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

The Current School Reform Agenda: Creating New Relationships with Families, Parents, and Communities

The current movement to improve the nation's schooling begins with the radically different assumption that our schools are not working very well for any students, so that the entire system needs fundamental changes if we are to prepare youngsters to be productive citizens and workers for the next century. This perspective calls for fundamental shifts in our conceptions of the classroom, of the school, of governance and authority relationships, and of organizational structures supporting schooling.

In turn, these changes require a new series of relationships between the classroom and home, between educators and families, and between schools and their broader community. In this section of the paper, I review the major components of the new vision of educational reform and discuss their implications for the involvement of parents and community members in the schooling process.

New Ways of Teaching and Learning: Breaking Down the Barriers between Home and Classroom.

At the heart of the current wave of reform is a vision of how teachers and students interact and the content of that interaction. No longer can we be satisfied with wholly teacher- directed instruction focused on the linear acquisition of basic skills structured by a rigid curriculum. Rather, all students must be provided sufficient opportunity to direct their own learning and to become engaged in stimulating, real-world-based, critical problem solving (Knapp and Shields, 1990).

Central to this view is the idea that instruction must be built on students' out-of-school experience and so teachers need to allow students to use these experiences as the starting points for learning. Effective teachers encourage students to use their personal experiences to make sense of classroom content (Diaz, Moll, and Mehan, 1986; Lipson, 1983; Schreck, 1981). To be able to build on their personal experience, teachers must then allow students opportunities to actively direct their own learning (Cohen, 1988; Slavin, 1986). Moreover, helping students to build on their knowledge base is facilitated when teachers learn more about students' home cultures and adapt their teaching approach to incorporate students' cultural characteristics (Heath, 1983; Shields and Wilson, 1992, Tharp, 1989).

Making school relevant to students' real lives is especially important in the middle grades, for it is during these years that students begin to make conscious decisions about the value and appropriateness of specific subject matter and school in general. In short, this is when students turn on or off to school (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989; Estrada, 1992).

For teaching and learning to change in these ways clearly requires the razing of the artificial barriers between the classroom and the home. Students need to understand the value of out- of-school experiences and feel free to bring those experiences into the classroom. Parents cannot remain ignorant of what takes place in classrooms if they are to facilitate their children's learning. Teachers and administrators cannot remain ignorant of students' home lives if they are to structure appropriate learning experiences.

The destruction of these barriers will require a new openness to communicate, to create opportunities for families to spend more time in the school, and for school staff to spend more time in the community. This is not easily accomplished, but is far from impossible, as evidenced in the following vignette of just such a learning activity in an elementary school in a small Appalachian town.


It's a misty, cold morning in South Bernstone, a small coal and farming community in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and a group of fourth graders are sitting cross-legged in their sweaters and boots engrossed in the "lecture" being given by Mr. McCormick, a local farmer and parent to one of the school's sixth graders. Mr. McCormick is simply describing the process of fertilizing, weeding, and harvesting in this field of pumpkins. Mr. McCormick calls on children in turn who are interested in why bugs do not eat up all the pumpkins and how much money he will make when he brings them to market.

This is the class' third visit to the farm--they witnessed some of the seeding and came back to see the new plants sprouting their first fruits. As with their previous visits, the students will go back to school and write essays in small groups for their science class. This time, however, they will also get to bring a pumpkin home, some of which will be cooked in the school kitchen.

This little story illustrates a number of interesting pedagogical techniques: integration of disciplines, writing across the curriculum, real-world-based learning, and cooperative learning. It also provides a wonderful example of a teacher asking community members to share their expertise with students. Here, the community is viewed as a resource to be used to help students learn important concepts--in ways that send students and parents alike a positive message about the value of schooling and the work of the community.

A New Vision of the School House: Forging New Relationships with the Community.

A second major theme of the current educational reform movement, which builds on the idea of real-world-based, student-directed learning, involves a vision of the school as an active learning community structured exclusively to enhance student learning. In such "restructured" institutions, the day's schedule, the organization of staff and student time, and the roles and responsibilities of teachers and administrators are designed explicitly to help students learn (Elmore and Associates, 1990) .

Thus, for example, the length of class periods or the assignment of staff to teaching responsibilities are not seen as "givens" that must structure each day. Rather, teachers in these schools might teach only two or three subjects per day, each class involving teams of teachers working with the same group of students for a length of time, depending on the subject to be covered. In the same vein, "teachers" may play several different roles in such a school, acting as instructors, curriculum developers, and decisionmakers (David and Shields, 1991).

