Conversation starter tools

This section continues the in-depth look at redefining the purpose of school for students by sharing our “Conversation Starter” tools. These tools will help anyone begin exploring how to help families and schools reach a shared understanding of what a good-quality education looks like.

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Understanding parent and teacher beliefs and perceptions about education is a first step toward finding alignment. As discussed in the previous section, attempts at educational change can be difficult when families and schools are not on the same page regarding the purpose of school or the types of teaching and learning experiences children and youth should have in school. Alignment around the vision of what a good-quality education looks like can be helpful for improving and transforming education systems, but it is essential for one of the transformation goals: redefine the purpose of school for students.

In communities where family and school perceptions are not understood or shared, each group’s priorities and actions can create resistance and limit the possibility for change. If, for example, a district believes it should prioritize social responsibilities without consulting families, yet families prefer a greater focus on academic preparation for postsecondary opportunities, this mismatch of beliefs and actions will create friction and hamper the community’s ability to advance a unified vision around education.

Because families are not a monolith, beliefs will naturally vary within and across jurisdictions. CUE’s surveys of parents and teachers around the world reveal a wide variety of beliefs across and within communities and jurisdictions. For education leaders and advocates to effectively work with communities to advance educational transformation, they need to systematically gather a nuanced picture of parents, teachers, and other stakeholders’ beliefs and perceptions. One way to start doing this is by using the “Conversation Starter” tools, which include an adapted version of CUE’s survey. We share these tools as prototypes to be tried by interested jurisdictions, organizations, and communities.

The tools include:

  • A contextualization checklist of the steps for adapting the tools to a specific context and to other actors.
  • A short parent survey that can also be adapted to other stakeholders, such as students.
  • A short teacher survey that can also be adapted to other stakeholders, such as school administrators or employers.
  • A guide for analyzing and discussing survey results within your community.

What are the tools for?

If you are interested in better understanding the level of alignment between different members of your school community (e.g., parents, teachers, students, administrators, and employers), the Conversation Starter tools can help you. The tools are specifically designed to understand the alignment of each stakeholder group’s vision of what makes for a quality education. The tools can help education leaders and community advocates learn:

  • The most important purpose of school for each stakeholder group.
  • The aspects of a child’s educational experience each stakeholder group most relies on to assess quality.
  • The types of teaching and learning experiences each stakeholder group prefers.
  • The sources each stakeholder group relies on to inform their beliefs about education.
  • The level of trust and alignment felt between stakeholder groups.

The data generated from the tools can be used in various ways. It can shed light on areas of misalignment between stakeholder groups, and it can highlight the most prominent perspectives within stakeholder groups. Most importantly, it can be used to begin a dialogue within and across stakeholder groups on what the purpose of school should be and what types of experiences children, families, and communities should have with school.

Who should use the tools?

The tools should be used by anyone who would like to better understand the perspectives of one or more education stakeholder groups. The tools can help education decisionmakers or community advocates start a conversation across stakeholder groups. They will also help anyone interested in moving forward with educational change initiatives to have a more in-depth understanding of the perspectives of different groups. The tools are particularly suited to helping inform those leaders looking to embark on initiatives to help transform education—meaning to change how the current school system works, particularly around redefining the purpose of education for students. They can be used by:

  • School leaders.
  • Jurisdiction leaders.
  • Leaders of school networks.
  • Teacher organizations.
  • Parent organizations.
  • Civil society organizations working with schools to support education system transformation.

How were the tools developed?

The tools are based on CUE’s parent and teacher surveys that it conducted in collaboration with its Family Engagement in Education Network. The parent survey was administered to almost 25,000 parents and the teacher survey to over 6,000 teachers across jurisdictions in 10 countries and across one global private sector school chain. A selection of the questions used in the parent and teacher surveys have been used in the respective Conversation Starter tools.

We started a school reform process that was going well and to my mind the quality of education in the schools was going up. Then in PTA meetings, the parents were sitting here telling me that the quality of education was going down! I had to really spend a lot of time listening to parents to understand how we could see things so differently. It turns out we valued different things.

School Network Leader, India

Although the questions used in these short surveys have been rigorously selected and trialed, these surveys themselves have not yet been used as stand-alone tools that education leaders and advocates could use in their communities. Therefore, the tools, including the contextualization checklist and discussion guide, are prototypes. It is our hope that we can collaborate with those interested in administering the tools to learn how they work and to refine and adapt the tools. Our ultimate goal is to produce a rigorous, internationally validated instrument that anyone can use free of charge.

Can I adapt the tools?

Yes you can! The tools are specifically designed for you to adapt to your context. In fact, it will be impossible to use the tools without doing at the minimum some basic contextualization such as editing the sample text introduction of the tools to your needs.

You can adapt the tools to your particular needs in a range of ways. We have however indicated the parts of the tools where we do not advise making edits, which is solely related to rigor and survey-design good practice. For example, we designed the parent survey for the primary caregiver to answer based on their oldest child. This is because we know from our research that parents have different perspectives based on a child’s age, and it is therefore quite difficult for them to use the tool accurately when thinking about all their children at once.

These tools are for you to use in your school, jurisdiction, or community. We encourage you to try them and give us feedback at Your inputs will help us further develop an internationally validated tool for exploring alignment between communities and schools.

About the Authors

Rebecca Winthrop

Rebecca Winthrop

Co-director – Center for Universal Education

Rebecca Winthrop is a senior fellow and co-director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution.

Adam Barton

Adam Barton

Cambridge International Scholar, Faculty of Education – University of Cambridge; Former Senior Research Analyst – Center for Universal Education

Adam Barton was a senior research analyst at the Center for Universal Education at Brookings and is a Cambridge International Scholar at the University of Cambridge, Faculty of Education.

Mahsa Ershadi

Mahsa Ershadi

Former Postdoctoral Fellow – Center for Universal Education

Mahsa Ershadi was a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Universal Education at Brookings.

Lauren Ziegler

Lauren Ziegler

Project Director, Leapfrogging in Education – Brookings Institution

Lauren Ziegler is a project director at the Center for Universal Education at Brookings.