As public schools wrestle with an array of top-down mandates, there’s growing momentum for different approaches for school improvement — a push toward collective responsibility among a wide swath of stakeholders committed to student success. It’s an approach designed to engage parents, teachers, and various community nonprofit partners and businesses to build bonds for better schools. Collective responsibility sounds good in theory, but how do you actually get there and what are the pitfalls along the way? That was the focus of a recent Mass Insight Education & Research (Mi) panel discussion hosted at State Street. The panel featured education leaders with deep experience in trying to implement various strategies of building collective responsibility in public schools.
Among key takeaways: Parents are often unnecessarily alienated from schools; teachers and administrators are hamstrung by lack of resources and autonomy; and conditions have to be set for Boston economic growth to be available to all. Panelists included Keri Rodriguez of Massachusetts Parents United, Paul Toner of Teach Plus, Makeeba McCreary of Boston Public Schools, and Daria Hall of the Education Trust. Mi’s CEO Susan Lusi led the discussion. The entire panel discussion is available at Mi’s Facebook page.
The predicament for underperforming schools struggling to improve but not having the resources to meaningfully change was framed concisely by Daria Hall. She said schools are told: “We need you to improve [results] dramatically. We’re not going to give you more money. Can’t really change the money you do have. Can’t really change anything about leadership or staffing. Can’t really do much about curriculum or schedules. But, go!” When conditions at under-performing schools don’t change, it builds a cynicism in the stakeholder community, pushing away parents and other potential stakeholders, Hall said.
Another obstacle: Parents are a misunderstood constituency in the collective responsibility equation. Many parents “come from a very wounded place when it comes to public education. They barely survived their public education,” Rodriguez said, and they are hoping their own children also survive, rather than thrive. The challenge, she said, is “breaking down what often is an intimidating experience for parents and making it accessible to them.”
Communication — transparent, down-to-earth, accessible — is a critical component of making collective responsibility work. “Through good strong transparent communication you build trust and respect which creates a continuous improvement cycle,” said Paul Toner.
Another critical question for collective responsibility is whether the schools can catch up with the evolving Boston economy, said McCreary, who is managing director and senior advisor for external affairs for Boston Public Schools. “I’m looking at the city skyline from where I’m sitting,” McCreary said from her seat on the panel, “and I can identify probably 35,000 children that live somewhere [nearby] that will not access the Seaport either recreationally, but certainly as not an opportunity for their prosperity. They won’t be the workers of this city because of the disconnect of where we are in our delivery of instruction in terms of what we’re capable of doing and where we need to be.” McCreary added that high school students need to be engaged in the entire city and mentioned a mobile phone app available to public school students that rewards them for exploring new areas. “I love going to companies and saying, ‘Not enough black and brown kids know you exist. And they don’t feel welcome in your corporate environment. Wouldn’t you love to change that?’ Nobody has said no to me. The next question is: How can you help us change this?”
Collective responsibility also involves peer-to-peer collaboration in schools, especially empowering teachers to learn from each other. Toner at Teach Plus said his group is involved with elevating and sharing best teaching practices. Collective responsibility, he said, involves “engaging teachers, parents, and the general community and building out a vision for the schools and building the tools and resources you need to support the students.”
Mi’s Lusi said successful schools have collective responsibility as a common denominator. The challenge for schools struggling to improve is to build similar and broader networks of constituencies that are deeply invested in student success.