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April 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 7

From Fund Raising to Hell Raising: New Roles for Parents

The signals are clear—the taxpaying public is restless about public education.

From advisor to equal partner, from passive listener to decision maker—indeed, from fund-raiser to hell-raiser—the role of parents in schools is changing. Parents are becoming more vocal about being involved in education decision making. The family is becoming important as an instructional partner. And market-based education initiatives, such as charter schools and voucher programs, are changing parents from citizens to customers.
School leaders can no longer view parents as appendages to schooling or meddlers in their work. They can no longer ignore parents or treat them with disdain. Without community support, education reform will not survive and the future of civic responsibility toward education is in danger.

Parents as Partners

The current structure of public schooling does not invite public engagement, but instead reinforces a hierarchical and bureaucratic pattern that gives neither students nor parents an official voice. Instead of opening up and encouraging genuine parental participation, the school structure eliminates anything that might erode the power equilibrium. Schools too often shut parents out of decision making and offer only limited participation, such as fund-raising and volunteering.
However, today's parents are vocal and demanding in their relations with the school. They question school authority and instructional decisions. More and more, they see themselves as purchasers of public education with a right to demand from schools individualized services. For example, to express their views about, and have a more direct impact on, issues that affect them, a growing number of parents have adopted a form of direct democracy that goes beyond unresponsive school boards and traditional representational decision making: Internet networking.
The speed and interactivity of the Internet will in effect produce a system of direct democracy. Parents talk with parents from around the country and around the world. They respond to local and national polls about education issues without having a school board member speak for them. They use chat rooms as an instantaneous learning community that can result in major opinion shifts.
The Internet gives parents a new way to organize. For instance, Parents Across Virginia United to Reform the Standards of Learning has mounted a grassroots, Internet-based campaign to oppose the use of a single high-stakes test. Within nine months, more than 3,000 parents signed up to serve under the mantra "Taking Back Our Public Schools." Traditional organizing practices would have required far more time, effort, and staff to mount this type of major opposition.
Whether Internet democracy is good or bad is not the issue. What is important is for schools to restore the confidence of parents and the community by giving them more direct involvement at the school level, by making them partners in the educational process, and by upgrading the quality of communications with the home and community.

Families as Educators

Although schools have resisted change, the family has restructured. The result: 21st century families attempting to partner with 20th century school organizations. The institutions of families and schools are crashing into each other, which leads to conflict and instability in school systems.
Many parents say that the time demands of work limit their involvement in their child's education and that schools do not accommodate them by offering weeknight and weekend volunteer opportunities, child care, and transportation. To be sure, many parents still prefer the traditional activities that are based on trust, intimacy, and a collective responsibility for all children and consider fund raising, parent-teacher conferences, and advocating for school funding to be their civic responsibilities.
Results-oriented curriculum with accountability for learning means that parents become a strategic instructional resource not only for students but also for schools, teachers, and principals, whose performance is closely scrutinized. In fact, parents become an integral part of the curriculum. The family makes essential contributions to student achievement, from earliest childhood through high school. Efforts to improve children's academic outcomes are more effective if they encompass families.
The pressure to increase academic achievement has created an interdependent relationship between parents and school leaders. Parents expect schools to achieve academic results, schools need parent involvement to do so, and parents need schools to teach their children.
Under current school structure, the teacher, principal, librarian, counselor, secretary, and support help have legal places, but parents have no guaranteed place. Many parents search for their roles and their rightful place in a structure that recognizes the importance of the professionals, but not the family. To get serious about parental involvement, every school district needs to hold school administrators accountable for involving parents, each school should develop parental engagement plans in concert with school staff and parents, and the district should help teachers who are seeking the involvement of parents. Schools must move away from a bureaucratic model and place the needs of students and families at the apex of school response.

