Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning
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Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning
- Districts promote participatory democratic structures in schools by creating policies and expectations for participation on the part of a wide array of people and groups outside of the school.
- Districts have more difficulty creating leadership teams that include diverse families and community members in more, as compared with less, affluent communities.
- Outside of establishing traditional site-council structures, Districts typically do not have a strong impact on principals‘ openness to community and parental involvement.
- Schools with more community stakeholders on their site councils or building leadership teams tend to have principals who are more open to community-level involvement.
- Student achievement does not seem to be influenced positively by principals‘ openness to community involvement.
- Student achievement is higher in schools where teachers share leadership and where they perceive greater involvement by parents.
The review of research we cite in the Preface to Part Two makes no mention of district efforts to engage families and the broader community more fully in school improvement work. Yet family and community engagement has been an active research area for many years. Considerable evidence links family background to student achievement—a sufficient warrant for attention in its own right. Our interest, however, arises also from democratic assumptions underlying the organization of the U.S. school system and from the traditional resistance of schools to greater community-level participation. In light of this background, we examine five questions about family and community engagement:
- What influences the diversity of membership on school-site councils or leadership teams?
- What factors influence principals‘ openness to parental and community involvement?
- Is a principal‘s openness to community involvement related to student learning?
- How are participatory and collective leadership structures related to student learning?
- Which district policies and practices foster or inhibit family and community engagement aimed at increasing student learning?
Five strands of prior evidence informed our approach to this research: (1) evidence linking family engagement with student learning, (2) studies of recent efforts to create more democratic or participatory structures in schools, (3) studies of changing power structures in schools, (4) evidence about collective leadership, with a particular emphasis on the inclusion of people not in designated or positional leadership roles, and (5) studies about district and school characteristics that may support or inhibit family and community participation.
Family Engagement and Student Learning
Findings from two meta-analyses by Jeynes (2003 and 2007) add credible arguments for the case of family involvement leading to increased student achievement. The first (Jeynes 2003) concluded that family involvement affected academic achievement for the minority groups under study, but in different ways. For African Americans, effect sizes were positive for parenting style and for family attendance at various school events, but those variables were not statistically significant for other groups. The second (Jeynes 2007), focusing exclusively on studies of urban secondary school students, found that family involvement had a significant effect on student achievement for minority and white students.
"Subtle" aspects of family involvement—parenting style and parental expectations, for example—may have a greater impact on student achievement than more "concrete" forms such as attendance at school conferences or enforcing rules at home regarding homework.144 Some researchers, policy makers, and practitioners argue that these subtle forms of family involvement are not easily influenced by schools.145 In contrast, we argue that the value of creating participatory structures in schools lies in its potential for increasing family and community members‘ sense of engagement in children‘s education, and, as a consequence, augment and reinforce the subtle behaviors responsible for improved outcomes.146
Creating Participatory or Democratic Structures
In the last two decades, some educators and community members have shown an interest in creating more democratic structures within and alongside schools—by establishing and using various advisory councils, for example. This movement may be a reaction against a longstanding school climate within which families and community members—some more than others—have been viewed as outsiders, not as true members of the school community. In this movement, some researchers saw democracy in action as power devolved from the state to local schools, sometimes culminating in outside stakeholder involvement.147 Many contentions about site-based management, community control of schools, community schools, and school choice were based on democratic and communitarian theory.148 Some researchers and policy makers influenced by economic theory have begun to view the relationship between schools and communities differently. Families and community members are clients or customers, not outsiders, according to this point of view, and schools should be accountable to their clients (see Riley & Louis, 2004, p. 9). Other observers remain suspicious of the community-as-client view, for various reasons. A school that is accountable to the community, in our view, reflects local values and customs, has indicators of success that are visible and well-communicated to the public, and allows parents to choose schools if they are not satisfied with the service.149
Changing Power Structures in Schools
Site-based management initiatives rarely challenge existing power structures or alter decision-making patterns in schools.150 Instead, these initiatives work to incorporate outsiders into the school‘s frame of reference.151
152 Even where family and community involvement programs have been mandated, observers have questioned the fidelity of implementation efforts to mandated plans. Since it is easier for traditional power structures to remain in place when environmental factors remain "stable and congenial,"153 giving parents and teachers authority to make some school decisions may in some respects reinforce the status quo.154
In an examination of the contested nature of schools in a pluralistic society, Abrams (2002) found that "school interventions seeking to change established practices and ideologies concerning parental involvement can become contested terrain, . . . exposing competing needs and concerns about children‘s education" (p. 384). However, Abrams also suggests that schools can bring competing groups together by developing collaborative structures and involving families in shared decision making, thus building social capital. The model of community development as a mechanism to link schools and communities is a facet of social capital theory; its importance in education policy and research has increased in the last fifteen years.155
About participatory structures and efforts to develop them, there is often a wide gap between rhetoric and practice. Cognizant of this gap, several scholars have investigated factors that actually make a difference in these efforts. For example, Miretzky argues that fostering communication between teachers and families can help to create a democratic community and support school improvement. While the parents and teachers Miretzky studied did not espouse the value of democratic communities per se, the values they did espouse—investment in the school community, direct and honest communication, trust, mutual respect and mutual goals—"all reflect the 'communication requirements‘ of such communities" (2004, p. 814). According to this view, some teachers and parents desire interaction within a democratic community, but they lack the language necessary to articulate that interest.
