By Molly Mauer, Director, Partners for Each and Every Child
At a recent dinner with a group of friends and colleagues, all of whom work in schools and districts and share a strong commitment to social and racial justice, we got to talking about stakeholder engagement. About how education policy decisions need to be made in partnership with community members, including students, families, educators, and political and civic leaders—especially those who have historically been underserved or unheard. But we also discussed how even with the best intentions, it’s not always done well.
We shared our frustration about engagement events we had attended in the past that were aimed at gathering community input. About the haphazard design of some events, the sub-standard presentations, and the lack of information that was offered. Often, we are asked to respond to important questions about our schools and students without the proper context and data.
When our leaders ask us to weigh in on the spot, without sharing enough information about important but complicated issues like “accountability indicators” and “interim goals,” they are making a hollow request. And they aren’t giving us a chance to participate fully and meaningfully in the decisions.
At Partners for Each and Every Child, a project of The Opportunity Institute, my colleagues and I have been working on how stakeholder engagement can help to support better and more equitable outcomes for students. And that it is a critical lever for equity.
When stakeholder engagement is done well, it is a long-term, two-way communication process between education leaders and all the stakeholders who care about our students. It involves learning from varying and diverse communities, partnering with them on education policy decisions, and closing the feedback loop by showing them how their input made an impact.
Ultimately, the success and sustainability of efforts to improve educational excellence and equity, particularly with regard to our most vulnerable students and communities, requires robust and thoughtful partnership between and among federal and state and local governmental agencies and a broad variety of community members.
Our new report, Process and Protest, is a review of states’ efforts to engage with their communities, considering both statutory requirements and the need to advance equity and excellence in our schools. From our review, we discovered some common promising practices, which can help education leaders design high-quality, meaningful stakeholder engagement processes:
Reach the Unreached, the Left Behind, and the Left Out: Prioritize outreach to underserved groups by determining what voices are absent from the discussion and identifying ways to ensure their inclusion going forward.
Show Your Work: Prioritize transparency in ongoing engagement efforts by
ensuring all stakeholders know how and when to make their
voices heard, where to direct their feedback, and how their prior feedback has been taken into consideration.
Show Some Grit: Assign specific staff and advisory committees to support
stakeholder engagement going forward.
Maximize Your Resources: Extend the reach and deepen the impact of stakeholder engagement activities via partnerships with external groups, including community groups and non-profit organizations.
Double Down: Prioritize equity via separation of powers and parallel
processes. Separate stakeholder engagement efforts can identify issues of bipartisan interest.
Sharing the responsibility for educational equity and excellence starts with well-informed, well-supported, and ongoing engagement. An informed and adaptive, mutually accountable stakeholder community won’t form overnight. That transformation will take years to develop, will require our intense attention and ongoing investment, and will depend on our shared commitment to an iterative process of collective inquiry and reflection.
We must build the capacity of state and local education agencies to advance evidence-based, equity-focused, pragmatic change, and include their communities in the process. We are all stakeholders. We all have work to do.