means that parents and students are given opportunities to contribute to the process of education and that learners are seen as legitimate educational partners.
How Communities Can Engage Meaningfully in Education
Participation and engagement are access. It is the role of institutions of education to make this access available to communities for their meaningful and active participation. This requires schools and universities to view the assets that communities can bring to the educational process.
The community’s involvement in education implies both enhancing the resources for education and taking part in defining and guiding educational programs at the community level. Following are some ways for this to occur.
- Parents and family members can work with teachers to help guide children.
- Community organizations can encourage all potential learners to participate in learning activities.
- Communities can help learning activities work in a mutually supportive way, responding to the total learning needs of the community.
- Schools and universities can recognize and value the funds of knowledge that can be found within the family and community.
Students constitute a vital human resource that is often overlooked as important partners in the educational change process. Young people are not only open to new ideas and change, but also are enthusiastic innovators when provided the right conditions and support. Youth can also help revitalize and renovate education and revitalize themselves as emerging leaders in the process (Torres, 1985).
Given the opportunity, young learners themselves can teach their families and neighbors what they learn in school and help change parental and community perceptions and attitudes toward education. “Child-to-child” projects in many countries are living examples of children’s active involvement in promoting health, education and children’s rights (Hawes and Scotchmer, 1993).
Interestingly, in several other countries, the involvement of community in education is not only valued but also a formalized process in learning. For example, parent and community involvement in the development of curriculum has been incorporated into the educational laws of Indonesia, and schools for orienting and preparing parents for their role in school affairs and in guiding their children’s education is a standard feature in Chinese primary education (Hawes and Scotchmer, 1993).
Factors for Success
A substantial body of experience has emerged on community participation in education in emerging countries that can be considered useful for the U.S. context. To make this work, factors for success are being identified, including the following.
A clearly articulated goal and vision – Providing learners with the support they need to stay in school and graduate college-ready needs to be the shared vision of community, schools and parents locally as well as nationally.
High profile and frequent monitoring – Monitoring for success that is based on indicators of school as well as student performance should include indicators that are clearly defined and reported regularly and publicly in order to review progress and decide on necessary course corrections.
Visibility on the national agenda – When the expectation is that the whole of society participate in and mobilize around education, benefits of such involvement are clearly understood as a shared societal concern. These benefits include better health, labor productivity, greater democratic participation, enhanced competitiveness in the global market, protection of the environment, etc.
Building local consensus – Participation and mobilization on a lasting basis can be promoted and sustained only when there is a foundation on the major goals and priorities for education, as well as strategies for achieving them. Consensus building is an ongoing process that needs to be nurtured and requires access to information and shared accountability.
Identifying and sharing success stories – Nothing is better than building on success. Successful models need to be studied further and adapted for wider application among communities.
Shared responsibility and accountability – A system of planning, managing, monitoring and supporting the success of every student needs to be the shared responsibility of school, home, community and society, including teachers, parents, students, policymakers, and education specialists.
Building on existing good practice – It is important to identify the strengths and weaknesses of educational institutions and practices, build on the strengths and finding ways to address the weaknesses of these institutions to create climates where excellence and learning are accessible for all students.
Effective use of communication – Mass media cannot substitute for effective leadership, however interactive communication helps foster the vision and action of educational institutions across all sectors so that these are widely shared and people’s voices are expressed. This leads to a collective sense of educational mission and direction. Progress reports, as well as information on obstacles and unexpected situations should be available for public information and feedback.
Public Engagement vs. Parent Involvement
In an article by Heather Voke, “Engaging the Public in Its Schools,” public engagement in education is described as “willingness on the part of citizens to invest not only the financial resources but also the time and energy necessary to support a system of quality public schools that are accessible to all children” (Kleinz, 2000).
Thus, the distinction is made between public engagement and parent involvement. The former is motivated by a commitment to secure a quality education for all children, rather than for one’s own child solely.
Public engagement lies fundamentally upon the notion of shared accountability and the relationship between the public and its schools. It implies a recognition of the role of public schools in preparing children for the political and social roles they will have as adults who are meaningfully involved in a civil society. When children are not prepared for these roles, society feels the consequences (Center on National Education Policy, 1996).
Schools need to recognize that public engagement increases their capacity to provide excellent education for all students. According to David Mathews, author of Is There a Public for the Public Schools?, broad public engagement encourages teachers and students to work harder by sending the message that people recognize the importance of what they do (1996).
Community engagement also supports innovation and efforts to improve schools. There is a long record of research showing that “when families and communities are involved in education, students learn more and schools improve” (U.S. Department of Education, 1998).
