by Warren Simmons

Over our years of work with districts and communities on educational improvement, AISR has seen that addressing persistent achievement gaps and developing sustainable education reform at scale requires the combined commitment, efforts, and investment of an entire community. We envision a high-functioning district or other local education agency (LEA) with a range of civic and community partners that provides a broad network of opportunities and supports to young people inside and outside of school. We call this vision a “smart education system.”

An increasing number of education stakeholders hold views that resonate with ours. For instance, a report by the National Commission on Civic Investment in Public Education (2011), convened by the Public Education Network (PEN) and on which I was privileged to serve, observed:

Reality has often failed to live up to the ideal of equal educational opportunity. Most notably, the corrosive effects of segregation and its legacy denied education opportunities to millions of African Americans, and gaps in opportunities remain substantial between schools that serve advantaged students and those that serve students from less-advantaged families. The sustained effort at education reform over the past few decades shows clearly that Americans remain committed to the ideal. And concerted action by community members organized and dedicated to public education has time and again demonstrated that civic investment can pay large dividends.

This kind of community-centered education reform can strengthen the effectiveness and sustainability of technical or research-based reforms by providing the political, social, and moral capital required to counter forces that often derail and delay essential changes in policy and practice. In addition, community-centered reform recognizes the need to adapt rather than replicate “best” practices so that they address local conditions and aspirations.

The National Commission on Civic Investment in Public Education report describes how local education funds have built a foundation for smart education systems by raising money from the business community, philanthropy, and private individuals to support school innovation and, later on, larger systemic reforms such as the Annenberg Challenge.1 In addition to raising additional funds, these efforts increased the strategic ties between education systems, businesses, community groups, and philanthropy and laid the groundwork for broader community engagement.

The emergence of the standards movement contributed another important element for the development of smart education systems by clarifying the salient outcomes education reform and community engagement should strive to achieve – that is, communities should act to ensure that their education systems – be they traditional districts, school networks, or charter management organizations – provide all students and schools the supports needed to meet high academic standards. In addition to this central aim, we believe that effective community-centered education reform should be guided by the following tenets:

  • The specific needs of students, schools, and families are best understood and addressed when the local context is treated as a potential resource for development rather than solely as a neutral or negative circumstance.

  • Building capacity for incremental or radical reform requires, but goes beyond, securing additional funding for schools or gaining support for new school/district policies and practices; it also entails revitalizing communities so that families and entire neighborhoods can offer the supports children and youth need to achieve the full range of positive outcomes (e.g., academic, health, emotional, social, spiritual).

  • Broad-based coalitions of “communities” are formed not just to increase participation in the work of education reform, but also to engender a productive ecology for school reform. Thus, the inclusion of underrepresented groups becomes a primary objective and not a secondary or tertiary goal.

  • Enhancing the capacity of “communities” to accomplish their work involves an examination of fundamental issues of power, race, class, and diversity that have traditionally undermined the efficacy of urban school reforms and weakened the development of broad-based coalitions needed to challenge the status quo.

  • Researchers, practitioners, and advocates must acknowledge the multidisciplinary nature of schooling and explore the intersections of teaching and learning, community engagement, youth development, economic revival, and college readiness.

  • Efforts to link education reform and reinvention to community engagement and development should be guided by research and evidence-based practices developed by researchers working in partnership with communities.

These principles require a significant shift in thinking about urban school systems and their relationship to the settings in and around them. A community-centered approach to reform underscores the need for education systems to develop “community” within and among schools, and in relationship to the neighborhoods and cities they serve and rely on to support students’ learning and development. This approach represents a departure from strategies that treat families and neighborhoods narrowly as clients, or as “victims” who don’t know what’s good for them and thus should let the “experts” lead in their behalf. In contrast, community-centered education reform treats families and communities  as a central partner in the development of what the C. S. Mott Foundation’s Time, Learning, and Afterschool Task Force (2007) called a New Day for Learning (NDL) system. In such a system schools,
 families, and communities collaborate as equals to:

  • expand the definition of student success to incorporate twenty-first century competencies that emphasize the 4 C’s (creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking);

  • use research-based knowledge to design and integrate new learning supports; and

  • provide educators with new opportunities for leadership and professional development.

To meet these aims in difficult economic times, urban school systems – which now range from traditional districts to organizations that operate portfolios of schools – need to function in concert with municipal agencies, cultural organizations, businesses, higher-education institutions, community-based organizations, and advocacy groups, not in isolation from or in opposition to this broad network of potential partners and resources.

In an era of declining funding for public institutions, smart education systems that link an LEA with a web of supports provided by other city agencies, cultural and community organizations, businesses, and postsecondary institutions are essential to develop the high-quality learning opportunities that all students need in school, home, and community settings to acquire a twenty-first-century education. Rather than being an end in itself, this kind of cross-sector collaboration is a means to creating an education system that acts in concert with other community-based resources for learning and development to ensure that all young people have access to the services and supports they need to meet the new common core standards, as well as the goals and aspirations families and communities set for children and youth.

State and local education agencies can become part of a smart education system by emphasizing the need to:

  • maintain multiple and substantial cross-sector partnerships that provide a broad range of supports to young people and their families;

  • achieve a broad set of positive outcomes – including, but not limited to, academic achievement – for students, families, and communities and gather evidence of progress;

  • develop indicators, measures, and processes that foster shared accountability across partner organizations and groups;

  • create a systematic approach for bringing the work to scale; and

  • develop strategies for managing power differentials, such as creating meaningful roles for all stakeholders and shifting partner relations away from the standard grassroots–grass tops conventions.

Out of necessity and with a spirit of innovation and collaboration, people in cities such as Boston, Cincinnati, Providence, and Nashville are moving much faster toward building smart education systems than partners that operate at the state and national level. Although the Twenty-First Century Schools and Community Schools initiatives recognize how schools must work with multiple partners to ensure broader success, these approaches stop short of developing platforms that redefine the work of larger school systems, and these initiatives don’t fully address the systemic through-line that has to be developed at the state and federal levels to sustain effective school-centered collaboration and take it to scale. Simply saying “pre-K to 16” doesn’t create a system that makes it happen without concerted effort across layers of institutions, organizations, and agencies that share responsibility for the learning and development of all of our nation’s children and youth.

To quote once more the report by the National Commission on Civic Investment in Public Education:

Citizens must strengthen their commitment to public education and ensure that they provide a high-quality education for all young people. Women and men from all walks and stages of life must commit to making public schools effective, build the public will for policies and resources necessary for equitable educational opportunities, and hold political leaders and school officials at all levels accountable for ensuring equal opportunity and outcomes for all public school children.


National Commission on Civic Investment in Public Education. 2011. An Appeal to All Americans. Washington, DC: Public Education Network.

Time, Learning, and After School Task Force. 2007. A New Day for Learning. Flint, MI: C. S. Mott Foundation.


1 The Annenberg Challenge was a half-billion-dollar gift by Walter H. Annenberg that became the largest public/private endeavor in U.S. history dedicated to improving public schools. Over five years, eighteen projects in thirty-five states funded 2,400 public schools that served more than 1.5 million students and 80,000 teachers. More than 1,600 businesses, foundations, colleges and universities, and individuals contributed $600 million in private matching funds. In many cases, sites have secured additional funding or established successor organizations to continue the work.