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NCLB and Parent Involvement
NCLB recognizes the value of parent participation in the formal education endeavor, as evidenced in its parent-involvement requirements for schools, districts, and state education agencies (SEAs) (see fig. 1, Selected Parent Involvement Requirements Under Title I of NCLB By Type of Education Agency, on p. 4). For example, under NCLB, all Title I schools, which receive special federal funding to raise the performance of disadvantaged students, must develop parent involvement policies and strategies, and all but the smallest (i.e., a district that receives under $500,000 in Title I funding) must spend at least 1 percent of their Title I funding on parent training and education programs.5 The legislation also has resulted in additional parent involvement requirements for any school or district identified under its state education accountability system as being "in need of improvement" because for two years in a row it has not reached state-designated progress goals, known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). For example, individual parents must be informed in a timely and direct fashion if their school or district falls into "improvement" status and if, as a result, their child becomes eligible for school choice6 or supplemental educational services (SES).7 These schools and districts also are required to engage parents in the development of the school or district improvement plan, and the plan itself must include strategies to promote effective parent involvement. In all of this, parents are being asked to participate in decisions that will influence the education of their children and other students throughout schools, districts, and sometimes even the state.
Engaging Parents as Education Advisors
Although PTA is a common household term, recognized by most parents in the United States as the parent-teacher association, less is known about parent advisory councils (PACs). PACs are parent-led organizations that function at the state, district, or school level to give parents more clout regarding their children's education. PACs promote parent influence in multiple ways, including polling communities to better understand parents' needs and wants, recommending policy, and advocating for the rights of parents to be involved in the education of their children.
One prime example of a well-functioning PAC is M-PAC, the Maryland Parent Advisory Council. In 2001, the state of Maryland adopted one of the most inclusive parent involvement policies in the country, but state education superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick thought more could be done. In the fall of 2003, she convened M-PAC, a statewide group of 125 appointed members charged with researching the state of parent involvement in Maryland's K–12 education and recommending how to strengthen it.
To help ensure broad parent representation on M-PAC, the state education department sent membership nomination forms to churches, public libraries, community centers, schools, and other institutions where parents gather. The intent was to reach the full range of parent types, including those who are often underrepresented (e.g., grandparents, foster parents, parents of children in special education, military parents). As a result of this effort, the vast majority of M-PAC members ended up being parents.
Once M-PAC was up and running, it used a statewide survey to solicit from parents, educators, administrators, and community members across the state their thoughts on the current state of parent involvement in Maryland and what they would like to see for the future. Survey results identified three areas for further study by council subcommittees: parent involvement, using nontraditional (i.e., alternative) forms of communication to engage a broader range of parents, and education policy. At the end of two years, council recommendations were vetted through a series of public forums held in all 24 local school systems. The Maryland State Board of Education then approved the final report, A Shared Responsibility: Recommendations for Increasing Family and Community Involvement in Schools, (August 2005).4 Implementation of recommendations began in September 2006.
Although NCLB recognizes that parents are an important resource, mining that resource can be difficult. Parents who are committed and confident enough to get involved, make the necessary time to do so, recognize intuitively where and how they are needed, are prepared to meet the need, and are ready to step up as leaders these parents are like gold: highly valuable but far from common. As states, districts, and schools search for ways to engage greater numbers of parents in more meaningful ways, many find it challenging to increase the rates and types of parent involvement. This appears to be especially true at schools serving low-income and limited English proficient populations8 for whom a variety of factors are likely to inhibit parent involvement, including families’ difficult circumstances (e.g., parents working multiple jobs, homelessness, uncertain immigration status), parents’ negative education experiences when they were students, language barriers, and, for some immigrant parents, cultural mores supporting the idea that they should not question teachers.
Does this mean that parents who are not involved with their children’s school or district do not care about the children’s education? No. What it more likely means is that many parents do not know how to get involved, do not feel capable of contributing in a meaningful way, or simply do not feel welcome. What these parents need is more information, support, encouragement, or, even, specific training—something that schools and districts are not always well positioned to provide. That is the premise underlying the nation’s system of Parental Information and Resource Centers.