Education reformers have also recognized that many of problems that schools face extend outside the school and cannot be successfully solved by schools alone (Mathews and Nielson, 1999).
Many people recognize the importance of community engagement and want to be more involved in what is happening in their schools. More than half would like to see more opportunities for community involvement in schools (Rose and Gallup, 1998).
Organizations such as the Annenberg Institute, the Center for Education Policy, and the Kettering Foundation believe that it is essential to give citizens “a voice in defining the values and goals for the schools in their districts” (Kleinz, 2000).
Arnett and others believe that schools must reach out to the diverse communities of citizens to engage them in deliberating dialogue about the issues facing their schools and to make collective decisions about which course of action to pursue (Kleinz, 2000; Jennings, 1997; Mathews, 1996).
Some foundations, such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, have outlined dimensions of effective engagement or partnerships between schools, higher education and communities (2002). These characteristics of effective engagement include the following:
- Partners see their present and future well-being inextricably linked.
- Partners collaboratively plan and design mutually beneficial programs and outcomes.
- Partners engage in reciprocal learning.
- Partners respect the language, history, culture, knowledge and wisdom of the other.
- Partners create structures that promote open communication and equity with one another.
- Partners have high expectations for their performance and involvement with one another.
- Partners value and promote diversity.
- Partners regularly conduct a joint assessment of their partnership and report results.
In 1998, the Annenberg Institute identified four traits of effective initiatives on engagement, they are:
- They were inclusive and dialogue-driven.
- They sought meaningful and long-term improvements in schools.
- They attempted to establish common ground and broad consensus around complex and controversial issues.
- They featured an atmosphere of candor and trust.
Some Lessons Learned
Some lessons emerging from those who have used public dialogue as a means of developing greater public engagement offer the following advice to those who are interested in replicating these efforts in their own communities.
- Be wary of using public engagement to sell reforms to the public – those who are guiding the process need to remain neutral and open to the input and outcomes generated (Kleinz, 2000).
- Realize that it takes time to build trust (Kleinz, 2000).
- Make deliberate and sustained efforts to ensure that representatives of all constituencies in the community have opportunities to engage. Schools must take steps to ensure that linguistically, culturally and racially diverse populations are included.
- Be sure that teachers and students are involved in engagement efforts. Both play a vital role. Students have a unique perspective on life in a community’s school, yet they are often excluded (Annenberg, 1998).
It is impossible to achieve the dream of quality education for all children unless we engage in a shared vision with shared action and shared accountability for access and success for each child. Educators and communities need to work more closely together to ensure that all of our youth are provided with an excellent education that prepares them for the world of work and active civic participation. Our schools deserve and need to foster greater community engagement, not only for the sake of the communities they serve, but for their own.
Annenberg Institute on Public Engagement for Public Education. Reasons for Hope, Voices for Change (Providence, R.I.: Annenberg Institute for School Reform, 1998).
Center on National Education Policy. Do We Still Need Public Schools? (Washington, D.C.: Center on National Education Policy, 1996).
Coraggio, J.L. “Las dos corrientes de descentralización en América Latina” and “Participación Popular y Vida Cotidiana,” Cuidades sin Rumbo (Quito, Ecuador: 1991).
Hawes, H., and C. Scotchmer (Eds). Children for Health: Children as Communicators of Facts for Life (London: The Child-to-Child Trust, in association with UNICEF, 1993).
Jennings, J.F. An Experiment in Democracy (Washington, D.C.: Center of Education Policy, 1997).
Kleinz, K. “Engaging the Public in the Public Schools,” Focus on Study Circles (Spring, 2000).
Mathews, D. Is There a Public for the Public Schools? (Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation Press, 1996).
Mathews, D., and R. Nielsen. “Finding the Public in Public Engagement,” School Administrator (September, 1999).
Rose, L.C., and A.M. Gallup. “The 30th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” Phi Delta Kappan (September, 1998) 80(1), 41-58.
Schaeffer, S. (Ed). Collaborating for Educational Change: The Role of Teachers, Parents and the Community in School Improvement (Paris: IIEP-UNESCO, 1992).
Torres, R.M. Nicaragua: Revolución Popular, Educación Popular (Managua-México: CRIES-Editorial Línea, 1985).
U.S. Department of Education. Turning Around Low-Performing Schools: A Guide for State and Local Leaders (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, May 1998).
W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Engagement in Youth and Education Programming (Battlecreak, Mich.: W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 2002).
Rosana G. Rodríguez, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Division of Community and Public Engagement. Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2003, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November- December 2003 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]