The Market

Driven by outcomes and results, today's parents often view schools in contractual terms (charter schools, contracted learning, parental choice) and often see their interaction with the school as a marketplace relationship based on commerce and transactions, not as a social responsibility driven by civic and democratic duty. Without the civic dimension, the common school ceases to be a formal institutional voice for public participation, and public schools become nothing more than vehicles to satisfy private interests. But in an age of increasing education competition, public schools and school districts need to communicate to parents and the community the answer to this question: Why should I send my child to a public school?
Educators have not viewed parents and the community as a market. As a result, parental and community involvement have often played secondary roles in the framework of public education, especially in poor and disadvantaged school districts. Instead of developing a market-sensitive structure, educators reinforce traditional power dynamics. They are unwilling to redistribute their prerogatives.
Decisions about parental needs, courteous service, teacher-parent relationships, staff recruitment, effective and frequent communications, teacher competency, and parental attitudes will rise to prominence as important management priorities. Families will evaluate schools on the basis of how responsive they are to their needs. Thus, the scope of school management should encompass more comprehensively the entire education and instructional process.
Being more responsive to parents and the community market, however, does not mean that the school district must abandon the virtue of the common good or resort to privatization, school vouchers, or charters. A November 1999 national poll conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Public Education Network, "All for All: Strengthening Community Involvement for All Students," demonstrated an overwhelming national commitment to public schools. A vast majority of respondents (89%) identified schools that provide a quality education as a "very important" community priority. They also favored bolstering community involvement (85%) over introducing vouchers. Over 70 percent of the respondents also believed that involving individuals in meeting community needs and solving community problems is very important. These results suggest that a large market understands the importance of public education and prefers not to abandon the public schools.
The poll also demonstrates that parents feel excluded from, or without a role in, their local school. Although schools believe that community involvement is essential for school improvement, they are frequently unprepared to take advantage of this willingness to participate in meaningful school activities. Whereas 47 percent of those polled said that time was a barrier to participation, 48 percent said that they were not given the opportunity to become involved, did not know how to, or felt that their individual involvement did not make a difference. This large market of untapped support for public education will eventually be targeted by private, contracted, or religious schools.
  • dissatisfied?
  • shopping elsewhere?
  • spreading bad or untruthful information about the school?
  • intimidated by school staff?
  • unable to read or understand the school's communications?
  • misunderstanding his or her importance to the academic success of the child?
  • affected by a school schedule that is not compatible with the family schedule?
  • discouraged from engaging in school activities?
  • never asked to become involved?
Schools can no longer characterize the uninvolved parent as apathetic. Purposeful outreach and marketing strategies are needed to communicate with all parents the assets and importance of the public schools.

Collective Needs and Civic Responsibility

The competing tensions between market-driven behavior and the collective needs of the public in ensuring a quality education for all children obligate education leaders to balance the needs of the citizen and the demands of the customer. Collective involvement and individual efforts can work in tandem only in the presence of a strong and widely held parental and community vision about public education. Without that connectedness and ownership of purpose, we will create a system that defines parental involvement as contracting exactly as each parent wishes, meeting individual needs as each parent sees fit, and having parents listen only to information and ideas with which they are comfortable. No one will worry about the civic aspects of participation because parents may never come in contact with one another, they can chose to come to the table or not, or, as in home schooling, they can be on their own.
This is the institutional dilemma: How do schools become more responsive to individual, market-based proclivities of parents and the community, while creating a passion and a zeal for the common good? Schools must understand the deep differences between the democratic and the market conceptions, but they have no models—or even language to help the two sides talk with each other when opposition, differences, or controversy threaten to divide camps. In many cases, the school is at a disadvantage in coping with either camp. Schools have not opened up their structures to allow genuine democratic conversations or engagement and certainly are not prepared to cope with highly individualistic, market-driven parental demands.