As we explain in section 1.1,
collective leadership refers to influence exercised by school leaders
and families and other stakeholders. The political argument for involving parents and other community members more substantially carries along with it an explicit challenge to the traditional, hierarchical leadership and power structures in schools.156 According to Leithwood and Prestine (2002), the policies and reforms that call for decentralized decision making rest on certain important assumptions about the role of the principal and other school leaders. The community-control model of site-based management "assumes that the school leader‘s role is to 'empower‘ these people and to actively encourage the sharing of power formerly exercised by the principal. ...School leaders, it is assumed, will act as members of teams rather than sole decision-makers, teaching others how to make defensible decisions and clarifying their decision responsibilities" (p. 46). In this respect, strong leadership will be needed, somewhat paradoxically, to help establish collaborative partnerships and to foster shared decision making.157 The beneficial outcomes, Leithwood and Pristine argue, will include better decisions and, among participants, an enhanced sense of ownership in and responsibility for the outcomes of those decisions.
District and School Characteristics That Support or Inhibit family and Community Participation
While principals play a crucial role in school-improvement initiatives, the school culture or climate is also crucial. Important characteristics of school culture include a caring atmosphere, significant family volunteering, and a supportive environment for teachers‘ work.158 Widespread trust among participants promotes collaboration within schools and communities.159 Parental involvement benefits students, particularly; it also seems to benefit families, enhancing their attitudes about themselves, their children‘s schools, and school staff members.160
Some principals and teachers assume that low levels of parental involvement reflect low levels of interest in the education of the children in question. The evidence does not support this view. Parents generally—inner-city and low-income parents as well as others—care deeply about their children‘s education.161 Their level of interest is not always readily apparent. Some may not know how to be involved helpfully in their children‘s education.162 Others may feel constrained by reticence arising from an inhibiting sense of class differences. For reasons like these, educators face a special challenge in seeking to foster increased family involvement. The policies and programs currently targeted to that task are, in many districts, inadequate.163
We obtained data for this section from responses to the first round of principal and teacher surveys and from state-mandated measures of students‘ achievement in mathematics. Also, in order to compose three district-level vignettes, we analyzed data from interviews we conducted over three years with district and school staff members and community stakeholders. The surveys posed questions about principals‘ and teachers‘ perceptions of parental and community involvement in schools; they also asked about stakeholders‘ influence in schools, the composition of leadership teams, and principals‘ and teachers‘ perceptions of parent and community openness to and involvement in promoting student learning. A total of 260 administrators returned the principals‘ surveys (157 principals and 103 vice principals), for a response rate of 74.2%. Sixty-seven percent of teachers completed their surveys (a total of 4,491). The present analysis, however, focuses only on the principals‘ responses (n=157).
For all survey items we used a six-point response scale (from strongly agree to strongly disagree). We calculated separate scales for each survey (all met conventional standards of reliability); then we used step-wise regression to analyze the principals‘ and teachers‘ surveys separately. Factors measured by the principals‘ survey included the following:
Principals’ openness to community involvement. All the items in this scale reflected our concept of
participatory democratic structures—i.e., community members are actively engaged in planning and setting school-improvement goals.
District support for community and parent involvement. This scale measured the role of the district in helping or hindering principals in their efforts to obtain greater community and parental involvement.
Principals’ perceptions of parental influence. This scale measured and the extent to which parents were involved in decision making and the perceived level of influence parents exercised in setting directions for school-improvement efforts.
We first examined elected versus non-elected site councils in order to distinguish between those that reflected democratic participatory structures and those that did not. (Although some schools refer to their site councils as "building leadership teams", for purposes of clarity, we will use the term "site council" to refer to all such groups of people who participate together to provide guidance and occasional decisions as a means of local leadership at the building level.) We focused on formally elected school site councils that were diverse (i.e., more than three groups of people represented on the teams, meaning those that included parents and community members). Forty-three percent of the teams were elected, and elected teams were more diverse than non-elected teams.
