Parent Engagement versus Parent Empowerment: A Clash of Ideologies: To What Extent Should Parents “Sit At the Table”?

In her introductory speech, Carmen Farina, the new chancellor highlighted parent engagement as her highest priority. For the last twelve years the mayor and the Department of Education has had an “approach/avoidance” conflict, both touting and discouraging parent involvement.

While the education bureaucracy has been spouting parent engagement rhetoric they have pushed back against parent empowerment. The differences are crucial.

New York State law and regulation require the establishment of School Leadership Teams (SLT) in every school, and requires that the team members, parents, teachers and the principals engage in the setting of school policy including the school budget

Section 2590h of New York State law states,

school based management teams … shall possess the following powers and duties:

(i) develop an annual school comprehensive educational plan and
consult on the school-based budget … Such school comprehensive educational plan shall be developed concurrently with the development of the
school-based budget so that it may inform the decision-making process
and result in the alignment of the comprehensive educational plan and
the school-based budget for the ensuing school year.

Part 100.11 of NYS Department of Education regulations,

By February 1, 1994, each public school district board of education … shall develop and adopt a district plan for the participation by teachers and parents with administrators and school board members in school-based planning and shared decision-making.

The New York City Department of Education embedded the state law and state regulations in Chancellor Regulation A-655.

In the real world the Department has done everything possible to avoid empowering parents. Only a handful of districts actually include parents in the decision-making process and the central board has ignored the absence of SLTs. In 2002 Community School Boards were replaced by Community Education Councils (CEC), councils with no power and no support. Many of the CECs have vacancies, why attend monthly meetings when the councils have no authority?

School Leadership Teams (SLT) required by law and regulation only actively exists in schools with middle class parent bodies. de Blasio and Farina come from District 15, Brownstone Brooklyn, one of the few areas with active parent engagement.

As Anne T. Henderson of the Annenberg Institute tells us, “random acts of parent engagement,” aka a single parent meeting, an open school night, a flyer, is not a parent engagement program.

The Department maintains a Division of Family and Parent Engagement – not empowerment, engagement. While the web site is impressive the “on the ground” program is absent. Each superintendent’s office has a parent advocate who works for the Department. A complaint or an inquiry is shunted back to the school, the source of the complaint or the lack of information.

The Comprehensive Education Plan (CEP), in theory the school-based plan to drive the instructional program is simply a compliance activity.

The philosophy of the current administration in Washington and the former administration in NYC is that all decisions should be made at the top and stakeholders should be “brought along,” not included in the policy formation and implementation. The current NYS Commissioner of Education is a prime example. The major initiatives, the adoption of the Common Core, the Principal-Teacher Evaluation Plan (APPR) and the formation of a data dashboard, a repository of student information (In Bloom) has been imposed with minimum meaningful stakeholder participation. The pushback around the state by parents has not resulted in any “backing away” from the policies; the “fault” is with the parent bodies who are described as “special interests” or who simply don’t understand the initiatives.

There is a rich literature pointing to effective parent involvement programs, see Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp,
Beyond the Bake Sale: How School Districts Can Promote Family Involvement (2010), Anne T. Henderson, Building Local Leadership for Change: A National Scan of Parent Leadership Training Programs, and Testimony before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, April 22, 2010.

Under the pre Bloomberg-Klein administration parents and teachers served on a committee that selected and interviewed supervisory candidates and made recommendations to the superintendent. The committee members had to participate in a training program run by the district. In my former district I worked with the district to create the training program. We explained how to analyze school student achievement data and how to create scenarios and questions around the use of the data. We asked the prospective committee members to identify the most crucial areas of concern in their schools, how did they know these were the areas of concern? We discussed the qualities of an effective school leader, and, agreed upon a series of questions and a scoring rubric. The teachers and parents who participated in the process spent a few hours in a facilitated discussion about their school. The interview process was a learning process for both the interviewee and the interviewers.

As the SLT process evolved my school district ran, and repeated again and again, a six-session course on school-based budgeting. The course was offered at 9:30 am, at 3:30 pm and 7:00 pm to facilitate the schedules of all members of school teams.

The culture of schools began to change, rather than bake sales parents began to serve as partners, it was not easy, there were many bumps along the road, parents and staff began to feel comfortable sitting at the same table. The last twelve years has seen the marginalization of parents – they have been once again, in New York City, relegated to the raisers of money for schools with no role to play in setting school policies.

William Ouchi, in Making Schools Work (2003), writes,

The culture of traditional school operations is geared to a subservient “Daddy-may-I” form of operation, and culture is a most difficult social phenomena to change.

Education elites are sophisticated in ways of retaining power and authority, and parents will need political allies in positions above the elites, such as governors and legislators, to create Ouchi’s revolution. Making Schools Work recognizes the need for an attack on the education establishment from two directions. “[C]hange should be initiated bottom-up and supported top-down.”

The Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), the Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the UFT Parent Support Program are all programs outside of the Department that support parents “from the bottom up.”

The wide range of parent advocacy organizations also work with parents to assist them as active players in the realm of local politics; visits to offices of local elected officials, bus rides to Albany, parents are a voice. Senator John Flanagan, the chair of the Senate Education Committee has introduced a range of billsthat support parent ire over the use of student data.

Will the mayor appoint parent leaders to the Panel on Educational Policy (PEP), the Board of Education in New York City? Will local Community Educational Councils (CECs) have an increased role in the formulation of local policy decisions? Will SLTs be reinvigorated? What will be the role of parents in co-location decisions?

As the days merge into weeks and months we are anxious to see if the new administration’s words are matched by deeds.

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2 responses to “Parent Engagement versus Parent Empowerment: A Clash of Ideologies: To What Extent Should Parents “Sit At the Table”?

  1. Not sure what you meant by Flanagan’s bills “that support parent ire over the use of student data” but if you meant something positive; not really. Flanagan’s bills deny the rights of parents to either consent or opt out of the sharing of student data. He instead proposes a privacy officer be appointed under the Commissioner to draw up a parental bill of rights, which would likely be meaningless given John King’s position on these issues.

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  2. Keeping parents in the loop– educatiing parents about school policies and priorities would be a first step..
    In too many of the schools the only ‘out-reach moment’ is to inform the parent of a suspension.

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