When I taught first grade on the Navajo Nation, I’ll never forget when one of my fellow teachers—now my wife—wanted to host an event that welcomed our families to the school. The veteran educators there told her it would never happen. I was shocked by their skepticism, because most of our families were literally across the street. A dirt road was all that separated us. Sure enough, later that month over one hundred people—grandparents, parents, cousins and siblings—crowded into our small gym to learn how they could help their students succeed.
These days, I see that the most inspiring district, charter and innovation work occurs when educators, students, families and communities are partners designing the education system that works best for all students. Open education practices—from teachers making home visits to parents leading a community-driven school turnaround—allow for partnerships with students and families that ensure their ability to choose their own destinies. This emergent trend has the potential to be the change our generation needs to reinvigorate our democracy and ensure the effective education of all students, regardless of background.
Right now, nearly nine in 10 parents think their students are on grade level, yet far too many are sadly mistaken. If the public lacks trust in educational institutions, it may be due in some part to decades of closed systems that keep families from the information they need to advocate for their children.
Truly Open Schools and Systems Welcome Families and Confront Bias
We urgently need real partnership and openness in classrooms today. What would that look like? A system or school oriented towards partnership would support educators with resources and dollars to make time for deeper, truth-telling conversations with parents about student performance.
Families would be welcomed into schools. Schools would push to uncover the real implicit and explicit biases—related to race, class, gender, and so on—that prevent our educators and leaders from entering into partnerships with families. In the long term, true partnership would require a rewiring of the entire system toward relationships and trust.
These ideas are not new. Research goes back decades that says partnership schools are better than fortress schools. Big and important thinkers have been calling for this for years—Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp, among others.
The Flamboyan Foundation has long championed this work. While I was at Denver Public Schools, we utilized many of these great thinkers and institutions to dramatically increase our parent and teacher relationships through home visits and supporting real community-designed turnaround initiatives. It was never enough, but it created new openings that showed a path forward.
Anyone who is honest and has witnessed education over the past decade up close will understand how essential open partnership is.
- Closed systems that push families and communities away are brittle and subject to political rollback.
- New innovative school options that are decided without community input lack credibility.
- Closed systems that don’t share their data with external groups or share honest realities with families slide into illegitimacy.
The walls between a closed school system and its communities are built on shifting sand that will feel increasingly obsolete in our interconnected world.
By contrast, open-practice schools and systems co-create with the families and communities who pour their dreams and aspirations into the institutions that serve them.
- Open schools translate their documents into dozens of languages to make sure everyone has open access to essential information about the future of their children.
- Open superintendents share power and information publicly, holding themselves accountable and ask others to partner for a shared vision.
- Open school boards ask tough questions publically and partner with their community to design solutions that serve all kids.
Shifting to Open Partnerships with Families Will Take Patience and Grace
This doesn’t mean there won’t still be conflict or debate. Democracy is messy. Moving from closed mindsets about families to open partnership will mean big shifts in how we think about education and public leadership. There will be resistance from people and systems. It will require patience, grace and long-term commitment.
To meet this moment, we need leaders from all areas of education to commit to opening our system. Only then can we tap into the greatest arsenal of our democracy: the agency, expertise and talent of our students, families and communities.
In my new role at the Colorado Education Initiative, I’ll be leading our charge to work around the state to develop the capacity of our education systems to tap into this change. I’ll be partnering and learning from a growing movement of leaders, organizations and experts across the country who are working on this problem. As a board member for the Colorado Community College system, I will advocate and push our higher education system to be open to communities they serve.
If we are to truly take this path of change, we will need a coalition of openers all over the country and at every level of our education system. What will your role be?