For the first analysis of data from the principal survey, our outcome variables included (1) the diversity of membership on school-site councils, and (2) the level of principals‘ and teachers‘ openness to community and parental involvement in schools. For the analysis from the teacher survey, four variables were measured:
Parent/teacher collective leadership. In schools demonstrating collective leadership, principals and teachers are more likely to collaborate with parents and the community.
District and school leadership influence. Using this variable we measured the degree to which administrators, at the school and district level, retained control over decision making.
Teachers’ perceptions of parental influence. Using this variable we explored the relationship between teachers‘ perceptions of parental influence and student learning outcomes.
Teacher influence: Using this variable we distinguished between the influence of parents, administrators, and teachers in school decisions.
We measured student achievement by reference to the school‘s performance on the 2005-2006 state tests in mathematics. We used poverty (the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches) and type of school (elementary and secondary) as control variables for all of our analyses because several studies examining community involvement specifically found them to be significant influences on parental involvement in schools. SES is also a significant factor in predicting student achievement.166
Influences on the Diversity of School-Site Councils
In our first analysis we examined variables associated with the diversity of membership on school-site councils. We sought to determine which district and school leadership factors were associated with diversity. Using
diversity of membership on the site council as a dependent variable, we used linear regression to examine the relationship between diversity and
district support for community involvement, controlling for poverty level.
Results show that poverty level and district support for community involvement explain only 9% of the variance in the diversity of membership on school-site councils. Nevertheless, diversity of membership on site councils is fostered by district support for community participation and we found high-poverty schools are more often diverse in site-council membership than other schools are.
Influences on Principals’ Openness to Parent and Community Involvement
In our second analysis, we examined which factors associated with principals‘ openness to community involvement. With principals’ openness as our dependent variable, we used step-wise regression to assess the degree to which our independent variables (district support,
site council diversity) accounted for variance in our dependent variable. Again, we used free and reduced-price lunch (FRPL) and school level as controlling variables.
Our results yielded four findings. First, poverty level does not influence principals‘ openness to community involvement. Second,
site council diversity is the only statistically significant variable associated with principals‘ openness to community involvement; it accounts, however, for only about 9% of the variance. Third,
district support is not significantly related to community involvement, and it has only a limited influence on principals‘ openness to community involvement. Fourth,
school level is not ‘openness to community involvement.
Factors Related to Student Achievement
Using data from surveys of principals, we examined factors related to student achievement in mathematics. In these analyses we used
site council diversity, district support, and principals’ openness to community involvement as independent variables; again, we used poverty and school level as control variables.
Our results show that poverty level accounts for 17% of the variance in student achievement in mathematics. With leadership variables factored in, we find that
site council diversity, district support, and principals’ openness to community involvement do not relate significantly to student achievement.
In short, even if principals are open to community involvement and establish diverse school site councils, no significant effect on achievement will necessarily follow, over and above the effect of contextual factors (poverty and school level). This finding is consistent with results from prior research: simply changing structures, or being open to involvement, does not necessarily lead to increased student learning.
Participatory and Collective School Leadership Structures and Student Learning
Using data from surveys of teachers, we analyzed the relationship of
Parent/teacher collective leadership, district/school leadership influence, and teachers’ perceptions of parental involvement with student achievement in mathematics. Again, we used poverty and school level as control variables.
Our results show that poverty level had a statistically significant inverse relationship with achievement in mathematics, accounting for 21% of the variance. With participatory and shared leadership variables factored in, we found that
parent/teacher collective leadership and teacher’s perceptions of parental influence were positively and significantly associated with achievement in mathematics, accounting for 23% of the variance. This finding is consistent with findings from prior research. If teachers have more influence in decision making and practice shared leadership, they believe parents are also more likely to have influence and be involved actively in school improvement efforts.167 Since other research has confirmed this relationship, we kept both constructs in the remaining analyses.
school level had a significant, inverse relationship with student achievement in mathematics,
district/school leadership and teacher influence were not significantly related to achievement. These findings are consistent with findings from prior research on site-based management168 which found that even when schools are charged with creating collective leadership and asked to be more inclusive with parents and community members, principals and teachers, nevertheless, maintain decisionmaking control.
Our results show that where teachers‘ perceive greater involvement by parents, and where teachers indicate that they practice shared leadership, student achievement is higher. The relationships here are correlational, not causal; nevertheless, it appears that direct, active involvement by parents (as perceived by teachers) can have an impact on student learning. Although Feuerstein‘s (2000) research indicates that schools have less influence over "subtle" forms of parent involvement, we found that teachers and principals have more influence on parental and community involvement, and its link to student learning, than others have thought. Because parental involvement is linked to student achievement by correlation, we assert that teachers and principals can play a role in increasing student learning by creating a culture of shared leadership and responsibility—not merely among school staff members, but collectively within the wider community.
