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Waivers Falling Short in 'Parent-Engagement' Area, Researcher Says

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To be granted a waiver from some requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, failing public schools must involve parents and the community in the improvement process. The U.S. Department of Education requires this—but does the Education Department ensure that it happens?

Sara McAlister, a senior research associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, argues that the Education Department "consistently ignores" the requirement, effectively dooming the efforts from the start given the deadlines set forth in the waivers.

Her commentary, "USDOE Waiver Policy Should Enforce Meaningful Compliance to Parent Engagement Principle," identifies issues in the waivers that have been granted so far to 32 states and the District of Columbia. The article was published July 24 by the institute.

One of the turnaround principles schools can choose as part of their commitment in receiving a waiver is to create "ongoing mechanisms for family and community engagement," with specific suggestions:


  • Conducting community-wide needs assessments and community asset mapping;

  • Establishing organized parent groups;

  • Holding public meetings to engage parents and community members in shaping school improvement plans, and

  • Providing wraparound supports for students and families.

"This is a mistake," writes McAlister. "A substantial body of research and practice documents the importance of authentic parent and community engagement in schools and in school reform."

Among the waiver recipients so far, none have gotten "any specific advice on strengthening their plans for fostering ongoing family and community engagement in priority schools. In some states, the 'ongoing mechanisms' for engagement are limited to notifying parents that their school has been identified as a priority school—and these plans passed muster."

"Even for states and districts that are prepared to devote real energy to this kind of authentic parent engagement in priority schools, the compressed timeline to which states must commit is a major impediment," she writes, citing a 2011 report from the U.S. Government Accounting Office.

McAlister points to community-led school-improvement efforts as being more likely to have an impact than the "unproven and drastic interventions embraced by the DOE." She points to grassroots initiatives like those organized by the Industrial Areas Foundation, which relied on families and congregations in Texas and across the Southwest to work closely with schools, and the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council in Chicago.

"School reform trends and policies come and go, but families and community residents have a long-term interest in ensuring that local schools provide their young people with excellent opportunities. They bring to school-improvement efforts a deep knowledge of local context and history, innovative solutions, and rich webs of relationships," she wrote.

Read her full recommendations here.

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