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Organize Your Community for Educational Change

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

My focus on education reform in this space in posts such as Using Twitter to Bring About Educational Change led me to a recent publication by The Annenberg Institute for School Reform that offers some spot on, and extremely useful advice for those interested in spearheading their own educational change initiatives. In collaboration with the National Education Association (NEA), The Annenberg Institute released a resource and strategy guide for Getting Started in Education Organizing. According to the press release from the NEA, the Annenberg Guide offers strategies and resources to help bring school reform and improvement into alignment with other community organization efforts such as neighborhood safety and economic development (NEA, Feb. 15, 2012). Here is a look at what the guide offers and a consideration of how it can be tied into larger educational change efforts.

Inside the Guide
Building a Base and Developing Leaders – In order to successfully change education, parents, students, and teachers need to lead school reform campaigns. In particular, parents who have had the worst experiences in public schooling, and are thus the least connected to the institutions, and immigrants who may feel isolated within the community, are key people to recruit for any initiative and are likely to need to be recruited outside of the school context – i.e., within the community. Some strategies for accomplishing this are through the distribution of flyers, organized neighborhood visits to students’ homes, recruiting at after-school programs, reaching out through parent-teacher associations, public meetings or press conferences, and connecting with the students themselves (p. 5-6).

Choosing the Right Issues and Developing a Platform – The basic premise here is that change groups should start with small, transparent issues that will provide easy wins for the organization such as outdated textbooks, or sub-standard facilities. These small victories build the power base of the group, help with the recruitment of new members, and build trust in the organization. Some of the suggested issues to tackle are: textbooks, facilities, student safety, ESL, implementing a specific education program, whole school reform, systemic district-wide reform, changing school leadership, improving school-family relationships, joining national networks focused on specific school issues, or developing proposals to start new schools (p.6-7).

Choosing the Right Scale for Organizing – Most community change organizations begin with a single school because parents relate best to issues they can see playing out with their own children. This is also a good place to begin because it is easiest to build a relationship with teachers and principals with whom they interact with regularly, and because small issues can often be resolved at the school level. Organizations that want to make more substantive changes must expand to the district, state, or federal level (particularly if they are dealing with issues affecting low-income students) (p. 9).

Building Power through Alliances and Coalitions – Because of the complexity and scope of many issues surrounding educational change, it is often necessary for groups to form coalitions. Strong coalitions demonstrate that an issue has broad support and decrease the possibility of opposition from rival groups or decision makers. One example of a strong coalition that achieved its goals was Communities for Educational Equity in Los Angeles, which succeeded in making a college preparatory curriculum mandatory for all LA high school students (p. 11). The guide suggests that educational change groups should look to form coalitions with local teachers unions, other labor unions, parent-teacher associations, and civil rights organizations.

Gathering Data and Conducting Research – There is no more important tool than data and information when advocating for educational change because of the controversial nature of attempting to change an established social institution. Further, the authors indicate that schools with a history of failure may have dysfunctional cultures that can be resistant to change. Understanding the history of an institution prior to attempting to change it is critical. Because of the complex and insular nature of schools, it is important for external organizations to both speak the language of the educational system and to use comparative data from similar institutions to justify proposed changes. According to the guide, the types of data that should be gathered and evaluated prior to beginning a change effort are: student demographics, teacher demographics, fiscal data, including per-pupil expenditure and school/district budgets, outcome data such as standardized test results, graduation and college placement rates, and school climate and disciplinary statistics (p. 11-13).

In addition to those mentioned, it is also important to consider other sources of data such as local curriculums, other reform movements and issues, survey data from students, parents, and teachers, on-site visits to the school in question or aspirant institutions, other research reports, and information about current trends in education (p. 13-14). Having a grasp of this information will empower your change group to talk intelligently about the issues, address the actual concerns of stakeholders, and propose realistic solutions.

Forging Relationships with Schools and Educators – The key to successfully creating change in education is being able to develop a relationship with the school, district, or agency which you are trying to change, and being able to maintain that relationship to create a collaborative effort. Community-based organizations have the added benefit of strengthening the relationship between teachers and parents and between the school and the community in which they exist. Community organization is a positive way to build a mutually beneficial relationship between schools and their communities and to help develop a democratic decision making process that incorporates community concerns into the educational system (p. 15). Some of the strategies suggested for building these relationships are: regular meetings between parents and educators, "neighborhood walks" in which teachers can get to know the community in which they work, home visits by parent-teacher groups, the creation of family-school partnerships, and the development of relationships with district officials.

Implementing These Strategies
Considering all of these strategies at once may seem overwhelming, particularly to someone who is just starting to think about getting involved in the school change movement.  Following the advice set out in the Annenberg document is an excellent beginning – pay particular attention to their suggestion to start small and locally to build a network of people interested in change. Talk to other parents, teachers, the school principal, and your children – their opinions about their education are valid too.

Once you have an idea of the issues and obstacles present for your own change effort, get online and connect with groups of like-minded individuals who are either experiencing the same challenges, or who have already overcome them. Explore The Annenberg Institute for School Reform website, the American Youth Policy Forum, or The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement, connect with other education reformers on Twitter by following conversations tagged with #edreform or #edreformtribe, or on Facebook by joining the discussion on education reform. There are thousands upon thousands of people around the world interested in moving education into the 21st Century and they are just a few keystrokes away. Talk to them and organize your community to help improve one of our most important social institutions.

Follow me on Twitter @drjwmarquis
Join the movement: #edreformtribe

Image: savit keawtavee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net