On first glance, some of our results appear to be at odds with others. Principal‘s reports of their efforts to promote community involvement are not related to student achievement, but reports about parental involvement by teachers located in the same schools suggest a significant influence. One explanation may be that principals are simply poor reporters of their own behavior. They may inflate their reports, given the assumption that
they are supposed to work on promoting community involvement. Teachers, in contrast, were asked to report on the indirect results of their principal‘s efforts and the school culture in general, not on their own behavior; in their task, they may have been more forthright.
Response bias, however, is not the only possible explanation. It could also be the case that where teachers experience shared decision making, they feel more "empowered" as Leithwood and Prestine (2002) have suggested, and are therefore more willing to engage parents as participants in their children‘s education. In addition, teachers who feel empowered may be more willing to accept parental and community input in setting directions for school-improvement programs. In other words, a more professionalized and influential group of teachers may seek to increase the resources available to improve student achievement (including parental involvement and influence). This possibility stands in contrast to an assumption made by some critics of professionalism—i.e., that professionalized teachers will tend to claim exclusive knowledge and expertise. If it is the case that professionalized teachers are more likely to seek parental and community involvement, then the dynamic in education resembles a current movement within the medical profession, where many practitioners now seek to involve patients as partners in making complex decisions about health care.
Still another explanation is that teachers might focus on the
consequences of principals‘ efforts to promote community involvement, rather than the structural components intended to provide for community involvement. This explanation could account for the unexpected finding that our initial factor analysis produced a variable that includes measures of both parental and teacher influence within the school. By itself, this finding suggests that principals, who have a great deal of influence over school culture, may exercise a subtle and indirect influence on student achievement insofar as they increase openness and make schools more democratic. This possibility is compatible with the assumption that it is not the structures that make a school democratic, but the everyday actions that encourage or discourage the flow of ideas and influence across
The District’s Role
The results of our quantitative analyses suggest that districts can play a role in promoting participatory democratic structures in schools by creating policies and expectations for participation by a wide array of peoples and groups. In addition, districts can help schools create diverse school-site councils, at least in more affluent communities. In examining the factors influence principals‘ openness to community and parental involvement, we found that although district support for more involvement does correlate with the diversity of membership on site councils, districts do not have a strong impact on how principals‘ openness to community and parental engagement outside the traditional site councils. This finding suggests that districts are not creating the climate or expectation for schools to be open to community and parental involvement. The district role has been primarily to create policies that demand a certain level of outside participation in decision making. But these policies have only a weak and indirect effect on creating open, participatory environments in schools.
However, when schools have more diverse representation on site councils, principals appear to be more open to community involvement. This finding is not surprising; it suggests that in schools where parents and other community members hold significant leadership roles, principals are more open generally to outside influences. Our findings are also consistent with research that says leaders can and often do play a significant role in the level of parent and community involvement in schools.169
Overall, two generalizations stand out regarding district leadership aimed at fostering democratic participation in schools. First, district policy—e.g., setting expectations for who should be involved in making decisions—does influence the range of people who participate in school decisions. Second, district culture appears to have a limited influence on parental and community involvement at the school level.
Although district efforts to encourage widespread involvement have limited effects at the school level, and formal participation by parents and community members has limited impact on the achievement of students in the school, it does not follow that these policies should be abandoned. They may have symbolic value, creating effects that we have not measured. Our study does hint that as principals have more experience with community interaction (for example, through site councils with diverse representation), they become more open to influence in daily practices in their buildings.
District Policies and Practices for Parent and Community Involvement (all district and persons’ names are pseudonyms)
In order to examine our quantitative findings more thoroughly, we turned to our qualitative data for an in-depth look at district level policies and practices intended to engage parents and community members in school-improvement efforts and, specifically, efforts to increase student learning. In exploring our qualitative data, we examined district policies and practices that may foster or inhibit parental and community engagement aimed at increasing student learning. From this examination we have developed the following vignettes to illustrate what three school districts are doing to foster parental and community engagement. The three districts are located in different states and regions of the country. They range in size from 25,000 to 38,000 students, from 22% to 42% minority students, and from 33% to 42% of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Glenhurst School District: A Commitment to Being Visible and Listening to Community Concerns. Glenhurst School District, located in a western state, is composed of 47 schools with a total enrollment of approximately 38,000 students. These students are about 42% minority and 33% free or reduced-price lunch students. When the current superintendent, Brad Cameron, was hired in 2003, he exhibited openness to hearing from all groups and a willingness to collaborate in pursuit of his primary goal: to increase student achievement in reading and mathematics. One administrator described the culture of the district as "engaged," "lively," but "a little chaotic," in a good way. Superintendent Cameron worked to change the culture of the district. For example, several district-level administrators in Glenhurst said that the district went through a lengthy process of "sense-making" and self-organizing, focused on district goals and emphasizing community outreach. With these efforts, the culture of the district changed, according to the Board Chair, because of Superintendent Cameron‘s collaborative style, visibility, and ability to communicate with the public.
