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M. Elena Lopez, from Harvard Family Research Project, discusses the role that data plays in helping parents assess, and then work to change, the performance of their children’s schools.

What can parents¹ do when their child’s school is at-risk? In a growing number of communities plagued with low-performing public schools, parents are taking action. Through institutional mechanisms like school-based management teams, or with the backing of outside and independent community organizations, parents are raising questions about the performance of their children’s schools. These parents are constructing new roles as leaders and partners in school reform, and offering an alternative to traditional school-managed parent involvement activities. In this transformative process, school data can be used to deepen parents’ understanding of issues and widen the scope of their engagement.

How do parents access, interpret, and use data?
Standards-based reform has over time made more data on student performance and school conditions available to the broader community. While the data are available, they are not always accessible to parents, or presented in a format and language that parents can understand. To fill this void, a number of intermediary organizations offer assistance with understanding school outcomes data, analyzing school performance issues, and developing solutions to schooling problems for community organizing groups and parent activists.

For example, the Institute of Education and Social Policy (IESP) at New York University helps community-based organizations tackle a range of school issues, including overcrowding, teacher quality, and closing the achievement gap. It helped Cypress Hills Advocates for Education, a group of 65 parents and community members, with data analysis and presentation on school overcrowding. The group then convened a meeting with public officials and used the data to buttress their reform proposals. Parents got a commitment from the superintendent to create a task force to develop short- and long-term plans. The district implemented a short-term plan of “rezoning,” and now the group is pressuring the superintendent to move forward on the long-term plan, which includes securing funding for new buildings.

Related Resources

Institute for Education and Social Policy, New York University. (2001). Mapping the Field of Organizing for School Improvement: A report on education organizing in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, the Mississippi Delta, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. This report maps the field of community organizing for school reform in eight cities nationwide. It describes patterns of participation, strategies, and accomplishments, as well as recommendations for strengthening this movement.

Hirota, J., Jacobowitz, R., & Brown, P. (2000). The Donors’ Education Collaborative: Strategies for Systemic School Reform. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall Center for Children. This report evaluates an initiative to build broad-based constituencies to advocate for improvements in New York City public education. It includes the initiative’s successes as well as lessons learned.

Brown, C., Gold, E., & Simon, E. (2001). Looking for Indicators of the Impact of Community Organizing for School Reform. A Joint Working Paper of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform and Research for Action. The “Indicators Project” is developing a series of indicators to gauge the success of community organizers in promoting successful student learning and strong communities. This working paper provides an overview of selected indicators, measures, and data sources.

The Parent Press Fall 2001 newsletter from Parents for Public Schools is a resource for parents who want to improve their children’s schools by using data. In addition to providing a concise overview of the types of data relevant to school reform, the issue contains numerous practical suggestions for parents about using data to improve education.

The School-Level Assessment Database CD-ROM, available from the U.S. Department of Education’s Planning and Evaluation Service, contains assessment scores for 80,000 public schools. To order, contact Meredith Miller at 202-401-8368 or

Empowering parents through data
1. Data can enlighten parents about school-related issues. Data can inform parents about standards-based reform and help them monitor school performance. Anne Henderson of IESP suggests that student work, as a form of data, is a very powerful tool. At the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership in Kentucky, a training institute for parent leaders, parents compare students’ work at different levels of proficiency, and discuss why and how the standards are being met or not met. Parents then use their understanding of standards to formulate what questions to ask of teachers and administrators.

2. Data can equip parents to participate in decision making. Parents recruited to serve on school management teams need to understand how data can help them determine priorities and increase school accountability. The wider school community also benefits from access to and understanding of the data, allowing them to share their concerns with parent representatives. The New York Urban League trains parents who serve on state-mandated school leadership teams. These teams, composed of an equal number of parents and school staff, are charged to develop a comprehensive school plan and a budget to support it. Adrian Lewis from the New York Urban League notes, “It is a myth that parents are not interested in getting involved. If they are hesitant, it’s because they have no information to be effective. With our training, a lightbulb goes on. We use school report cards to show the link between the data and the work that the school leadership teams have to do.”

Demystifying Data

Recognizing that many parents of children in low performing schools do not realize how poorly their school is doing, Institute of Education and Social Policy (IESP) provides them with disaggregated and comparative data. Kavitha Mediratta from IESP explains, “We try to use data to demystify what is going on. We help parents understand what the Board of Education’s data says is happening in their child’s school. How many students are meeting the reading standards? Are more students referred to special education in this school than in similar schools in the district and the whole city? Once the group develops its analysis, we develop data presentations that help them make their arguments more forcefully.”

3. Data can help change the relationship between parents and schools. Many states require that districts make school performance data public by posting it on their websites or publishing it in the local newspaper. Henderson says, “These requirements have changed parents’ dependency on schools for access to information and to observe classes and meet teachers.” Parents also collect their own data. In Kentucky, parents investigate how often teachers assign writing as part of a school-community effort to improve writing skills in the school.

4. Data can help parents leverage change. Rochelle Nichols Solomon of the Philadelphia Education Fund believes that data has to be presented in ways that will not overwhelm parents and community members, but will give them hope. She says, “The flip side of using data is that it can be devastating. For example, when you look at the percentage of students with minimum college preparation in our neighborhood schools, 45 percent have completed the minimum college sequence. That means that in college they will still have to take remedial classes. How do we change this? You have to give people examples of what is doable; otherwise, people think it is hopeless. You need to find where the data looks different and what are promising strategies. You can point to the need for extended learning and block scheduling. You can point to increased professional development for teachers. The data leads to big questions, but it can also help people figure out what they can do to address an issue.”

Researchers and evaluators have a role in helping parents and communities understand personal education concerns from a systems perspective through the use of well-designed data presentations. Data alone, however, is not sufficient to effect change. It is a tool that uncovers urgent problems whose solutions defy quick fixes. For this reason, it is important that parents have a structure—whether through community-based organizing groups or formal school-community decision-making teams—that will sustain their long-term advocacy.

M. Elena Lopez, Senior Consultant, HFRP

¹ The term “parent” is used broadly to refer to biological parents, extended family members, and other adults with primary responsibility for the care of a child.

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