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News, Science & Research

Improved discussion between school boards, communities could help increase involvement at school board meetings, study finds

Research by Brown professor suggests positive impacts from meetings with greater deliberation, participation, especially for marginalized groups

By
Contributing Writer
Monday, June 14, 2021

Policymakers are often separated from the issues that students and parents face, making the lack of engagement in school board meetings a major concern when crafting education policy, Collins said.

School board meetings with deliberation and discussion between the school board and community members are more likely to have higher community engagement, seen in a greater willingness to attend school board meetings in the future and result in an increased trust in school officials, a study published May 24 by Assistant Professor of Education Jonathan Collins found.

In the study, titled “Does the Meeting Style Matter? The Effects of Exposure to Participatory and Deliberative School Meetings,” Collins compared the effects of a standard meeting without participation from community members, a meeting with participation and a meeting with both participation and deliberation. Deliberation was defined in the study as a two-way discussion between community members and the school board, with officials directly responding to community comments and concerns. The study showed that increase in participation as a result of deliberation was observed most drastically for individuals who had never attended a school board meeting before. 

As a professor who has studied both education and political science, Collins realized that “there was a dilemma that we face when it comes to public education in the U.S.” On one hand, education provides opportunities for mobility, allowing students to experience successes such as rising out of poverty and obtaining access to higher education, he explained. But, “we have a deep inequity problem” in education, he said, adding that solving those inequities goes beyond a mere debate about resource allocation.

School board meetings are open to the public, but often have low attendance, according to the study. Board meetings usually include use of jargon and acronyms, making it particularly difficult for individuals from marginalized groups to participate, Collins said. Those who attend these meetings usually “are a part of the more privileged racial-and-ethnic and/or socioeconomic groups. They also tend to be connected to civic organizations or specialized interest groups,” Collins wrote in the study.

Another major concern surrounding school board meetings is their lack of community engagement, Collins said, adding that local policymakers are often separated from the issues that affect the daily lives of students and their parents. He cited unfair dress code policies as one example of an issue that could be better discussed if the conversation included individuals directly affected by the policy.

Through his study and its findings, Collins hopes to push others to view inequity in education from an empowerment standpoint, in which strategic efforts are made to hear the concerns of individuals from marginalized groups. 

“More engagement means more opportunity to solve problems that get overlooked because we are looking at empirical indicators, like test scores, spending for people and raw attendance,” Collins said. “We aren’t looking as much as we should at what’s happening in the school halls and the classrooms.”

Amy Farley, assistant professor of education policy at the University of Cincinnati, underscored the importance of focusing on school boards in order to enhance equity within school districts. “We know these formal policy making mechanisms like school boards are prone to systematically leaving out certain voices,” said Farley, whose work focuses on understanding complex policy climates, such as targeted funding decisions and their impact on low-income students and students of color. She noted students of color, particularly Black, low-income and undocumented students most often lack a voice in the policymaking process.

“What’s interesting about Dr. Collins’ research is the notion that more participatory and deliberative school board meetings might elicit a more representative group of families to engage in these school boards,” Farley added. “We know when we have more diverse voices, we end up with policies that better serve all students’ needs.”

Collins’ study focused on a random sample of people from across the country. Each treatment group was shown video clips from two different school districts in Southern California.

For his dissertation, Collins had previously performed studies in California schools, and realized that one school district, the Burbank Unified School District, allowed public comment in its meeting structure. This was a unique meeting style that he thought “fostered some pretty interesting conversations,” Collins said.

For the study, Collins compared clips from Burbank’s meetings to clips from another school board in the surrounding area, the South Pasadena Unified School District. He chose video clips which could be shown to study participants without them having to attend the meeting, while also allowing for easy comparison between the two meeting styles. In both clips, the depicted school boards are discussing teacher salaries. The only differences between the clips is the level of participation of the attendees and whether school board officials responded to participants. 

One of the clips from South Pasadena showed no participation occurring at a school board meeting. Another from the same district showed participation from the audience, but no direct response from the school board. The last clip from Burbank showed community members participating at a school board meeting, with board members actively responding. 

The study found that survey respondents favored meetings with participation, shown by an increase in trust in officials and a willingness to attend meetings in the future. Reflecting on the results, Collins said, “in this political moment, we need leaders who are sitting at the forefront, and being willing to explain their decision making, taking the concerns that people are bringing to the table seriously.” 

After personally attending meetings in which participation was not emphasized or encouraged, Collins realized that “if you don’t understand the lingo, if you don’t understand the acronyms, if you don’t understand the buzzwords, if you haven’t read the 100 page plus reports,” then the message effectively relayed is that “you don’t belong here.” 

But Collins said that deliberation sends the message that constituents belong and are valued. He believes the benefits of sending this message are particularly high for people of color and low-income families. This is because, as stated in a review article by Farley et al., “scholars (have) argued that minoritized voices are often pushed to the margins, ignored, tokenized or discounted.” Moreover, Collins argued that open dialogue between school districts and constituents could be used to determine what meeting styles, times and discussion topics would best fit constituents’ needs. 

“Instinctively, most people understand that the way public officials invite feedback from community members — or fail to do so — impacts community engagement in schools and districts,” wrote Asher Lehrer-Small ’20, an editorial fellow at The74, a non-profit news organization that covers education, in an email to The Herald. “But rarely do districts act on that understanding by changing their decision making systems to more fully incorporate community voices. This study delivers experimental evidence that such changes could make big impacts.”

Reflecting on the results of Collins’ study, Farley said she believes there is even more room for improvement when it comes to school board meeting participation. “What I remain uncertain about is how structuring school board meetings in more participatory ways overcomes some of the obstacles that keep certain families and voices systematically silenced.” 

According to Farley, these obstacles are “oppressive structures” which make some voices or families feel unwelcome. In certain communities, where generations of a family have attended the same school, there can be traumas rooted in the school building that make parents unwilling to enter discussion spaces. 

Logistical issues also present barriers to making school board meetings more accessible, Farley said. “How do we solve childcare, how do we solve timing such that we’re not only allowing families with traditional nine to five jobs to engage? How do we offer opportunities to engage that are asynchronous, or use technology?”

Collins is currently implementing his study findings in cooperation with local Providence schools to determine whether public deliberation can feasibly be fostered. The first round of data of this next phase has already been collected, and Collins and his research assistants will produce preliminary analyses over the course of this summer.

“The best part of this process has been working with the schools, and slowly and steadily getting the school to believe in the idea that we should be discussing issues democratically,” Collins said. “That, to me, is a win, regardless of what the data says.”

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