Following this logic, the school building is not viewed as the only location teaching and learning can take place. Based partly on the argument that students need to learn critical thinking within a real-world context, as we discussed above, teachers in such learning communities are likely to design learning experiences that take place outside of the formal school building. Science projects carried out in nearby parks, mathematics projects requiring the timing of bus routes, and writing assignments based on field experiences are examples of appropriate out-of-school learning experiences for children in the middle grades.

Rethinking the basic structure and routines of the school also leads to consideration of the need to provide other services to students. More and more schools are recognizing that their students' ability to learn is contingent on their physical and mental well-being and the well- being of their families. Consequently, schools are experimenting with new ways of providing more integrated services to their communities, wherein the traditional educational function of the school is extended to include specific health and social services (Reisner, Chimerine, Morrill, and Marks, 1991). Schools embarking on integrated service delivery vary considerably in the extent to which they actually provide versus coordinate such services, but the underlying logic remains the same: the structure of the "school" should be defined not by tradition but by the needs of the specific student body.

The implications of such shifts in the traditional structure of schools for bridging the gap between the school and the community are clear. Staff of such schools are open to leaving the school building to promote educational activities for their students in their own communities. Such steps increase the opportunity for community members to become acquainted with the schools as well as for school staff to know the community better. At the same time, by structuring schools to meet the broader needs of the students' families through the provision of noneducational services, teachers and administrators are opening their doors to the broader community and explicitly expressing their desire to help community members. Thus, restructuring in these ways can both bring the school to the community and attract the community to the school.

Again, breaking down the long-standing barriers between school and community and asking teachers, parents, and even students to assume new roles is no easy task. The following vignette shows how the traditional lines between school and home, teacher and parent can be crossed in ways that promote student learning and increase communication and understanding. In this story, we see how parents, trained in giving classes in mathematics, can attract and interest other parents in coming to school after hours to take part in interesting learning experiences with their fifth- and sixth-grade children.


In the front of the room is a Venn diagram on the blackboard; toward the back of the room is a table with various-sized jars filled with beans and M & M's for estimation exercises. A group of 15 parents and their children are sitting around uncomfortably: parents not accustomed to sitting in chairs designed for ten-year-olds, students not used to having their parents at school with them.

At the front of the room, four local parent-leaders and one classroom teacher make last-minute preparations for the class. One parent-leader quiets the crowd and quickly launches into the first activity of the evening. Scissors and paper are handed out and parent-child teams are asked to form a series of shapes. It's not difficult, the children enjoy cutting and everyone can make a couple of shapes from the pieces, while the best can form dozens. Slowly the tension in the room dissipates as all are playing a fun game. The parent-leaders come around to help everyone clean up and to make sure that everyone has some shapes and paper to take home to continue the "geometry lesson."

The next exercise involves measurement. Everyone is given a string and asked to cut it to match the partner's height (each adult is paired with a child). The parent-leaders then ask the class to estimate how many times the string will wrap around a partner's wrist, head, and waist. Glancing around the room, one notices that families, which an hour earlier appeared afraid of the experience, are standing on tables, wrapping strings around one another, pinching each other's fat, laughing--and being introduced to concepts of estimation, measurement, and spatial reasoning. (Shields and David, 1988)

School-Based Governance: New Opportunities for Parent and Community Participation.

A third theme of the current reform movement is school-based governance, based on the argument that if schools are to structure themselves to become true learning environments, the individuals closest to the students must have the authority to make fundamental decisions about how best to serve students (David, 1989). The establishment of true authority at the school site has implications both for the direct involvement of community members in the decisionmaking process and for accountability to the immediate community for the school outcomes.

The ideas underlying school-based governance can be traced back to the research on effective schools and the findings that well-functioning schools had staff that were consciously assessing their schools' needs and developing coherent plans to address those needs (Purkey and Smith, 1983). The resulting effective schools movement sought to organize such self- reflective activities in a formal committee structure. Some states, such as California, formalized such councils in state-funded school improvement initiatives.

Unlike these effective schools councils or other forms of parent, teacher, and community advisory councils, school-based governance involves the formal transfer of power from a higher level of government to the school. In school-based governance, individuals at the school site do not just advise superiors, they possess the authority to make key instructional, organizational, and budgetary decisions, within legal guidelines.

Along with this new authority come a host of new responsibilities. First, school staff must decide how decisions will be made at the school site. The common strategy is to create steering committees made up of representatives of the key groups in the school community: administrators, teachers, and parents. Educators realize that the logic of having decisions made by those "closest to the children" compels them to include parents in school-based governance.

A second domain of responsibility involves accountability. Having assumed authority for making key decisions, schools should be held accountable for their results. Partly, this accountability is to the higher levels of the system from whom the school received the authority. Thus, for example, in Kentucky's new educational reform law, schools are provided more power over their own operations, but every two years they must meet a state- established standard based on their students' performance on a state-developed test. If schools fare poorly enough, they can be taken over by "distinguished educators" appointed by the state.

