Voices in Education

Another Missed Opportunity for Reform?
Today, states across the country will submit applications to the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top fund.

States will detail their plans for raising standards and expanding testing—particularly in reading and math; increasing access to data on student performance and using that data in teacher evaluations; and replacing chronically low performing schools with charter schools.

What they won't do is take seriously the untapped capacity of communities—public school parents and their children—to be part of the process of driving reform.

To be fair, states are following guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, which has emphasized test score data and charter schools as key components of reform. With growing budget gaps, states are desperate for education dollars and dare not deviate from the Department's reform priorities.

Yet a growing number of studies suggests that we'll never see educational opportunity on the scale the Obama administration has prioritized if we don't figure out how to mobilize public education's core constituencies. Public school parents, students and communities need to demand equity, accountability and quality from their schools, districts, and states.

It's not that no one knows how to do this. Examples abound nationally, many of which are described in my recent book, Community Organizing for Stronger Schools: Strategies and Successes.

In California, for example, Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) of the PICO National Network led a ten-year effort to replace large failing schools in the district's poorest neighborhoods with small schools built on strong parent involvement and community engagement. Today, Oakland's small schools are outperforming the schools they replaced, and show signs of lower dropout rates and higher percentages of students completing the college-prep curriculum required for entry to the State's university system.

This same strategy was promoted nationally by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and discarded recently for failing to produce sufficient results. The difference between Oakland and other cities experimenting with small schools was the presence of an organized community invested in the reform's success. In Oakland, OCO used the reform to challenge educators' views of the students they served and teach families the importance of involvement. The organization built teams in schools that united educators and families around the goal of improved student learning, and mobilized teachers, principals, families, and community residents to protect the small school reforms when necessary.

Scholar Tony Bryk often points out that schools are complex, complicated institutions for which there are no magic bullets (not even more testing and charter schools). What will it take to change them? Higher standards and better assessments will help. Qualified teachers and principals are indispensable. A sustained focus on improving the lowest-performing schools is essential. But strategies that build a supportive climate for reform are crucial. This means challenging the beliefs and priorities in schools and communities that produce low expectations, weak instruction, high teacher and principal turnover, chronic student disengagement, and parental apathy. It also means re-aligning resources so that the neediest schools are equipped to meet the challenges they face.

Across the country, organizing groups are bringing new resources to low performing high-poverty schools. They are building new relationships in schools, based on trust, collaboration and a shared focus on learning. It's time we brought these groups into the front and center of reform so that we get the sweeping educational change that our country so desperately needs.

About the Author: Kavitha Mediratta is currently an education program officer at the New York Community Trust and formerly principal associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. She is the lead author of Community Organizing for Stronger Schools: Strategies and Successes (Harvard Education Press, 2009). Author photo by Tom Rosenthal.