Making the Most of the Opportunity to Engage
Making the Most of the Opportunity to Engage
By Kathryn Young
One of the most common criticisms and downfalls of education reforms is that they feel like they are “done to” rather than “created by” the very communities they are intended to support. Yet, at this very moment, we have a golden opportunity to raise the voices of teachers, leaders, parents, students, and their communities and meaningfully include their priorities in state and local planning for reform through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Done well, stakeholder engagement can be a game-changer by helping to match important strategies for college and career readiness to the unique context of a community while creating longer-term public support for initiatives.
Why we need robust ongoing stakeholder engagement
An exciting and yet daunting development to come from states’ implementation ESSA is a more intensive set of processes to engage a wider array stakeholders than we’ve ever seen before in state plan development for these PreK-12 programs. The law requires “timely and meaningful consultation” on the state plan with a wide range of stakeholders: from the governor to students, parents, teachers, principals and other school leaders. States, and some districts, are in the midst of leading stakeholder engagement conversations around ESSA plans, which will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in April or September. With intentional work, these efforts can succeed all the way down to the school level to create a more open dialogue between all adults important to supporting student success, at home, in school, and after school.
In the context of ESSA, stakeholder engagement means both consultation with those with an interest in our education system and development of the mechanisms to continue those strategy conversations long-term with a broad array of stakeholders. It should mean more than just inviting stakeholders or showing up to a meeting, but rather making efforts to have ongoing two-way dialogues. Strong stakeholder engagement can help make the next phase of education reform significantly more successful than efforts to date because it can:
(1) bring multiple ideas and perspectives to the table to create better strategies for all students,
(2) create deeper, broader, authentic ownership of plans and actions (as opposed to more top-down command-and-control regimes), and
(3) create broader support for sustained action.
The challenges are real. States and districts committed to stakeholder engagement still struggle with how to reach parents and other voices that have not traditionally been engaged in a robust way, including because of lack of staff and resources to support stakeholder engagement, parent work schedules, language barriers, the feeling that ESSA plans are not accessible or relevant, not knowing the best mechanisms to engage, or perceptions of relationships with the state or district from past experience. State and district capacity for outreach and engagement can be limited, particularly in an “all hands on deck” time of assembling coherent plans across all federal and state programs and opportunities under ESSA. Because the law’s requirements are new, very few structures for continuous consultation and planning with this more robust set of stakeholders already exist.
Meaningful engagement often means getting everyone inside and outside of government to move out of their comfort zones. It often means having difficult conversations, sometimes with the help of outside partners. And it often means finding and regularly engaging with people that states and districts have not typically heard in the past. However, the payoff is the potential for more fully informed policy and a more invested public that will weather ups and downs long-term to support what’s best for students.
Community members and advocates can engage locally and at a state and national level, and they can help neighbors and others understand the issues at question. They can also assist states and districts in reaching community members that are not often heard from.
A number of organizations have additional questions and best practices, including these state guides to stakeholder engagement from CCSSO and Partners for Each and Every Child, this Aspen Institute/CCSSO guide on Leading for Equity, Leading by Convening from the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, and CCSSO/National PTA/Learning Heroes Guidelines for SEAs on Engaging Parents. These small changes in the way we do business and communicate over the coming months and beyond have the potential to have a lasting impact on education. And they are possible at every level and in every community. Let’s not miss this opportunity.