Student and Family Engagement: The Missing Piece of the Education Reform Puzzle

Joaquin Tamayo

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, Joaquín Tamayo discusses the role of student and family engagement in reform initiatives such as the Common Core State Standards.

Engagement & School Reform

Current efforts to improve the achievement of students in our nation's public schools represent the most significant reform to our education system in over a generation. Common standards, school turnarounds, computer-based standardized assessments, new teacher and principal accountability systems — taken together, these initiatives, to name but a few, have the potential to transform in fundamental ways how districts and schools operate, the roles and responsibilities of educators at every level of the system, and, most importantly, what teaching and learning look like in the 21st century.

But while the ultimate objective — improving the educational attainment and life outcomes of our nation's schoolchildren — is critically important to the long-term welfare of our country, a strategic focus on the role of student and parent engagement in public education reform has been conspicuously absent from the national conversation.

The missing piece

As a high school principal at New York City's Urban Assembly Academy of Government and Law and Washington, DC's Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy, I came to understand first-hand the importance of student and parent input and engagement to school-wide success. When I first became a principal in 2005 at the age of 27, I have to admit that I was blind to the opportunities of effective student and parent contributions to my and my staff's work. We were, after all, the professionals, charged by the school district and the state to design and implement the educational environment in which our student would learn.

Students had their place, to come to school and pass their classes, as did parents, which was to make sure their children arrived at school on time and to attend the occasional teacher-parent conferences. Of course, this wasn't a very imaginative vision for student and parent participation in school life, but it is the perspective, I hazard to say, that continues to guide student and parent involvement in the policy development of a majority of our nation's districts and schools.

Creating active citizens

It didn't take long for my staff and me to realize that our uninspired vision for student and parent engagement was at odds not only with our efforts to raise student achievement but also with our fundamental responsibility to nurture our students' understanding of and faith in the power of democracy and democratic institutions to improve our collective quality of life. We weren't just prepping our students to pass state tests; we were in the business of building the next generation of active American citizens. It was incumbent upon me and my faculty to figure out how to make active citizenship a living and breathing element of school life.

We therefore moved quickly to implement systems and structures that would empower students and parents to play much more active roles within the school community. Perhaps our most valuable effort was the implementation of student-teacher advisory classes. Now, advisory classes are not a new concept, and we had to endure a fair amount of messy experimentation before we got it right and settled on a model that worked for student and teacher alike.

Eventually, however, we developed a robust advisory system that leveraged small advisories of 12-15 students to provide a safe space for effective two-way communication between students and faculty that informed nearly every decision we made. I even led my own advisory classes, which became my de facto "student cabinet," weighing in on every significant school policy question I put in front of them. Through advisories, the role of students evolved from spectators to partners in our work.

Opening the door to parents

Parents and families played an important role as members of our Parent-Teacher Association and took advantage of the open-door policy I had in my five years as principal. In too many schools, parents typically have to navigate multiple layers of school bureaucracy before they have a chance to speak directly with the principal. This is usually intended as a way to deal with particularly ornery parents, but it sends the wrong signal. That kind of obstacle to communication can effectively eliminate any chance that most parents will play a meaningful role in the life of their children's school.

Parents had a direct link to my office — indeed, most of them had my cell phone number — and it was my customer-service approach to parent engagement that enabled me to problem-solve more effectively and improve the quality of the education we provided our students.

While advisory programs and PTAs are not revolutionary ideas, increasing meaningful student and parent engagement in education reform needn't be overly complex either. In fact, I strongly advocate for approaches as simple as getting students and parents in a room to discuss with principals and teachers real challenges to school improvement and then collaborating to implement solutions that work in their local contexts. If we've learned anything from decades of education reform, it should be that it's not that the perfect is the enemy of the good as much as educators' inability or unwillingness to communicate with and engage our entire school communities around the problems of weak student and parent investment in our schools.

The Common Core State Standards

Let's take, for example, the current approach to the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Of course, principals and teachers need to unpack and then teach to the new standards. But it's our students, with the support of their teachers, parents, and families, who will need to achieve at high levels against the new standards. Ultimately, our students are the ones in breakneck competition with their international counterparts in places like Finland, Singapore, and Shanghai, and it's their civic and economic life that will be most profoundly impacted by their ability to think critically and creatively.

The reality is that the Common Core State Standards, once fully implemented, will likely come as a rude awakening to millions of students and parents across the country. Simply put, these standards will ask of students and their families more than many of our schools have ever asked of them. For good reason, students will be challenged to spend a great deal more of their time reading, problem-solving, researching, and writing — which means significantly less time can be spent on activities that do not improve their powers of comprehension, logical thought, and deep analysis.

For their part, parents, if their children are to succeed in school and in life, must spend more of their own time reading complex texts to and with their kids, engaging in routine conversations about what and how well their kids are learning, and working more aggressively to ensure that their children's life outside of school is as robustly intellectual and culturally fulfilling as it should be inside the classroom. The work ahead of students and parent is no easy lift; they must be engaged by their schools in order to manage successfully these necessary changes in behavior and focus. And yet, where is the national movement to collaborate with students, parents, and families on a way forward?

The time is now for the forces of education reform to join with students and parents and forge a truly effective strategy to meet the demands of education in the 21st century. As a school principal, I learned that the work of communicating with and engaging students and parents could be messy, time-consuming, and difficult. However, the return on the investment was undeniable. As research shows, meaningful student engagement in school affairs increases students' sense of agency and competence — ingredients critical to their ability to meet the challenges of a globalized, competitive, and rapidly-changing world.

Putting the ideas, opinions, and energy of our students and their parents and families at the center of education reform in this country, and not just test scores and teacher evaluations, is not only the right thing to do, it's the missing piece of the education reform puzzle we've all been looking for.

About the Author

Joaquín Tamayo is the Assistant Director of the Education and Society Program at the Aspen Institute, where his focus includes the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and federal and state assessment and accountability policy. Joaquin was a member of the New Leaders for New Schools Cohort 4 and was the founding principal of the Urban Assembly Academy of Government and Law in New York City. Joaquin was also a principal with the Cesar Chavez Charter Public Schools for Public Policy in Washington, DC. Joaquin holds a B.A. in political science from Columbia University and a master in public affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.


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