Making the Most of the Opportunity to Engage

Making the Most of the Opportunity to Engage

Making the Most of the Opportunity to Engage
By Kathryn Young

Kathryn YoungOne 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.

What can states, districts, and partners do?
So what are states, districts, and communities to do to make the most of this moment?  There are several questions that can help guide efforts:

  • If certain groups have not been engaged or have not engaged in conversations around ESSA or education, where and how DO they regularly engage and how can those channels be used for information and input? What are the barriers to engagement, and how can those be addressed? (e.g. timing of meetings, translation, transportation, other cultural/outreach considerations, etc.)
  • What capacity and support for engagement do we need to seek out if we don’t have it internally? How can we more creatively leverage internal capacity, such as from existing stakeholder engagement efforts like those required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (e.g. for State Systemic Improvement Plans)?
  • Are there any gaps in the communication about ESSA plans to date, and how do we solve those collectively?
  • How have we connected across K-12, early learning, and higher education communities to benefit students?
  • If past engagement has been challenging or contentious, how can we use this moment to reset, reframe, and re-engage?
  • What mechanisms for input and information sharing did we establish that should stay in place or evolve over the next several years to continue the dialogue (e.g. regular meetings or committees or outreach channels)? Are they inclusive of all the voices that need to be heard?
  • If ESSA plans are not the best hook for engagement around education issues, what ARE ways to frame the issues to garner more substantive and ongoing education engagement?
  • How can the state best ensure that stakeholders feel heard and valued to sustain their engagement and build working relationships?

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.

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