The issue of school reform is of common concern for parents, schools, communities, universities, and funders. Yet there are many differences in the approaches to accomplishing education reform. Among the primary differences are the opportunities offered to parents and communities to influence public decisions and otherwise participate in school activities that can lead to positive educational changes for children as well as the for the development and quality of life within local communities.
This article will make the case that: (1) parent and community involvement are essential for accomplishing school reform; (2) eliciting and sustaining family and community participation requires change on the part of schools and universities in order to be more accountable and responsive to their local communities; and (3) coalition building is an effective strategy to bring together parents and community-based organizations that can reflect the variety of needs and interests of local communities in influencing positive educational changes.
Schools and universities tend to focus, appropriately so, on the performance of their students. Yet another important aspect for schools to consider is the impact they can have as catalysts for the well-being of local communities. The type of interaction between schools and universities and their constituent parents and communities has great potential to be a strong positive force for improving the quality of life for local citizens.
Schools and communities are inextricably linked, thus, school reform can and should begin by partnering with families and communities. An educational environment that is supportive of and responsive to the interests of its parents and communities empowers and enables families and community organizations to play active roles in identifying needs and proposing creative solutions.
In considering aspects of education reform that emerge in communities, a range of supports need to be considered. One aspect is generating public will for change and fostering the necessary skills for positive engagement between parents and educational institutions, i.e. Will+Skill=Change. This equation, though simple, also requires a series of other supports:
- public investment and funding to address equity in access to good schools;
- policy that is supportive of and responsive to the diversity of learners within a community;
- technologies suitable to the possibilities of individuals and organizations having access to them;
- effective schools that view families and communities as important resources; and
- organizations that are informed and operating at various levels to enhance the opportunities for engagement of community members.
The debate about education reform seems to be focused on the three first components. Yet, the creation of effective institutions and organizations that are willing to engage families is indispensable to the change process. Without institutional leadership, commitment and a framework that fosters engagement with communities, effective school reform cannot be built or maintained, and the other components cannot materialize. Ideas and action need to be institutionalized in any educational change process.
These can be forthcoming from parents and the local communities served by schools and universities. When this happens, the concepts of institutionalization, educational reform and sustainability can have similar components with community growth and well-being.
Essential to this process is the concept of equity and access. Education reform cannot have meaning without equity for all children, parents and communities. Growth and change linked to equity also equates to greater attention paid to the social milieu in which a school or university finds itself.
Schools that value equity respond not only to their students but also to the issues within their local communities that affect the quality of life for their citizens. In so doing, they become effective catalysts for fostering dialogue and action, which is the cornerstone of civil society and the democratic process.
Communities and Systems Change
Development or change in any institution or in any community is always a process. As such, it is dynamic and focused on the betterment of life for all members. Understanding school reform as a developmental process can open the window to understanding the need for greater engagement of parents and communities as meaningful partners in the process of school reform and academic success for students.
Any type of change also has its own pattern with a direction, pace and duration. In the book Mastering Change, Leon Martel makes the distinction between structural and cyclical change (1986). Structural change, he writes, is the fundamental transformation of some activity or institutions from a previous state. This results in a change in the essential quality of the institution. It is irreversible and requires permanent adjustment. Cyclical change is temporary and usually does not cause any alterations in the structure of the institutions or the activities in which they are engaging.
When planning for education reform, one must aim for structural changes in order to enhance the chances of sustainability. When linked to community development, school reform can provide opportunities for people to improve the quality of their lives and take part in a series of articulated actions toward that goal. In order for the changes to be sustainable, new public policies that affect that particular community must also come into play.
There is an important distinction between change as a phenomenon and change as a set of actions (Chin, 1961). Managing change concerns a number of issues, including identifying the destabilizing forces, choosing what to change, selecting the appropriate methods to sue, designing the most effective strategies, implementing effective strategies, and evaluating results. All of these can effectively include community as partners in the change process with education systems.
Connor and Lake write that four elements can be measured regarding change:
- individual task behavior, for instance when people decide to value a particular need or make it a political issue, that requires voluntary work to get organized or to inform policymakers;
- organizational processes, for example reframing practices or creating new ones within organizations;
- strategic directions for the common benefit, such as recognizing and assigning new roles for communities and organizations to become effective participants in the change process; and
- cultural changes, addressing a basic values within organizations, such as valuing parent involvement and participation (1988).