Superintendent Cameron communicates his primary goal by being visible in the schools, where he holds regular, open talks on leadership, and outside the schools, where he meets regularly with various community groups to discuss district directions and to gather public input. His style is to develop and sustain strong relationships, build capacity, and maintain organizational transparency. Toward these ends, the district holds meetings with "Key Communicators" every two months. These meetings are attended by an range of participants including business leaders, retired district employees, other retired citizens, past superintendents, and a small group of parents. During the meetings, district leaders bring up current issues and gather input and advice. In addition, superintendent meets regularly with a community clergy group and with different ethnic groups of parents every month.
Along with other district leaders, Superintendent Cameron also holds "listening sessions" in the community once every month. The meetings are held in different parts of the district and are open to anyone who wishes to attend. The superintendent has stated that listening sessions are not a venue for formal presentations by the district to the public; instead, the sessions provide an opportunity for district representatives to hear about issues and concerns from the community. In addition, during the summer, the superintendent and some of his staff visit local businesses during the lunch hour to have "listening sessions" with business people and workers. According to the superintendent, these communication efforts have been essential in building relationships and trust within the district. Superintendent Cameron receives several e-mails from parents and other community members every day and commits himself to a 24-hour turn-around policy. He states that this turn-around time has been essential to keeping up the flow of communication.
The Glenhurst district has three mandated, formal governance structures designed to include outside stakeholders in decision making. These are the elected Local School Committees (LSCs), elected Site Councils, and Parent Teacher Organizations (PTOs. Superintendent Cameron meets with the LSCs approximately every two months to talk about their work and to listen to their concerns. The Site Councils are made up of teachers and other community members, 50% each. The superintendent meets with all members of the Site Councils quarterly to listen to their ideas and concerns, and they update him on their school-improvement plans. Every school in the district is mandated to have a PTO) designed to include parents in school operations. Actual influence of the PTOs varies tremendously by school, depending on the leadership styles of the respective principals.
According to the Assistant Superintendent, the district has goals that are communicated to the public, but it has no formal policies to ensure involvement of outside stakeholders in decision making at the district level, beyond formal governance structures. However, the district has several informal means of involving the community in school-improvement efforts. For example, community members and parents were invited to weigh in on curricular-adoption processes at the district level. In addition, the district website often features postings seeking parental and community input on district programs, planning, goals, and visions.
Although the district actively seeks input, district officials do not always know what to do when community members come forward with input. One sort of example arises when like-minded parents band together if they do not like something, bombarding district offices with phone calls and e-mails and testifying at board meetings. This kind of community engagement can be intense and narrowly focused, the Assistant Superintendent has stated, and it sometimes slows processes down, but she believes that the voices of parents, happy and unhappy, need to be heard and taken into account. The school board vice chair, similarly, has stated that allowing all voices to be heard is valued by the district. "You have to maintain a democratic public education system," he said; "you have to have the public involved." In these various consultations, there is a group of parents and community members—white and relatively affluent—deemed very influential by district staff members. District officials struggle with the task of attracting a representative group of community members to help with school improvement efforts.
Atlas School District: A Focus on Communication, Transparency, and Partnering. The Atlas school district, located in a Midwestern university town, has 52 schools that serve approximately 34,000 students—22% minority and 38% of receiving free or reducedprice lunches. The district states that it has four primary goals: (1) to increase student achievement and graduation rates, (2) to provide enough classrooms and other learning environments to support achievement, (3) to increase stakeholder involvement for increasing achievement, and (4) to increase communication with outside stakeholders, while emphasizing student achievement. Prior to the tenure of the current superintendent, Michelle Sorenson, who came into office in 2005, the previous superintendent held the job for more than 10 years. That superintendent was not skilled in engaging with the community. Because there were complaints from community groups about the old superintendent, the school board engaged the community in helping to pick the new superintendent. Board members said that they looked for and hired an "avid communicator." When Superintendent Sorenson came on board, she made it a priority to get out into the community, repair relationships with stakeholders, build trust, and restore the reputation of the district.
