A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Systemic Reform: Perspectives on Personalizing Education - September 1994

Bringing Schools and Communities Together in Preparation for the 21st Century: Implications of the Current Educational Reform Movement for Family and Community Involvement Policies

Patrick M. Shields

Current efforts to improve the nation's schools depart radically from previous reform movements in their willingness to question the basic structures of the system of educating our children. Unlike earlier efforts that sought to extend the benefits of the current system to excluded groups or that worked to increase the quantity of education received by all children, today's reforms seek to redesign schools from the bottom up in order to create new institutions for the 21st Century.

Underlying this reform movement are a number of assumptions that are very different from those guiding the reforms of the late 1960s, the 1970s, and the early to mid-1980s. First, we have come to understand that teaching and learning have to focus on the acquisition of critical thinking skills for all students. Second, we recognize that the school, not the statehouse or Washington, is the appropriate locus for decisions about how to improve teaching and learning. Third, changing the teaching and learning environment while giving school staff more responsibility for designing that environment will require much more from teachers and administrators. Fourth, in return for the increased responsibilities, schools must be held more accountable for their outcomes. Finally, districts, states, and the federal government will have to assume new roles to provide the resources and assistance necessary to enable school staff to take on these new challenges.

This vision of school improvement compels us to create a new conception of the appropriate relationship between the school and its community, parents, and families. Pedagogically, as we have come to know the importance of rooting learning in children's real lives, we can no longer tolerate the artificial boundaries between the classroom and the home. Politically, as we move the authority for decisionmaking down to those closest to children, we cannot afford to exclude parents and community members from the process of crafting new schools. Nor can we avoid being held more directly accountable to the immediate community constituency for decisions made at the school site. Practically, schools have no chance of enacting the fundamental changes on the reform agenda in the absence of wholehearted support from their entire community (parents, citizens, and business).

The idea that schools can best succeed by isolating themselves and their students from the community has been discredited. As we move toward the next century, the improvement of our schools will have to be accompanied by closer connections between schools and their communities, teachers, and families.

In this paper, I explore the implications of the current reform agenda for governmental policies concerning the involvement of communities and families. The underlying questions I will try to address are: (l) What are the most appropriate roles for parents and communities in the current efforts to improve schooling?; and (2) What policies should federal, state, or local decisionmakers put in place to support this involvement? Where relevant, I focus special attention on policies related to the middle grades (4-8).

In the following section, I provide a brief review of the history of educational reform and parent involvement policies over the past few decades. I then describe how the current wave of reform differs from previous efforts and discuss the implications for parent and community participation in the schools. Based on this discussion, I outline a set of policy recommendation for decisionmakers at all levels of the educational system. Finally, I point to some promising directions for future research.

A Brief History of Educational Reform and Policies on Parent Involvement

The modern history of educational reform begins with the Great Society legislation designed to address the needs of "disadvantaged" populations. The legislation began with Head Start in the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), continued with Follow Through (1967), The Bilingual Education Act, the Migrant Education Act, and perhaps ended with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975).

This set of laws was based on the premise that although we know how to educate children, certain subsets of children are excluded, by the lack of ability or will on the part of state and local officials, from equal opportunities for quality education. Each program then sought to increase children's opportunities by providing funds to local governments (or community agencies) and requiring that the funds be spent on specific categories of activities (e.g., basic reading skills, health services) and for specific types of children (poor, limited English- speaking, etc.)

These programs reflected federal policymakers' beliefs that in the absence of categorical requirements state and local educators would not ensure that special populations received equal educational opportunities. Based on this same belief, these pieces of legislation included a requirement for some form of parent or community involvement, typically in the decisionmaking process through some form of council. The rationale for the community participation mandate was summed up well by Robert Kennedy in his testimony in favor of Head Start:

The institutions which affect the poor--education, welfare, recreation, business, labor--are huge complex structures operating outside their control...[We] must basically change these organizations by building into these programs real representation for the poor in the planning and implementation of the programs: giving them a real voice in their institutions (cited in Piven and Cloward, 1971: 20).

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (now Chapter 1) provides a telling example of the evolution of federal policy on the involvement of parents. Following the logic expressed by Robert F. Kennedy, the original Title I legislation called for "community participation" in the compensatory program. In response to numerous allegations that funds were being misspent (e.g., Martin and McClure, 1969), however, policymakers repeatedly strengthened the participation requirement. By 1970, the U.S. Commissioner of Education required district-level parent councils in all local agencies receiving Title I funds. In 1974, a requirement for school-level councils was added to ensure parents a voice in the program. In 1978, when Congress again reauthorized the legislation, the parent involvement requirements were further strengthened to include specific areas of responsibility for parents and to outline the steps districts and schools had to take to support the involvement of parents (Shields, 1989).

This trend toward stricter requirements for parent involvement in education programs shifted in the early 1980s as the federal government began to favor more state and local control of programs. For example, the 1981 reauthorization of Title I deleted the formal requirement for parents, replacing it with a simple call for "consultation with parents." Subsequent reauthorizations and regulations, while clarifying congressional intent that parents be involved in the program, have never reinstated the formal requirements of the earlier legislation.

In fact, during the 1980s, as the earlier concern with bringing excluded groups into the political process of educational decisionmaking waned, policymakers showed a renewed interest in involving parents more directly in their children's education, especially in support roles at home. Policies promoting support roles for parents also go back to the early Head Start legislation and are based on the simple facts that parents are children's first and primary teachers, for even school-age children spend just over a tenth of their time in formal institutions of learning (Walberg, 1984). Thus, throughout the 1980s, programs such as Parents As Tutors (PAT) gained increasing prominence and were adopted in many local communities.

Importantly, research has shown the effectiveness of home support programs in promoting gains in student achievement. Even parents with minimal formal education can be taught a variety of techniques (e.g., reading aloud to their children, tutoring them in different subject areas, or simply listening to their children read) that lead to increased school achievement (Clarke-Sterwart, 1983; Lazar and Darlington, 1978). Although much of this research has been done with very young children, studies have also shown that parents can be trained to offer middle-grade students instructionally related support at home that results in higher achievement (Barth, 1979).

A key assumption of earlier educational reform movements was a belief that the educational system was working well for some students. The reforms of the Great Society era and the 1970s, by and large, focused on extending opportunities to excluded groups. Even the reforms of the early 1980s, while recognizing some of the shortcomings of the entire educational system, still sought primarily to extend current services to more students for greater periods of time. Thus, for example, during the mid-1980s the most prominent reform efforts involved increasing graduation requirements, extending the school day, and requiring students to take more academic courses (Smith and O'Day, 1991).

Policies promoting the involvement of parents reflected these same priorities. One stream of policies focused on extending opportunities to the parents of excluded groups. A second stream sought to increase the support at home for what was taking place in the school classroom. Both sets of policies brought parents into supporting roles into the system as it then existed. The next wave of reform in which we are currently makes very different assumptions about the value of the entire system of schooling, and in doing so requires a different set of roles for parents and community members.


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[Table of Contents] [The Current School Reform Agenda: Creating New Relationships with Families, Parents, and Communities]