The Challenge of Accountability

Nowhere is this conflicting system of institutional values more evident than in the current emphasis on standards and assessments. Ten years ago, at a national education summit, governors committed states to improving their educational systems, providing educational opportunities for all children, closing the educational achievement gap between disadvantaged students and others, and increasing student achievement levels.
At that point, government leaders lost a defining opportunity to build a civic "contract" that would hold themselves and the U.S. public accountable for achieving the goals. Using modern communications technology, such as community cable, teleconferencing, the Internet, and town meetings, they could have mobilized the people in seeking answers to fundamental collective questions necessary to promote the common good: What knowledge, values, skills, and sensibilities should public schools nurture in children? What must the nation commit to in reaching the goals? What kind of work and resources must parents, teachers, students, businesses, and the community commit to? What policies and practices need to change? Above all, what is the nature of support that the community must provide for its schools to successfully implement the new American dream for its children and youth?
This effort would have promoted a two-way conversation cutting across cultural, racial, ethnic, and language differences and raising awareness about everyone's commitment to children who need special help. The eminent education historian Lawrence Cremin called this kind of debate the "genius of American education." He said that public debate educates and that education will affect the entire apparatus by which the public itself is created and renewed.
Instead, leaders responded to the cry for high academic expectations by installing standards and high-stakes testing without either going to the people or testing the market. Technocrats—psychometricians, statisticians, and policy wonks—conducted most of the standards work outside public view. Little public debate occurred until the standards and high-stakes assessments were rolled out. These highly technical, abstract, and esoteric standards and assessments silenced a public discussion of alternative ways to reform the public schools. However, the public backlash created by the standards confusion is unifying market behavior and democratic behavior, both the parents who are concerned about the impact of standards on their own children and the citizens who are concerned about the impact on the collective future of public education.
Educational improvement needs more than parental involvement. It also needs to rally the community around a common vision and purpose. Parental involvement has become the substitute for an entire community's organizing in support of its public schools. Without a public behind us, without parental ownership of its schools, and without a clear and articulate vision about what binds parents and the community of all colors, races, and languages in a common purpose, individualism will render obsolete our hope that all children receive a quality public education.

How to Build Support for Educational Reform

How to Build Support for Educational Reform

  • Design a parent- and community-involvement plan to create a closer relationship between school and home.

  • Know your community and markets. Systematically collect data about community perceptions, demographic information, sources of the community's information about schools, parental and community attitudes, and solutions to problems.

  • Use issue surveys, community studies, focus groups, and polls to collect information. Also use the Internet to market public education.

  • Develop a focused message about the public schools that is consistent, is based on marketing data and community information, and explains why a quality public education system is important to the community.

  • As a substitute for formal data collection, ask district officials to call 10 to 25 randomly selected community members. These calls not only provide information, but also give parents unexpected access to school leaders.

  • Analyze how different groups of community members receive information about the schools. Parents may receive their primary information from their children's teachers; nonparents, from the local newspaper or the national media; seniors, from the radio.

  • Give parents and other adults the opportunity to learn about instructional strategies, learning research, and changes in school restructuring necessary to raise achievement levels. Use PTA meetings, town meetings, the Internet, cable television, radio talk shows, or the local newspaper.

  • Develop a "neighborhood walk for success" in which teams of faculty, parents, and other community members go door-to-door to talk with citizens about their needs and interests in how to improve the schools.

  • Target hard-to-reach families through a home-visitor program that collects parents' input on issues and hand-delivers information about school and district progress.

  • Treat information from the field with respect and trust, and treat community complaints as opportunities for improvements, not annoyances.

  • Create a parent center in each school to provide training and information, parent skill building, and a meeting place. Designate a parent coordinator to serve as a liaison.

  • Suggest that the superintendent appoint a senior staff member to be an ombudsman so that community views become visible to the superintendent.

  • Use community-access television, talk radio, or press conferences to make the school district's views known and to keep in touch with the community.

  • Provide time for staff to communicate with families and to build relationships between the school and the community.

  • Include parent input in the performance evaluation of teachers and principals. Although it requires careful planning and parent training, this approach can bring the customer closer to the instructional staff.

  • Accommodate parents' schedules by providing transportation and child care when hosting events at the school. Hold school events closer to where parents live, such as at a community center, a library, or a shopping mall.

  • Communicate with parents and other adults in a language they can understand. Have bilingual home-school liaisons visit non-English-speaking parents to personalize school communications. Enlist interpreters on notice to assist in effective communications.


Arnold F. Fege has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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