• by Christie L. Goodman, APR • IDRA Newsletter • May 2017 •
We often hear that strong parent involvement makes schools better. But the perceptions of what “strong parent involvement” means vary widely from fundraising to volunteering in classrooms and serving on committees. IDRA’s model emphasizes a different role that recognizes parents’ ability to lead and partner with schools to improve the education they provide. This can best be seen in IDRA’s Education CAFE model. An Education CAFE is a parent group that is rooted in a community-based organization rather than in a single school. And its sole purpose is to collaborate with schools to improve the success of students in the community (see story).
A key element of the model is that groups of parents and community members examine data and then take action on a specific project. Every community is different, and the concerns of one are not necessarily the top concerns of another. So, it is critical that each project be identified and carried out by the community it affects.
Questions Families are Asking
Whether or not you are part of an Education CAFE, you can work with other people to see what is happening in your schools and how you can help make change where it is needed. You may enter this task because of an issue you have already seen, or you may not be sure the root of a problem or how many people it is affecting. So, the first step is to make a list of your questions and cluster them. For example…
- Does our school have highly qualified teachers?
- Does this school have high expectations?
- Does it provide a rigorous curriculum?
- How often do teachers from this school communicate positively about our students?
- Are a lot of our kids dropping out? (This is important even if you know your own child will graduate. High dropout rates point to problems that affect the whole school.)
- Does the school actively support students with 504 or IEP accommodations? (These accommodations are required to eliminate barriers so that students with learning and/or physical disabilities can excel alongside their peers.)
The next step is to take the top issue you’ve identified and dig deeper. For example, schools must hold on to students from the beginning of their journey to their final destination: graduation. Here are some things to look for:
- How many students are not graduating with a high school diploma?
- Are there differences across racial-ethnic groups, English learners or other student groups?
- How does this compare with other schools in your area or in the state?
- What grade levels have higher numbers of dropouts?
- Are some students being subtly encouraged to drop out?
The public schools’ responsibility does not end with ensuring student graduation but extends to providing a solid education and college preparation for all students. For example, when a large percentage of students are taking college entrance exams, this points to high expectations.
- Does the school offer college entrance exams (PSAT, SAT, ACT) to all students or to just the “top” students (e.g., the top 10 percent students, or gifted and talented students)?
- What percentage of students are taking those exams?
- What percentage of students are earning acceptable scores on these exams? (at least 1100 on the SAT or 24 on the ACT)
- For all of these questions, are there differences among racial-ethnic groups, English learners or other student groups?
Another area of college preparation and earning a strong high school diploma involves taking rigorous coursework.
- How many students are taking advanced courses and dual enrollment classes?
- Do students and families know about the state requirements for graduation? And are they aware of the courses colleges require?
- What percentage of each racial-ethnic group is enrolled in these courses? What about English learners?
Of course, teachers are central to the quality of education our students receive. Their’s is an increasingly challenging job that must balance the standards they must cover, best practices for instruction, test preparation, and a diversity of students in their classrooms. So, it is critical that they have been prepared and receive continual professional development.
- How many teachers in our school are prepared to teach the subject they are teaching?
- How do they relate to students?
- Are they open to hearing from parents?
- Are the most qualified and experienced teachers distributed evenly across the school district?
Factors that most lead to students dropping out are in-grade retention (holding a student back a year) and exclusionary discipline. There are good alternatives to both. But trends are showing that students of color are more likely to experience these.
- What percentages of different student groups are held back?
- What percentages are expelled, suspended, or sent to disciplinary alternative campuses?
- Are students in certain grades more likely to be held back? What about younger students, such as first graders?
These are just a few samples to explore. They are structured around IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework, which focuses change on what research and experience say matters: parents as partners involved in consistent and meaningful ways, engaged students who know they belong in schools and are supported by caring adults, competent caring educators who are well-paid and supported in their work, and high quality curriculum that prepares students for 21st century opportunities.
Places to Look for Data
The hard part it would seem then, is figuring out where to go for answers to the questions you have outlined. Often the first place to look is your state’s education agency (see list). Most if not all state agencies release reports throughout the year, with some providing data at the school district and campus level.
The U.S. Department of Education has a data and statistics website with information by topic. Other federal sources are the National Center for Education Statistics, which also produces the Nation’s Report Card, and the Office for Civil Rights database.
A number of regional and national independent organizations issue reports and data as well.
- Alliance for Excellent Education – reports focus on middle and high school.
- Child Trends Databank – data on more than 125 indicators of the well-being of children and youth.
- Education Law Center – annual report card on school funding fairness.
- Education Week – reports on education news and also releases its annual Quality Counts report with state-level data.
- Kids Count Data Center funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation – state-level data to inform advocacy and policies that benefit children and families.
- National Equity Atlas by PolicyLink and the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity – data resource to track, measure and make the case for inclusive growth.
Others provide state level data, such as IDRA’s annual attrition study and the Center for Public Policy Priorities’ Texas Education Scorecard.
Collect Information Yourself
And if you cannot find another source, there are ways to collect it yourself. For example, families in the Texas Rio Grande Valley surveyed more than 1,600 parents about their knowledge of the state’s new graduation requirements. They shared the surprising results with school leaders in multiple districts, who made changes in how they share information with families (Cortez, 2015).
Another group of families was concerned about math instruction at their children’s school, despite having qualified math teachers. They surveyed parents and students and learned the issue was low expectations for most students and a climate that didn’t respond to student questions. What resulted was parents, students and educators at this large, predominantly Hispanic and low-income school having fruitful conversations to improve math education there (Montemayor, 2007).
I, myself, recently emailed administrators at each of the high schools in my district to ask about PSAT offerings to high school freshmen, finding that while some offer the test to all ninth graders, many only offer it to gifted students, and some don’t offer it at all. The information will help me and other parents urge our children’s schools both to offer the test schoolwide and to communicate with parents about it.
Sometimes, the data will confirm your thoughts about the issue your group raised, and sometimes it will point to a larger problem that needs addressing. By having researched the data, your group of community members will have a foundation to talk with school leaders and work together for solutions.
Bojorquez, H. (March 2010). “Supporting the Dream of Going to College Through Powerful Student Engagement,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).
Cortez, J.D. (June-July 2015). “¿Y Ahora Qué? And Now What? – Community Groups in South Texas Work Together to Improve Education,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).
IDRA. http://www.idra.org/education_policy/communities-in-action/ Ideas for Strategy and Action, website (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).
Montemayor, A. (January 2017). “Families Transforming Public Schools – Gathering Data, Informing Policy and Practice,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).
Montemayor, A. (May 2007). “This We Know – All of Our Children are Learning,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).
Robledo Montecel, M., & Goodman, C. (2010). Courage to Connect – A Quality Schools Action Framework (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).
[©2017, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2017 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.]