From 'Buy-in' to True Collaboration: Advancing Teacher and Family Engagement in K-12 Reform

Efforts to engage teachers and families in school improvement unfortunately share a common shortcoming: most have been temporary projects.

Earlier in my career, I assisted and observed a highly successful school improvement effort in Kansas City, Kansas. The key to progress there seemed to be that reform moved along two parallel, interconnected tracks, both of which integrated meaningful engagement with educators and families.

Inside the school system, teachers, administrators and staff took part in regular, deliberative discussions about how to improve teaching practices, the curriculum and other aspects of how schools function. Meanwhile, parents and other family members were part of regular, deliberative discussions of school improvement options, what they wanted educators to do and how non-educators could help. Information was shared between the two sets of discussions, partly by people who were involved in both.

Three years into the process, test scores and graduation rates had risen dramatically, disciplinary incidents had fallen, and a wide range of extracurricular programs for students had been created by volunteers and community organizations. (For the full story, click here.)

Engaging teachers and families is critical to the success of school improvement efforts, as the CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation admitted recently.

This means more than just getting ‘buy-in’ from teachers and families on changes conceived by education reformers. The people doing the educating and learning should have meaningful roles in assessing how things are going, learning about new reform ideas and deciding whether and how those ideas should be incorporated in the way their schools work. More productive forms of engagement can not only propel innovations, they can have a direct impact on student learning.

Many efforts to engage teachers and families in school improvement unfortunately share a common shortcoming: most have been temporary projects. In engagement efforts in Kansas City, Kansas and elsewhere, meetings and forums were treated as special activities, rather than built into the way that schools and communities function. Meanwhile, most of the regular, official opportunities for engagement in schools – parent-teacher conferences, Parent-Teacher Associations, school board meetings – continue to use the same tired, conventional formats that do not create sufficient deliberation, collaboration or shared learning. (See Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy for a comprehensive assessment of the state of engagement in K-12 education.)

At Public Agenda, we are working with school systems to overcome these challenges, in three main ways:

  • Assessing the state of teacher, family and community engagement. In our work with Midland, Texas, and Essex, Vermont, we have delved into the attitudes of educators and non-educators toward one another, assessed how official engagement opportunities are working, taken stock of neighborhood groups and online networks that could be helpful to engagement efforts, and assessed how issues of race, immigration and cultural difference are affecting engagement.
  • Making recommendations for how school systems can update their systems for engagement. In partnership with Everyday Democracy and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, we have explored ways to achieve the level of engagement necessary for student-centered learning. We’ve researched ways to upgrade the formats for internal school improvement sessions, parent-teacher conferences, PTAs and school board meetings, and provided examples of how to use online tools – from apps like “DiscoverBPS” to online forums like the ones supported by e-democracy.org – to inform, connect and empower families and community members.
  • Developing new, more sustainable models for engagement. As part of the work with Nellie Mae, we have also created new engagement formats that are highly regular, enjoyable and family-friendly. Inspired by examples like Project Ujima in Akron, Ohio, and the First 5 LA early childhood project in Los Angeles, we have determined that engagement must become more family- and student-centered in order to thrive over the long term. In a busy world, asking for less of people’s time seems to make sense – but in fact, the latest trends in engagement, both here and abroad, suggest that creating weekly, welcoming, wired forms of interaction can compel people to donate much more of their time, energy and ideas.

Creating better systems for engagement can enrich any school reform effort. In fact, given the capacity of teachers and families to oppose reform ideas, better engagement may be necessary for the initiative to get off the ground in the first place. But this actually is a short-sighted way of viewing engagement: reams of research shows that when educators and non-educators are productively involved in student learning, young people are far more likely to succeed. “Research repeatedly correlates family engagement with student achievement,” attests one national report.

Engagement is not only necessary for innovation to take place – engagement itself may actually be the most powerful innovation of all.


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