Don’t Forget the Community: the Role of Stakeholder Input in Reforming Public Education

On December 10th of 2015, President Obama signed a new bipartisan education bill into law, calling it a “Christmas miracle.” Formally known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the bill maintains the central aims of No Child Left Behind, which include holding schools accountable to higher standards and closing the achievement gap. However, ESSA also recognizes that the path to realizing the goals laid out by No Child Left Behind led to limited change. The bill is a tacit admission that education reform has been stalled by federal oversight.

No Child Left Behind “didn’t always consider the specific needs of each community,” said President Obama. “It often forced schools and school districts into cookie-cutter reforms.” Most Democrats and Republicans now agree that education reform is a local matter, specific to the context in which schools operate. This new law works to implement such thinking, allowing states to set their own performance goals, systems for measuring school performance, and processes for improving underperforming schools.

With its call for localized implementation, ESSA recognizes what my Wellspring team has observed in our work with a recent client – the importance of constituent involvement. This client, a mid-sized, private high school, cited having only moderate success with prior strategic plans, which they attributed to limited stakeholder input and buy-in. Consequently, we took a different approach, conducting nearly one hundred interviews, hosting four focus groups and administering a survey to approximately 1,500 individuals within the school’s community. Additionally, we facilitated monthly discussions with a diverse group of constituents that included Board members, school leaders and teaching faculty.

Bringing together such a diverse set of perspectives was critical to surfacing the needs of the community and developing a plan that could be feasibly implemented. Doing so was not without challenge. But, due to the circumscribed setting of a single, independently run school, it was possible to acknowledge, if not address, the concerns of many.

The question then becomes, “Can the state do so on its larger stage?” Or, to ask the more essential question, “Will the state understand the value in involving its various constituents when improving its education systems?”  Just as was true for our work, involving experts across a variety of fields, as well as administrators, teachers, parents, and students will be critical to developing state-wide plans that incorporate both community needs and wants. Equally important is that this will encourage stakeholder buy-in, something which No Child Left Behind sorely lacked and was a key reason for its problematic implementation.

At these early stages, experts are wary about the implication of ESSA. They say that only time will tell us if it will provide an equitable education for all kids, especially the minority, poor, disabled, and marginalized.  For now, states and districts have one year – until the 2017-2018 school year – to determine how to best support their schools and ensure that all kids receive a quality education.