Richard Gray and Sara McAlister
Engaging parents and residents in low-income communities of color builds the power and public will necessary to improve struggling schools and hold public institutions accountable.


When children in low-income communities and communities of color receive poor educational services and resources, there are often no consequences – because those neighborhoods are perceived to be lacking in political power and social capital. However, the democratic engagement of parents and residents in school improvement can build the power and public will necessary to improve and sustain the quality of public schools in these communities as well as hold public institutions accountable for responsive and better-quality services.

While President Obama’s “Blueprint for Reform” outlines the administration’s plan for reauthorizing No Child Left Behind and provides a number of resources intended to improve both the quality of education and supports for families and communities, the values and approaches taken by the administration are not aligned with many of those expressed by communities – particularly low income and communities of color.  However, there are models of reform that provide a more collaborative approach, engaging parents and residents and leading to more sustainable and effective change. These are the models that President Obama should look to as he charts his course for school reform during the next four years.

Investments and Supports vs. Changing Structures

The four federally prescribed models for improving the lowest-performing schools (Turnaround; Restart; School Closure; Transformation) were first defined through the School Improvement Grant program in 2010 and have since become requirements for states seeking Race to the Top Funding or No Child Left Behind waivers. These models emphasize the use of charters, school closures, and dismissals of teachers and principals as the means to improving school outcomes for students. These strategies may be necessary elements within a school improvement plan, but they should not be the primary drivers of public education policy. Changing school structures and the people in them should be part of a broader vision defining what investments and supports are needed to improve the instructional core within schools. These policies must also be designed so they can operate equitably in the current political, social, cultural, and fiscal environments being faced by many communities and schools.

Shifting from Fostering Competition Back to Ensuring Equity

Current federal education policy demonstrates a shift in the role of federal government from ensuring equity in public education in the 1960s and 1970s to a focus on creating competition among schools starting in the 1980s, particularly between traditional and charter schools. Competition is about a contest between rivals and implies that market forces in public education will spark innovation and result in better education services. However, in spite of two decades of widespread reliance on market forces for improvement, inequities not only stubbornly persist in education – and in our society as a whole – but have often deepened.

Creating equitable access to high-quality education has been a fundamental, defining, and often elusive value of the American public school system. For many years, people have fought and challenged schools across the country to provide equity and excellence for all children. Historically, the federal government has played a critical role in that struggle by pushing public schools and school systems to expand access to fairness in educational opportunity as well as confronting racial, ethnic, and cultural barriers to quality public education. No other entity has the power and public mandate to rectify these injustices on a national scale. It’s important that the federal government reaffirm its commitment to the value of equity and shape its policy approaches accordingly.

Collaboration vs. Top-Down Approach

The current federal education transformation policy impacting schools across the country was developed and implemented with little input from community stakeholders. This top-down approach impeded the development of a sense of ownership and sustained support from key stakeholders including students, parents, teachers, business leaders, and other community members for the transformation process.

An example of a more collaborative school improvement approach is the Sustainable School Transformation model created by the Communities for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) and currently the foundation of a campaign for federal adoption by the Journey for Justice Coalition (J4J). Both CEPS and J4J are national coalitions of community and youth organizations with demonstrated capacity and experience in creating successful and innovative school improvement models with parent, youth, and community support and participation. The following core elements characterize the Sustainable School Transformation model:

  • Strong focus on school culture, curriculum, and staffing
  • Using education reform models that are research based and have a demonstrated record of success in the field
  • Collaboration with families, communities, and local stakeholders to foster shared ownership and accountability

The Next Four Years

There are hopeful signs that the DOE is developing a stronger appreciation for the role of families and community in supporting school improvement. Most recently, in December 2012, the DOE released a new framework for family engagement drafted by Karen Mapp, a prominent family engagement expert. This framework calls for sustained investment in strengthening home-school partnerships and for schools and districts to treat engagement as a core strategy for school improvement. It emphasizes helping families take an active role in schools, building families’ and educators’ sense of efficacy through skills development, and creating multiple opportunities and invitations to engage. This new framework would provide an excellent basis for re-casting family and community engagement as a core priority in federal school turnaround policies.

In his recent inaugural address, President Obama emphasized that “you and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course” and “have the obligation to shape the debates of our time, not only with the votes we cast, but the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideas.” This statement of the value and importance of democratic participation, power, and responsibility has helped shape changes in his polices on gay marriage and immigration. We urge the President to listen to the voices of parents, students, and communities raised in defense of the important and enduring values and ideas of educational equity, opportunity, and justice.

Prepared by:

445 Richard Gray
Director, Community Organizing and Engagement
Annenberg Institute for School Reform 


444 Sara McAlister
Senior Research Associate
Annenberg Institute for School Reform