An executive vice president of a local children‘s foundation stated that the district has improved since Superintendent Sorenson came on board—in openness and in soliciting community input for discussions of how the district operates. For example, the superintendent focused on being visible by giving approximately 80 presentations to community organizations in the first year she took office. She spoke to civic and business groups, attending Rotary lunches and meeting with other community agencies. Increased visibility has led to increased trust between the district and various community groups and parents, according to district representatives and community stakeholders. In order to build relationships, gain trust, and communicate the needs of the district, the Superintendent engaged as many stakeholders as possible. For example, the district recruited approximately 60 people from various community groups and parents to lobby for a bond measure. The bond measure passed because of the district‘s renewed commitment to the community.
Superintendent Sorenson says it is important for her leadership to maintain transparency in proceedings at the district level, and to communicate continually with the public. The district also brings people in on important district-level initiatives so that stakeholders feel part of the process. For example, the district established a Community Curriculum Council that meets monthly; its membership includes up to two parent representatives per school. Approximately 30 parents attend these meetings. As one parent explained, the Curriculum Council provides an opportunity for parents to meet with other parents, to discuss district issues related to curriculum and other important topics. According to another parent, the official role of the council is "to advise the curriculum department on parents‘ views on different curriculum issues as well as to be educated by the curriculum department on what is going on with the curriculum." The district‘s mission and goals are well known inside the organization and within the community. Annually, the district prepares and distributes a report to all Atlas residents that includes information such as test scores, results of follow-up studies from graduates, assessment results about the learning climate, financial information, and school demographic characteristics.
In Atlas (as was also the case in Glenhurst), principals determine in large measure whether or not PTOs will operate as effective entities. Although PTOs are not mandated, there is a district policy encouraging each school to have a PTO. The school board encourages schools with PTOs to focus on developing and maintaining volunteer programs. Also, the district also does not mandate that each school must have a site council. Against this background, the district struggles, as Glenhurst does, to engage parents from diverse backgrounds. Atlas parents who serve on the Community Curriculum Council, join PTOs, or serve on site councils tend to be relatively affluent and white.
Atlas district officials emphasize partnering with community organizations. For example, parents and other stakeholders report that the superintendent has focusing increasingly on connecting with the business community. The district created a partnership program with businesses called the "Ventures in Partnership" program. It is designed to get students involved in businesses, and to get businesses involved in the schools in a more formal way. Activities include tours of businesses, business representatives speaking in the classroom, and businesses giving gifts to students who do well academically. The district also partners with the local university—e.g., through joint projects such as an entrepreneur-focus program and math and science grants. The Superintendent meets on a regular basis with the Dean of the College of Education and with key staff members to talk about possibilities for collaboration. For example, the district‘s Director of Evaluation helped a team of university people put together an assessment training program for experienced teachers. He also helps design teacher education curriculum and teaches certain college courses. And the district partners with a local children‘s foundation that works with homeless students. Foundation staffer members work actively with Atlas school counselors and social workers; they also serve on Atlas truancy committees.
The Atlas district also partners with community organizations to operate independent community learning centers that are housed in Atlas schools. The learning centers offer two kinds of service. They provide tutoring and other forms of academic assistance, and they provide affordable before- and after-school care facilities. The district has approximately 19 community learning centers; each one is tailored to the needs of the community it serves. For example, parents from a neighborhood advisory group for one Atlas school volunteer in a learning center to tutor or oversee activities. Two community liaison staffers work with the Atlas district office to engage businesses and other community partners (such as Family Services, Parks and Recreation, and the YMCA) to sponsor or act as a lead agency in community learning centers throughout the city.
North White Pine County School System: An Emphasis on Creating Community Buy- In and Partnering. North White Pine County School System, located in a Southern state, has 35 schools with approximately 25,000 students—39% minority and about 42% students on free and reduced-price lunches. Because the district is located near a military base, it continually faces high student- and teacher-turnover. A large factory in the community employs many of the parents whose children attend schools in the district. Because of parent work schedules, the district partnered with community 4H and extension services to provide affordable before- and after-school care programs. The district‘s primary goal is to ensure that every student is successful in school and goes on to become a productive member of the community. In general, the district accommodates the demands and challenges of being in a community with a high mobility rate and difficult work schedules for parents. Also, because the district has been labeled as "low wealth," the superintendents and other district level leaders often turn to the community to find ways to meet state mandates.
