Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Community Agenda for Schools

In fairness, apparently The Community Agenda for America's Public Schools is the other major reform agenda that has recently emerged (along with the Broader, Bolder group discussed in the last post).

At the core of the Community Agenda are a set of recommendations for collaborations between schools and "the community":
This idea—fully embraced—would make all Americans responsible and accountable for excellent schools and the positive development of all our young people. Every institution that influences positive outcomes for children and youth must be part of the agenda—schools, families, government, youth development organizations, health, mental health and family support agencies, higher education and faith-based institutions, community organizing and community development groups, unions, and business. Each brings assets and expertise; each must change how it does its work; and all must work together to close the opportunity gap
The recommendations (listed below in edited form) mostly, but not entirely, seem to define "community" as "institutions that serve the community."  One problem with this definition is that these institutions are generally led by people who don't come from or live in impoverished communities.  Nonetheless, it would be nice if local institutions worked better together.  The idea of "one stop shops" for services, and school based services--especially health services--seems important.

But this seems to assume that these institutions haven't already been trying to work together to one extent or another.  Whether we like it or not, the fact is that in impoverished urban areas, at least, schools, as institutions, tend not to work and play well with others for a whole range of reasons.  It is difficult to mandate "community participation" for schools just as it is difficult to mandate "better pedagogy."  These relationships are complex, context-bound, and often personality driven.  Many if not most "collaborations" between schools and communities actually involve local agencies using school space for after school programs, for example, but not really having that much substantively to do with the actual institution of the school.  It's not clear to me that urging schools to engage more with the community will end up having much more overall effect than efforts to urge teachers to teach better.  

There are examples of effective inter-agency collaboration, as the group's call to action notes.  But can these be broadly and widely replicated with any speed in any effective way?  I'm not sure, and it's certainly not where I'd put my marbles if I had any.  (But see Schorr's book for the best discussion of the challenges of replication that I now of.  It actually discusses one of the community collaborations noted in the Community Agenda statement.  Anyone out there know of more recent work?)

Furthermore, the recommendation for more effective "involvement" between schools and communities more broadly seems pretty "pie in the sky."  In a review of the literature around community-school relationships, I could find NO example of a broad based, replicable model for fostering this kind of involvement.  Schools as institutions are almost completely uninterested in opening themselves up to real engagement by people and groups who are actually located IN impoverished communities (at least in the urban literature I looked at).  I have talked to some people who were grumpy about this finding--but aside from anecdotal stories, no one has actually presented a coherent argument to me about why I am wrong.  (I'd love to be wrong--but I doubt I am).  The point isn't that schools can't do better--see Joyce L. Epstein's work, for example.  The point is that what they do seem to be able to do doesn't seem likely to produce robust shifts in community participation understood in the broadest sense.  Without "authentic" participation by any definition, this could easily become a project designed to teach those poor parents how to raise their kids.  

I did find that engagements between schools and independent groups designed to enhance community empowerment (among others) did sometimes seem to be effective.  And the plan does mention community organizing groups among others.  But except in rare cases, community organizing groups simply do not have the current capacity to engage with a broad range of school in our cities.  Many can barely stay alive in the first place.  One would have to imagine how significant resources could be put into these organizing groups--$ that does not flow through the schools who have little pragmatic interest in reducing their own control.  It's hard to imagine how this would happen.  And there is little in the recommendations that gives me hope that the groups 

Given this, the differences between this model and the Broader, Bolder model seem limited to the Community Agenda's focus on community relationships as the central tool, and on a more limited focus on the importance of non-school issues on student achievement in the Community Agenda model.  The problem with this focus on community is that it could easily draw emphasis away from the need for services and resources, which is vastly more needed than the coordination of these services (which mostly don't exist), although coordination would be wonderful.  In fact, there seems to me to be something of a disconnect between their Strategies That Work list, and the Policy Recommendations that follow these (listed below).

Further, there is less acknowledgement here, than in the Broader, Bolder plan that non-school resources are clearly the most important and effective place to intervene if we really want to make an impact on achievement and on the flourishing of children more broadly.  Talk about community collaboration is cheaper than actually finding the kinds of resources discussed by the Broader, Bolder folks.  Ironically, this is why people talk so much about schools as a solution to poverty--because education is cheaper than efforts to actually solve poverty, because talk about education is pretty non-political, and because talk, by itself, without actually doing much for schools is even cheaper.  

So I'm much more drawn to the Broader, Bolder vision than the Community Agenda vision.  The Broader, Bolder folks seem to be addressing the core challenges of education, the challenges that we most need to address, even though it will inevitably be more difficult to actually make change in these areas.

That's my initial response.  What do others think?

The Community Agenda's "Policy Recommendations":
  • Results-focused Partnerships
Through results-focused partnerships, the resources of all government and community institutions can be aligned and applied in a more coordinated and effective fashion.
  • Youth, Parent, School, and Community Involvement
The people and places affected by public policy must have a voice in its implementation.  We propose that policy be developed to enable youth, parents, and community leaders as well as school leaders, including principals and teachers, to be partners in the planning and oversight of school reform and community initiatives.
  • Community-School Coordination
Effective coordination is essential at the school site.  Research shows that students can and will achieve when resources to address their academic and other needs are tailored, coordinated, and accessible.  We recommend policies that provide staff in every school who will coordinate results-focused partnerships, integrate school and community resources based on individual student needs, and engage parents as well as other community members.
  • A Broad-Based Accountability Framework
A single standardized test should not be the only basis for judging schools or students.
  • Public Access to Data
  • Professional Development and Capacity-Building
  • Increased Investments


The Tablet PC In Education Blog said...

Good post. Thanks for your analysis, Aaron. It makes sense.

I'd add a point all teachers know and know how to increase it: teachers (individually for their classroom and as an aggregate for their school) determine learning rates in schools more than any other single factor in each learner's life. That's both common sense and empirical fact in ed research literature since the 1960s. Other things influence learning rates at the margins. But, it ain't PC to say such things, right?

philip said...

I would love to see the literature/research that shows teachers "determine learning rates in schools more than any other single factor in each learner's life."

Unknown said...

Education stakeholders have launched a plan that would extend accountability for student development and postsecondary readiness to a community of service providers, including health care professionals and educators.A coalition of education groups Wednesday unveiled The Community Agenda for America’s Public Schools, a policy plan intended to engage and link branches of child development services to support community schools. The agenda underscores pushback from some education leaders who say NCLB accountability provisions have narrowed the definition and value of child development and achievement to solely focus on academics.

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