At the same time, this "authority for accountability" swap creates a new relationship between the school and the immediate community of families. If schools have responsibility for creating the learning environment, then they are also accountable for their results to their most immediate constituents and consumers: local community members. Not surprisingly, Kentucky's reform law includes a provision that allows parents to transfer their students from failing neighborhood schools at no cost to themselves.

Thus, school-based governance, a centerpiece of current reforms, reshapes the relationship between the community and the school in two fundamental ways. First, it creates the opportunities for parents and community members to have more direct input into the decisionmaking process than was typically possible under any earlier governance arrangements. Here, parents can sit on, elect representatives to, and attend the meetings of the decisionmaking bodies of the school. Second, this same structure therefore makes the schools more readily accountable to the community. In certain renditions of school-based governance, this accountability is strengthened by a parental-choice provision.

In sum, moving authority down to the school site through school-based governance can work to democratize the educational decisionmaking process and create meaningful opportunities for parents to influence the outcomes of that process. Under these circumstances, the provision of school choice to parents can further strengthen their political power in local schools.

The following story is an example of how parents can play an active role in the decisionmaking process of a school. This example is taken from a large urban school system that has implemented both school-based decisionmaking and a controlled-choice program, which allows parents some opportunity to choose among the schools their children attend. Here, the staff and parents of two poorly performing schools, a middle school and a high school that share the same campus, are working on rebuilding the schools from the bottom up.


A group of eleven teachers, four parents, and two administrators are sitting around a large conference table in Mohawk Middle School's administrative offices. The design team, as they are called, is trying to rethink the structure of the middle school and the high school, which share a common campus. The two Mohawk schools have been at the bottom of the district's ranking on every conceivable indicator of success (attendance, achievement, dropout rate, etc.). At the urging of a couple of active teachers and parents, the district has handed over considerable responsibility to the school to redesign its educational program. The design team, elected by peers, has the task of making the tough decisions.

At the heart of the discussion today is a proposal to form teams of teachers who will have collective responsibility for the education of a small set students (around 100). One teacher notes, "I like the idea--but it's not feasible unless the team of teachers and students are all located on one wing of the building. In my case, I would have to move--and I have spent 15 years creating a wonderful learning environment in my classroom. I don't want to have to move." A parent responds, "Are you forgetting what our job here is? We're trying to create a school that works for children--not trying to make teachers' jobs easier. If you need help moving, I'll get some other parents to come in on Saturday and we'll give you a hand." There was a moment of silence and then the discussion returned to the educational issues involved in restructuring the school.

New Requirements for the System Supporting Schooling.

A final theme of the current reform agenda concerns the support system around the school, including the district, the state, the federal government, and the local community. In calling for the transformation of the classroom, of the schoolhouse, of relations between home and school, and of the authority structures governing each of these, we are asking much of teachers and school-level administrators. If we expect school staff to assume their new roles of teacher/facilitators, administrator/coordinators, decisionmakers, and curriculum developers, they will need significant levels of support.

Such support comes first in the form of technical assistance and staff development--helping school staff to understand and prepare for their new roles. In one study, we have found teachers spending over 160 hours per year on additional formal training to gain the skills they need to change their classrooms and schools (Shields et al, 1994). Thus, a second type of support school staff need is time--time to broaden their teaching repertoires, time to plan with other teachers, and time to participate in the decisionmaking process.

Such assistance represents an extremely large financial investment --for example, if schools were to provide all staff with an additional 80 hours of staff development (half what is needed in the schools I am currently studying), schools' annual budgets could easily rise by 5 percent.

Another type of support needed by school staff results from teachers' and administrators' need to craft a school program built on real-world experience and needs. If schools are expected to prepare the next generation of workers, for example, they need to know the required skills for the workplace. Thus, they need ongoing access to and feedback from the business community--not in written reports but through direct communication. Similarly, if we expect teachers to constantly reconsider their activities, they need access to new ideas in the field of pedagogy and in specific subject areas. Again, this access has to be ongoing and fairly easy.

Taken together, these requirements for more technical assistance, time, and access to business and research require a new definition of schools relationship with their broader communities. Here community is not limited to individual parents and community members in the schools' immediate neighborhoods. Rather I am referring to the larger community of a metropolitan area or region, including those active in business and research. Connections to this broader community are necessary not only because of the need for concrete knowledge, but also to garner the necessary political will to support the massive effort that will be required to change our schools and to keep them improving.

In short, the project of creating self-reflective, constantly improving schools will never take place if the school community tries to do so in isolation. Only with the financial and political resources of the full community will school staff ever have a chance of meeting the challenging goals set forth in the current reform agenda.


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