Leadership in the North White Pine County district has been unusually stable compared to other districts in the state, and around the country. Superintendent Samuelson, who retired after the 2006-2007 school year, served the district for 16 years, and the superintendent before him served for 19 years. Because district leadership has remained stable for so long, the staff has been able to work through issues and challenges in a very systematic way, especially with the community. When Superintendent Samuelson retired, along with three other district-level leaders, a new superintendent, Sheila Wauters, took over the district. Superintendent Wauters was brought up through the North White Pine County ranks; she was already a part of the district when she took office.
In the North White Pine County district, parents and community members can get involved with the schools, formally, in three ways (apart from getting elected to the school board). First, they may participate in school-level advisory councils or schoolimprovement teams. Every school-improvement team must have 50% parent representation. Second, they may serve as representatives on the district-wide advisory council. Third, they may serve as members of PTOs (the district encourages schools but does not require them to have PTOs).
Although the district encourages community members to get involved, participation and influence by community members varies from school to school. Each principal is allowed to run his or her school, and the district only gets involved in school operations only when there is a problem. For example, the district intervened when parents at one school complained the school‘s culture and claimed that a new administrative team was less responsive to them than previous administrators had been. The district worked with the new administration and parents to make sure that a strong relationship was built.
School board policy at North White Pine County states that the board has established its commitment to families and the community by creating and maintaining policies to provide for the transparency of public records, for having open board meetings, for allowing community groups to use school facilities, and for allowing visitors to have access to the schools. The district emphasizes the importance of partnering with community groups and agencies. District officials believe that their message about being child-centered and open to community input has helped with such things as the passing of bonds, including one that passed recently by a positive vote of more than 70%. The district has a Director of Community Affairs (DCA) whose job it is to foster civic participation and promote good citizenship among staff members and students, encouraging them to sit on community and business boards, to reach out to the public, and to attend board meetings.
The district conducts an annual climate survey—reaching parents, students, business people, faculty and staff members from local colleges, and other community partners including members of faith-based organizations—to learn what community people think about school and district programs and practices. In North White Pine County, the district coordinator of testing and evaluation said that reaching out to the community was "second nature" and "just the culture that we have."
The district has a history of gaining buy-in prior to launching new programs, thus mitigating pressure of the sort that often arises in other districts. For example, prior to making decisions on redistricting, the superintendent, the DCA, and the person in charge of public relations took their ideas "on the road" to every neighborhood in the district that would be affected, asking the public for input. Going out to talk about a controversial topic is, in the words of the DCA, "not always fun," but he adds that people in the community appreciate the chance to give input; they feel that they are valued by the district leaders.
Partnering with local community groups and with other county personnel has been a necessity for district leaders in North White Pine County because of its low-wealth status. The district networks and partners often with local universities and community college faculty and staff members to provide teacher training and certification. For example, the district partnered with mathematics and science professors to create a program to improve teachers‘ knowledge and skills in mathematics and science. The district also works with community agencies. The Rotary Club sponsors leadership activities for North White Pines students; a local power company sponsors leadership training for principals and has given awards for academic achievement to teachers and students; the Chamber of Commerce provides leadership training for district leaders. Superintendent Wauters is also involved with the regional Association of Colleges and Schools and serves as the state specialist in the area of district accreditation.
The DCA manages and monitors most of the community partnerships for the district. The district has a 17-year-old business relationship program called BASES (Businesses Assisting Schools in Educating Students). BASES works to foster business involvement in the schools. Activities include participation in adopt-a-school programs, financing mini-grants, sponsoring scholarships, providing training for employees to help them help their children learn, donating equipment or materials, serving on school committees, sponsoring field trips, providing tutoring and mentoring, and participating in a joint Chamber of Commerce and schools initiative. Through programs of this sort, the district has been able to make valuable connections with local businesses; when issues such as levies and bonds arise, district staff members feel that they have allies in the business community. While BASES programs emphasize business donations of time and money to the schools, the district also stresses its contributions to the community. In 2005, for example, the school system was the largest contributor to the local chapter of the United Way, and all schools participate annually in the community fund-raiser for free cancer screenings.
Looking Across the Cases
The school districts described in the above three case vignettes have much in common: a district-wide commitment to listening to public concerns; serious effort given to communicating district policies and practices to the public; and a focus on collaborating and partnering with individuals and groups from the community, including business people. While the districts carry out these efforts in different ways, and to varying degrees of success, district leaders from all three clearly understand the relevance of engaging with the community and are open to input from the public. In addition, the governance structures outlined in the cases mirror certain findings from our quantitative studies. For example, all three districts encourage or mandate governance structures (site councils, building leadership teams, PTOs) aimed at ensuring community members‘ participation in district and school-level decision making. Our case analysis is consistent, therefore, with our prior finding that districts set the policies and expectations for who should serve on these entities. The cases also shed light on a problem: although these districts provide a range of formal structures for distributed leadership, all three struggle with the task of obtaining diverse representation from parents and other community members.
