• by Laurie Posner, M.P.A. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2010 • Laurie Posner

While it is no longer so much in fashion to agonize about the death of one or another cultural institution (grammar!, romance!, rock-and-roll!), this did not stop Boston Globe writer Derrick Jackson from asserting that we are now witnessing “the death of public education” (2010).

Noting how many U.S. cities are facing major school closings and massive budget cuts, Jackson goes on to describe how the country chronically under-invests in education and underpays teachers, while blaming poor outcomes on student poverty and diversity. “In monetary terms,” Jackson writes, “we have given up on millions of children” (2010).

Funding education at insufficient or inequitable levels – and blaming poverty or diversity for poor outcomes – evokes what management consultant Peter Drucker (1980) called “yesterday’s logic.” As Drucker said, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”

Remaining trapped in yesterday’s logic comes at a perilous cost. Already each year, the United States loses an estimated 1.3 million high school youth to attrition. And while only recently the United States led the world in the number of young adults with college degrees, it has now slipped to 12th among 36 developed nations. Severe inequities persist, “Students from the highest income families are almost eight times as likely as those from the lowest income families to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24” (Lewin, 2010).

What can be done to reject yesterday’s logic and transform teaching and learning? Research and practical experience point to the need to take up three inter-related strategies: (1) community capacity building; (2) coalition building; and (3) school capacity building. Each strategy is an integral part of IDRA’s action model for transforming public education, the Quality Schools Action Framework (Robledo Montecel, 2005).

Community Capacity Building

Community capacity building as a term and an approach is often associated with community development and the power of social networks (“social capital”). As a concept, social capital has been around since at least the early 1900s, when L.J. Hanifan promoted its value in supporting rural schools. Hanifan (1916) wrote: “If [an individual] may come into contact with his neighbor, and they with other neighbors, there will be an accumulation of social capital… which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community” (see also Putnam, 2000).

As Hanifan implies, social capital and community capacity grow where there is a sense of neighborhood. In strengthening education, the best efforts build on these connections and expand knowledge and leadership to take up shared concerns. As a recent national study finds, well organized communities can serve not only to influence education policy and practice but also to “disrupt the priorities, assumptions and practices that have sanctioned poor school performance for so long” (Mediratta, et al., 2009).

Community capacity building also can overcome barriers to family engagement, creating new forums for partnership and problem-solving. The United Way’s family-school-community partnership in Texas began just such an approach in 2006. Focusing on student outcomes at 10 inner city schools, this initiative “shaped by and for parents” has created parent rooms at each campus, built parent-led networks and achieved gains in student attendance and tutoring rates, and decreased early dismissals (United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County, 2010).

In this way, the strategy both banks on decades of research linking family engagement with better student and school outcomes (Henderson, et al., 2004) and promotes partnerships that respect family contributions and leadership.

Coalition Building

Traced to the French and Latin terms for “fellowship” and “the growing together of parts” (as in coalesce), coalition building describes the process of developing a partnership of organizations to advance a common purpose. Needed as they are, coalitions designed to improve education have not always lived up to their potential. Too often, they have failed to include grassroots organizations and parents of children in public schools (Mediratta, et al., 2009).

Against this backdrop, a case-study review of the development of the Educational Justice Collaborative provides important insights. The EJC is a coalition of more than two dozen organizations in California whose goal is to attain high quality education for all children. Formed around the class action suit, Williams vs. State of California, the EJC has brought together community organizers, educators, researchers, and policy and legal advocates to coordinate research and policy and build community capacity to promote systems change.

One of EJC’s first actions, based on a review of statewide school outcome data, was to craft an Educational Bill of Rights. The bill highlights every student’s right to an education under the California constitution and, within this framework, to high quality teachers, and to safe and supportive learning environments. Importantly, the bill also calls for reliable public information on school outcomes, and regular community forums with public officials, to build in accountability for resources and results. Since the Williams settlement, coalition members have turned their attention to realizing these rights through work on school funding equity, college readiness and the state’s data system (Oakes & Rogers, 2006).

School Capacity Building

School capacity building, the most familiar of the three change strategies, involves the process of assuring that schools have the vision, leadership, faculty, curricula and resources to engage all students in learning. It begins with the recognition that substantial changes require interacting strategies, ensuring: that teachers are valued, prepared and well-equipped; that curriculum is rigorous, challenging and exciting; that students’ strengths are recognized and can flourish; and that families and community members are engaged as partners (Robledo Montecel, 2005). Rather than working apart from or at odds with the first two strategies, school capacity building depends on each for continuous self-renewal (Villarreal, 2006).

This holistic approach can be seen in work underway at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD in South Texas. Unlike traditional dropout recovery strategies, PSJA’s College, Career & Technology Academy, carried out in partnership with South Texas College, is re-engaging students who have dropped out of school in new learning opportunities and a curriculum that prepares them for college. The results include increased graduation and college readiness rates. Further, to strengthen mathematics and science teaching and learning, PSJA is partnering with IDRA on professional development and strategies to strengthen community-school-family partnership.

If public education is not just to survive but to be transformed and thrive, turbulent times must not have us retrench and revert to the failed logic of the past. We need a new logic, built on knowledge and experience, bold commitment and respect.


Alliance for Excellent Education. “The High Cost of High School Dropouts: What the Nation Pays for Inadequate High Schools” (Washington, D.C.: Alliance for Excellent Education, August 2009).

Drucker, P. Managing in Turbulent Times (New York, N.Y.: Harper Paperbacks, 1980).

Hanifan, L.J. “The Rural School Community Center,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1916) 67: 130-138.

Henderson, A., & B. Jacob, A., Kernan-Schloss, B. Raimondo. The Case for Parent Leadership (Lexington, Ken.: Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, January 2004).

Jackson, D.Z. “The death of public education: Lack of money is killing our schools,” Boston Globe (April 6, 2010).

Lewin, T. “Once a Leader, U.S. Lags in College Degrees,” New York Times (July 23, 2010).

Mediratta, K., & S. Shah, S. McAlister. Community Organizing for Stronger Schools: Strategies and Successes (C
ambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press, 2009).

Oakes, J., & J. Rogers with M. Lipton. Learning Power: Organizing for Education and Justice  (New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 2006).

Putnam, R. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

Robledo Montecel, M. “A Quality Schools Action Framework – Framing Systems Change for Student Success,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 2005).

United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County. Family-School-Community Partnership (San Antonio, Texas: United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County, July 21, 2010).

Villarreal, A. “Strengthening Schools’ ‘Immune Systems’ to Fight Mediocrity and Failure,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, Janaury 2006).

Laurie Posner, M.P.A., is an education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2010, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2010 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.]