AISR Speaks Out: Commentary on Urban Education

USDOE Waiver Policy Should Enforce Meaningful Compliance to Parent Engagement Principle

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version Share this
Sara McAlister
The DOE consistently ignores its own requirement that failing schools must develop ways to incorporate parents and the community in their turnarounds in exchange for progress waivers.

Last fall, in the face of continued congressional inaction on No Child Left Behind, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that the Department of Education (DOE) would offer states waivers from the “Adequate Yearly Progress” metrics that threatened to label the vast majority of schools as failing. In exchange, states must agree to a set of principles including college and career-ready standards, teacher evaluation systems linked to student achievement, and new systems of accountability for raising achievement.

The waiver program continues the administration’s shrewd use of federal incentives to extract major policy shifts at the state level. In line with President Obama’s promise to dramatically improve the worst-performing schools, states seeking flexibility must identify the lowest-performing 5 percent and 10 percent of their Title I schools as “priority” and “focus” schools, respectively, and ensure that districts intervene to turn them around. For priority schools, districts can select one of the four intervention models created under the controversial School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, or design a set of interventions aligned to “turnaround principles.”

One of those turnaround principles is the creation of “ongoing mechanisms for family and community engagement.” The DOE’s guidance to states is a decent (if limited) start for understanding what those mechanisms might be. The guidance has quick references to community-wide needs assessments and community asset mapping, establishing organized parent groups, holding public meetings to engage parents and community members in shaping school improvement plans, and providing wraparound supports for students and families.

But thus far, just as with the SIG program, the DOE has shown little commitment to seeing this principle enacted. Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have been granted waivers, after receiving extensive feedback from peer reviewers and submitting revised requests. None of those states received any specific advice on strengthening their plans for fostering ongoing family and community engagement in priority schools. In some states, the “ongoing mechanisms” for engagement are limited to notifying parents that their school has been identified as a priority school – and these plans passed muster. There’s little reason to expect that the engagement plans of the states still awaiting feedback will receive more thorough scrutiny, and little chance that the DOE’s guidance on parent engagement will be enacted without dedicated resources and training by parent engagement experts.

This is a mistake. A substantial body of research and practice documents the importance of authentic parent and community engagement in schools and in school reform. Parent engagement leads to stronger student engagement, improved school climate, and better student achievement (Henderson & Mapp 2002; Harvard Family Research Project 2006/2007.). A major longitudinal study of Chicago public schools identified five “essential supports” common to schools that accelerated student achievement – one of which is strong parent-community ties (Sebring et al. 2006). Recent research has highlighted that it’s crucial to move beyond traditional volunteerism and homework help to engagement strategies that give parents and community members meaningful roles in governance and decision-making. For example, a 2012 study by Designs for Change found that low-income Chicago schools governed by parent-majority Local School Councils exhibited greater student achievement gains than demographically similar “turnaround” schools governed the district or by private turnaround partners, despite the extra investment in the turnaround schools.

Unlike the unproven and drastic interventions embraced by the DOE, community-led school improvement efforts have a long and successful history in neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of disinvestment and failed reforms. School reform trends and policies come and go, but families and community residents have a long-term interest in ensuring that local schools provide their young people with excellent opportunities. They bring to school improvement efforts a deep knowledge of local context and history, innovative solutions, and rich webs of relationships.

In Texas and across the Southwest, families and congregations organized by the Industrial Areas Foundation have worked intimately with local schools to engage parents, teachers, principals, and community members as equal partners in school improvement and have mobilized the social capital of entire neighborhoods to support schools, raising test scores along the way. In Chicago, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council has helped Burroughs Elementary become a true center of neighborhood life and better serve students and families through the Chicago Community Schools Initiative and has recently partnered with three more local schools.

Even for states and districts that are prepared to devote real energy to this kind of authentic parent engagement in priority schools, the compressed timeline to which states must commit is a major impediment (USGAO 2011). States must begin implementing full sets of interventions in a portion of its priority schools in the coming school year and must implement interventions in all priority schools by 2014-2015. The guidance notes that waiver requests that delay implementation in most schools until 2014 will not be viewed favorably.1 Keeping in mind that several states’ requests are still pending, this leaves very little time to design and plan for appropriate interventions for the substantial number of schools in which states have promised to intervene during the coming school year. It’s hard to imagine how the timeline will facilitate interventions tailored to the needs of individual schools, as called for in the guidance. Certainly, districts and schools will have little chance of engaging parents and communities to help shape their plans.

Interestingly, other parts of the DOE’s waiver package note the benefit of careful planning and extensive stakeholder engagement. The expectations for teacher and principal evaluation plans, for instance, call for the state to develop evaluation system guidelines in the first year, followed by an entire year of planning at the local level. In guidance documents and in public testimony, the DOE has explained that this longer process will ensure that the systems developed respond thoughtfully to the local context and that teachers, principals, and district officials will all play a substantial role in shaping the systems that will hold them accountable. This makes perfect sense – and it’s no less necessary when planning major interventions in already struggling schools.

When the Administration rolled out the SIG program in 2010, the Communities for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) – a coalition of twenty parent- and community-led organizations – called for a “sustainable success” model that would prioritize stakeholder engagement and careful planning. CEPS called for a year-long planning process for SIG schools, led by teams of parents, community members, teachers and administrators, to plan thoughtful interventions matched to each school’s needs. These plans would prioritize research-based strategies to improve instruction, school climate, teacher capacity, and wraparound services for students and families.

The DOE should adopt the CEPS Sustainable Success model as its blueprint for states’ intervention in priority schools. By requiring the same deliberate, stakeholder-driven process already called for in designing teacher and principal evaluation systems, the DOE could hold states accountable for the kind of authentic parent and community engagement the DOE has had the good sense to require, and in so doing, greatly raise the odds of seeing real improvement in struggling schools.


1 For the complete waiver flexibility guidelines see


Designs for Change. 2012. Chicago’s Democratically Led Elementary Schools Far Outperform Chicago’s “Turnaround” Schools. Chicago: Designs for Change. 

Harvard Family Research Project. Winter 2006/2007. Family Involvement Makes a Difference: Evidence That Family Involvement Promotes School Success for Every Child of Every Age. Cambridge, MA: HFRP.

Henderson, Anne, and Karen Mapp. 2002. A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connections on Student Achievement. Austin, TX: SEDL. 

Sebring, Penny Bender, Elaine Allensworth, Anthony S. Bryk, John Q. Easton, and Stuart Luppescu. 2006. The Essential Supports for School Improvement. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago Schools Research. 

United States Government Accountability Office. 2011. School Improvement Grants: Early Implementation Under Way, But Reforms Affected by Short Time Frames. GAO-11-741. Washington, DC: USGAO.


  Sara McAlister
  Senior Research Associate
  Annenberg Institute for School Reform envelope