Our case analysis is also consistent with our quantitative finding that district culture has only a limited influence on community involvement at the school level. All three districts modeled community engagement, partnering, and a willingness to listen to public concerns, and all made efforts to include families and communities in district-level committees. In all three cases, however, the district stopped short of making sure that principals modeled these same behaviors. One reason may be that the districts are committed to local control and a hands-off approach to day-to-day operations within schools. In each case, district leaders acknowledged that engagement with communities varies from school to school, depending upon the leadership styles of the principals. communicated at the school level in the same way, even though district leaders espoused Leaders in all three districts were aware of research linking family involvement with increased student learning, but they did not believe it was their role to mandate engagement between schools, parents, and other community members. Reflecting on these cases, we note that district-level policies and structures are necessary to maintain communication and provide opportunities for engagement with parents and other community members. At the same time, we observe that establishing policies and providing structures will not ensure widespread, genuine participation. To gain the benefits of widespread participation, district leaders will need to do more. They will need to focus more sharply and energetically on collective leadership by engaging teachers, administrators, parents, and community members in ongoing, reflective discussions of what each party can and should contribute to students‘ learning.
Implications for Policy and Practice
Three implications for policy and practice emerged from this component of our study.
- District leaders need to engage in dialogues with principals about what openness to community and parental involvement means in practice, beyond merely establishing policies and structures. Pertinent topics for such discussions would include the value of partnering with parents and community members in schoolimprovement efforts, parents as vital partners in the learning process, the importance of shared leadership, and the critical role that the community plays in every child‘s life.
- Principals need to engage teachers and other staff members in similar discussions, focused especially on ways to involve parents in roles beyond the superficial tasks often allocated to them (e.g., coordinating social events, fundraising through bake sales). Many parents feel marginalized because they are given tasks that do not reflect the crucial role they could otherwise play in support of their children‘s education. Parent participation as tutors, mentors, or in other forms of classroom support are as vital as the roles they take on in site-council activities.
- Districts should take an active role in teaching parents and other community members how to be involved in education. This effort should include providing informational and instructional sessions about shared governance. These discussions could help to create a sense of ownership among all staff parents, parents, and other community members, helping to increase student learning.
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144. Fan (2001); Feuerstein (2000); Jeynes (2007); Lee & Bowen (2006); Sanders (1998); and Sheldon (2003).
145. Other factors affecting family involvement in schools include race, SES, family size, parent selfefficacy, geographic location of school, educational attainment of parents, and grade level of child. See Bandura (1996); Crispeels & Rivero (2001); Epstein & Dauber (1991); Fan (2001); Feuerstein (2000); Grolnick et al. (1997); Hoover-Dempsey et al. (1995); and Lee & Bowen (2006).
146. Sheldon (2005).
147. Anderson (1998, 1999); Schuller et al. (2000).
148. Anderson (1998, 1999); Crowson & Boyd (2001); Driscoll (1998); Keith (1999); Lee et al. (1993); and Riley & Louis (2004).
149. Anderson (1998, 1999); Mawhinney (2004); and Riley & Louis (2004).
150. Hess (1999); Malen (1994, 1999); and Malen & Ogawa (1988).
151. Anderson (1998).
152. This finding is challenged by some European studies, e.g., Møller (2006).
153. Malen & Ogawa (1988, p. 265).
154. Hess (1999); Malen (1994, 1999); Malen & Ogawa (1988); and Tschannen-Moran (2001).
155. Mawhinney (2004).
156. Anderson (1999) ; Keith (1999).
157. Goldring & Sims (2005); Leithwood, Jantzi & Steinbach (1999).
158. Bauch & Goldring (2000).
159. Tschannen-Moran (2001).
160. Smrekar & Cohen-Vogal (2001).
161. Patrikakou et al. (1998).
162. Epstein & Dauber (1991).
163. Kruse & Louis (in press).
164. A full report of this study is available in Gordon & Louis (in press). Linking parent and community involvement with student achievement: Comparing principal and teacher perceptions of stakeholder influence.
American Journal of Education.
165. E.g., Goldring & Sims (2005) ; Tschannen-Moran & Hoy (2000).
166. Henderson & Mapp (2002); Ho Sui-Chu & Willms (1996).
167. Tschannen-Moran (2001).
168. Hess (1999); Malen (1994, 1999); Malen & Ogawa (1988).
169. Anderson (1998); Goldring & Sims (2005); Leithwood, Jantzi, & Steinbach (1999); and Opfer & Denmark (2001).