ON THE AGENDA | JUNE 1ST, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo

A Growing Awareness of the Need for Teacher and Community Engagement in K-12 Reform

Rather than looking to teachers as partners in decision making, many education leaders seek buy-in for decisions made by non-teachers.

In a recent letter from their CEO, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made a bold pronouncement: throughout their K-12 efforts, they admitted to paying too little attention to both teacher and community engagement, a stumble they seem prepared to adjust in the future:

Deep and deliberate engagement is essential to success. Rigorous standards and high expectations are meaningless if teachers aren’t equipped to help students meet them.

We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators – particularly teachers – but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.

This has been a challenging lesson for us to absorb, but we take it to heart.

The Foundation has certainly never disregarded teachers. In fact, they have funded a number of organizations dedicated to helping teachers have a voice in policies and practices at the school, district, state and federal level. This includes, full disclosure, Public Agenda. The Gates Foundation funded a survey we conducted with the American Institutes for Research regarding teacher attitudes toward reform proposals affecting their profession. This study led to the development of Everyone at the Table, a set of materials designed to help teachers have a more meaningful voice in education reform.

Still, the Foundation acknowledges past missteps and commits to setting a new course. Many leaders fall into a trap when it comes to engaging populations like educators – populations often ignored during but greatly affected by the decision-making process. Rather than looking to teachers as partners in decision making, they seek buy-in for decisions made by non-teachers.

Unfortunately, attempts to seek after-the-fact buy-in rather than authentic engagement can backfire and lead to distrust. We've seen this fairly often over the years, and we've also learned a lot about how a sincere and robust commitment to meaningful engagement can rebuild trust and relationships between leaders and decision makers and community members and educators. Throughout our 40 years, we have:

  • helped design and support a comprehensive community engagement initiative in Connecticut that led to productive public conversations on education in over a hundred towns and scores of school-community partnerships;
  • helped turn around a divisive conversation on education standards by engaging communities across Nebraska;
  • developed guidelines and recommendations for education leaders to better include parents and community members in efforts to turn around local schools;
  • worked as a conduit to bring the perceptions, values and opinions of teachers to education leaders, through a series of educator opinion surveys and reports;
  • developed tools, resources and workshops, including the book Everyone at the Table, to give teachers agency and tools to have a meaningful voice in teacher evaluation reform;
  • listened to parents regarding their perspectives on parent engagement, a project that led to practical recommendations for school leaders to differentiate engagement strategies and better reach ALL parents;
  • exposed important differences between the way most leaders and most parents define and think about accountability in public education;
  • created resources to improve the public conversation about charter schools and help communities make decisions around introducing, expanding or closing charter schools in their local context.

We know how hard it is to find common ground and make progress on controversial issues facing our public schools. The course forward must be chartered through meaningful engagement with students, parents, teachers and community members. We're pleased that the Gates Foundation is making a deeper commitment to teacher and community engagement.

We also reaffirm our own commitment to efforts that give voice educators, parents, students and the community, a cause we're pursuing in communities throughout the U.S. Next week, my colleague Matt Leighninger will update you on some of our current and future efforts to boost community engagement in K-12 education.


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