Education Week

Mobilizing Communities: School Reform's Missing Link

Whenever President Barack Obama addresses the need to improve American education, he invariably mentions a vitally important ingredient that is missing from most school reform recipes. That is the role of parents and communities in motivating youngsters to achieve.

As recently as this winter’s State of the Union address, the president reiterated this point. “We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl that deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.” I urge President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to use their matchless bully pulpits and convening power to transform exhortation into action.

Most of the energy, resources, and policymaking devoted to improving student performance these days is concentrated on schools and school systems. This makes obvious sense. Yet the emphasis on what happens inside schools overlooks another important facet of the solution, namely the need for communities to create a culture of achievement and encourage youngsters to learn.

In 1997, when I headed the National Urban League, we mounted a Campaign for African-American Achievement. Our ambitious goal was to mobilize civic and social groups, schools, churches, youth-services agencies, libraries, and an array of other community organizations to spread the gospel of achievement. While the campaign admittedly did not live up to my loftiest expectations, we often succeeded in energizing youngsters to take education more seriously and strive to improve academically.

I subsequently wrote a book based on the league’s campaign, titled Mobilizing the Community to Help Students Succeed. In the course of writing it, I came upon persuasive research which substantiates some common-sense notions about the influences that help shape the mind-set of students toward school. For starters, student motivation—or the lack thereof—unquestionably plays a role in spurring academic performance. Also, it is critically important for youngsters to feel valued by adults, be they parents, teachers, or community groups.

Furthermore, children benefit from belonging to positive peer groups that espouse and adhere to constructive values. Frequent recognition and rituals that reward youngsters for their accomplishments, however modest, help stoke motivation. The military figured this out eons ago. Finally, community groups can play an instrumental role in encouraging children to strive to do better in school and enabling them to bask in the glow of being celebrated as achievers.

There are many ways that local school boards and educators; PTAs; and civic, faith-, community-based, and business groups could team up to encourage and recognize academic achievement. For instance, they could designate September as Achievement Month and stage rallies, assemblies, and street fairs that herald the resumption of school and enlist students and parents in attendance to recommit to academic excellence in the coming year.

These groups can establish community-based honor societies, which serve as a coveted form of recognition and peer camaraderie for students who have earned solid, if not stellar, grades in school. Drawing on a model devised by the educator Israel Tribble, the Urban League created a National Achievers Society, or NAS, to recognize “achievers” in grades 3-12 who had earned B averages or better in school. We also saluted so-called “believers,” whose GPAs fell just shy of a B. I vividly recall attending an NAS induction ceremony at Bayview Baptist Church in San Diego for some 350 African-American students, roughly half of whom were boys. An enthusiastic, overflow crowd of nearly 2,000 parents, grandparents, and other well-wishers filled the church that day to cheer the achievers.

A compelling idea for boosting literacy skills is to hold book-reading contests. During the 2000-01 school year, Ronald Ross, the superintendent of schools in Mount Vernon, N.Y., declared that any pupil who read 50 books or more would receive a free bicycle. So many more students exceeded the goal than expected that the community sponsors had to scramble to secure enough bicycles for all the winners.

Schools and community centers can mount achievement fairs akin to county fairs. Like the 4-H members who tout their prize livestock, students could present their science projects or recite the stories and poems they have composed before an appreciative audience of families and community members.

"The whole idea is to envelop youngsters in a culture of achievement. This means keeping up the drumbeat with a series of activities throughout the year."

Communities routinely hold parades to herald a wide array of triumphs. Why not stage Achievement Day parades that celebrate students when they successfully clear key academic milestones, such as graduating from elementary, middle, and high school? Or even when 4th graders and 8th graders pass state exams in reading and math? Since so many youngsters are lagging behind academically, I prefer events that recognize and inspire the maximum number of students.

Activities like these should not be viewed as isolated undertakings. The whole idea is to envelop youngsters in a culture of achievement. This means keeping up the drumbeat with a series of activities throughout the year.

The feedback we received from the youngsters who participated in the Urban League’s campaign suggests that our activities made a favorable impression on them. An assessment conducted by the Academy for Educational Developmentor AED, found that the campaign “fills a long-unmet need for recognition on the part of young African-Americans who excel academically.” The AED report continued: “Focus-group respondents actually marveled at the turn of events whereby their peers were seeking them out to find out how ‘to get one of those [NAS] jackets.’”

The AED also commended the league for creating “believers groups” for students whose grades were not quite good enough to merit induction into the National Achievers Society: Parents, teachers, and even academically marginalized students interviewed by the AED all noted that those groups “promote the philosophy that the community believes that these young people, with extra effort, can become tomorrow’s Achievers.”

For their part, President Obama and Secretary Duncan could jumpstart a community crusade to motivate children to achieve. Consider this scenario: The White House invites the national leaders of a cross section of organizations with vast affiliate networks to attend a summit. The kinds of groups I have in mind are the major civic and social clubs in the very communities that are saddled with high achievement gaps, as well as faith-based organizations, service-oriented business groups like the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, the National PTA, teachers’ unions, and the national associations representing elementary and secondary school principals.

At the summit, Secretary Duncan would explain the administration’s strategy for improving K-12 education, but also make clear that schools cannot and should not be expected to go it alone. The president would then issue a call to action for community groups to get actively engaged in encouraging youngsters to achieve. Of course, the secretary could deliver this message. But for obvious reasons, it would be even more compelling—and irresistible—if issued personally by President Obama. The participants would then hear presentations about concrete ways that community organizations have gone about motivating youngsters to achieve and celebrating them for doing so. Following these preliminaries, the participants would break out into small groups to discuss the specific kinds of mobilization activities that they could imagine undertaking.

They would then report on the most promising ideas. They would be asked to commit, either on the spot or after consultation with their constituents, to collaborate in designing and implementing a series of, say, three activities in their communities in the coming academic year. The organizations that enlist in this effort would also be expected to reconvene a year or so later for a follow-up summit to review what has transpired, share best practices, and map plans for the second year. If this mobilization effort were to gain sufficient traction, it could become an annual summit, possibly with state or local versions conducted by the participating groups and including other newcomers genuinely committed to the enterprise.

To sustain the energy and engagement of these groups, President Obama could bestow highly coveted awards in various categories upon those outfits that during the past year have done the most effective job of motivating children to achieve.

The education challenges facing our country exceed the capacity of schools and educators to solve them on their own. Real-world experience illustrates the payoff of mobilizing communities to motivate students to achieve. We learned from the Urban League’s Achievement Campaign that youngsters will respond if only the adults in the proverbial village bestir themselves to inspire and then recognize them. Given the fateful stakes for the country and the kids, inertia is not an option.