Ideally, all of these aspects of change can be found in community development as well as in the education reform process. All of them lead to the redistribution of power, in which individuals, communities, parents and others can participate in the decision-making process about the teaching-learning process.
When people become “authorized’ and recognized to act around their own destiny, schools and universities become more “relevant” and can have major impact on the societies they serve.
Who are the Change Agents
Education reform provides the space for three sectors to work together for social benefit: school, community and government. Government establishes policies and funding that create an enabling environment; schools provide the learning environment and services for its students; and community can contribute with its ideas, its closeness to people, ideas, values, beliefs and markets.
The creation of linkages among these sectors is key to the education reform process. The Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) has developed several tools and specific supports to assist educational institutions in their efforts to value and meaningfully engage with parents, families, and communities in creating schools that work for all children.
Networking, coalition building and working together to find solutions to particular problems in one area supplies the opportunity to mobilize the local society, thus bringing together resources that can be the seed for new undertakings and positive change. As a consequence of this process, room is created for people to get involved in education for the common good, through their ideas, time and talents.
Ultimately this improves the quality of life in communities surrounding schools and universities. Sustainability of positive efforts is also enhanced in this way and lessons learned can be disseminated to other audiences for even broader impact.
What is required for this to occur? Coalition building among these sectors requires a willingness to set aside personal agendas for a common good, to see the bigger picture involving the total community. In coalition building, sometimes the words cooperation, collaboration and coordination are used interchangeably. However, they have different meanings.
Cooperation is largely an attitude or stance. It recognizes the need to act jointly with another or with others around an issue. It is a state of mind and a pre-requisite to move further, but it is the most basic level of commitment and is often more talk than action.
Collaboration implies actually working together in active partnerships where each partner stays independent in pursuing a common interest.
Coordination suggests a process of defining parameters for taking collaborative action. It is a leap in commitment since it means that a given organization is interdependent and no longer isolated. When coordination is present, there is a conscious decision to make changes as defined by the coalition members for the interest and benefit of students and for society as a whole.
Community-Influenced Education Reform
Education reform requires coordination and shared leadership. School reform, when linked within the context of community, will result in a higher educational level of the entire community. This in turn, can produce movement and change in all systems that in the long-term are in the best interest of all citizens.
Inherent in this process is the sharing of information to the broader public and the building of skills to effect change. The benefits of the process are immense for the quality of life surrounding a campus. These can include:
- Improved student achievement through access to excellent educational programs;
- Economic gains through increased work and opportunities;
- Social benefits in education, health, nutrition, access to public services, etc.;
- Equity in increased assets and access to all citizens in the area; and
- Empowerment and participation in the decision-making process at the local level.
This process starts with the community and schools together setting education goals. These goals must reflect the thinking of parents, families and communities. Accountability processes should be consistent with the individual roles and responsibilities shared by the partners (see box).
Family and community participation can help to create empowered and competent people committed to long-term and responsive education reform. Participation is a means as well as an end in itself, with families and communities recognized as essential resources for change.
Community organizations also play an important role in school reform. Organizations that support school change through advocacy, technical assistance and parent engagement provide an important resource for schools in developing strategies and planning for school improvements. Gold and Simon remark, “The unique role of community organizing in education reform is in building community capacity and linking to school improvement through public accountability” (2002).
Thus, community-influenced education reform includes the following two elements:
- Valuing of families and communities and the recognition that they are capable of initiating and sustaining involvement in educational change; and
- Successful strategies to include broad-based local participation in comprehensive planning and decision-making at the local level as well as at the policy level.
Education leaders who are committed to this process will recognize that they can effectively engage parents and empower people within the local community. There is no question that in this process, certain leadership roles with delegated authority and responsibility are needed. These people include community leaders, parent leaders, school-based leaders, and policy leaders committed to educational reform that will serve the needs of all children.
Working together, these leaders can institutionalize change at the school and community levels, and foster policy changes at the state and national levels. Together, they can provide a vision, motivation and facilitation to make school reform happen, for the betterment of their institutions, their students, for the society and the community as a whole.
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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 June- July 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.]