In education, the term stakeholder typically refers to anyone who is invested in the welfare and success of a school and its students, including administrators, teachers, staff members, students, parents, families, community members, local business leaders, and elected officials such as school board members, city councilors, and state representatives. Stakeholders may also be collective entities, such as local businesses, organizations, advocacy groups, committees, media outlets, and cultural institutions, in addition to organizations that represent specific groups, such as teachers unions, parent-teacher organizations, and associations representing superintendents, principals, school boards, or teachers in specific academic disciplines (e.g., the National Council of Teachers of English or the Vermont Council of Teachers of Mathematics). In a word, stakeholders have a “stake” in the school and its students, meaning that they have personal, professional, civic, or financial interest or concern.
In some cases, the term may be used in a more narrow or specific sense—say, in reference to a particular group or committee—but the term is commonly used in a more general and inclusive sense. The term “stakeholders” may also be used interchangeably with the concept of a “school community,” which necessarily comprises a wide variety of stakeholders.
The idea of a “stakeholder” intersects with many school-reform concepts and strategies—such as leadership teams, shared leadership, and voice—that generally seek to expand the number of people involved in making important decisions related to a school’s organization, operation, and academics. For example, shared leadership entails the creation of leadership roles and decision-making opportunities for teachers, staff members, students, parents, and community members, while voice refers the degree to which schools include and act upon the values, opinions, beliefs, perspectives, and cultural backgrounds of the people in their community. Stakeholders may participate on a leadership team, take on leadership responsibilities in a school, or give “voice” to their ideas, perspectives, and opinions during community forums or school-board meetings, for example.
Stakeholders may also play a role in community-based learning, which refers to the practice of connecting what is being taught in a school to its surrounding community, which may include local history, literature, and cultural heritages, in addition to local experts, institutions, and natural environments. Community-based learning is also motivated by the belief that all communities have intrinsic educational assets that educators can use to enhance learning experiences for students, so stakeholders are necessarily involved in the process.
Generally speaking, the growing use of stakeholder in public education is based on the recognition that schools, as public institutions supported by state and local tax revenues, are not only part of and responsible to the communities they serve, but they are also obligated to involve the broader community in important decisions related to the governance, operation, or improvement of the school. Increasingly, schools are being more intentional and proactive about involving a greater diversity of stakeholders, particularly stakeholders from disadvantaged communities and backgrounds or from groups that have historically been underserved by schools or that have underperformed academically, including English-language learners, students of color, immigrant students, and special-education students. In some cases, federal or state programs and foundation grants may encourage or require the involvement of multiple stakeholder groups in a school-improvement effort as a condition of funding.
Stakeholder-engagement strategies are also widely considered central to successful school improvement by many individuals and organizations that work with public schools. Because some communities may be relatively uninformed about or disconnected from their local schools, a growing number of educational reformers and reform movements advocate for more inclusive, community-wide involvement in a school-improvement process. The general theory is that by including more members of a school community in the process, school leaders can foster a stronger sense of “ownership” among the participants and within the broader community. In other words, when the members of an organization or community feel that their ideas and opinions are being heard, and when they are given the opportunity to participate authentically in a planning or improvement process, they will feel more invested in the work and in the achievement of its goals, which will therefore increase the likelihood of success.
In some cases, when schools make major organizational, programmatic, or instructional changes—particularly when parents and community members are not informed in advance or involved in the process—it can give rise to criticism, resistance, and even organized opposition. As a reform strategy, involving a variety of stakeholders from the broader community can improve communication and public understanding, while also incorporating the perspectives, experiences, and expertise of participating community members to improve reform proposals, strategies, or processes. In these cases, educators may use phrases such as “securing community support,” “building stakeholder buy-in,” or “fostering collective ownership” to describe efforts being made to involve community stakeholders in a planning and improvement process. In other cases, stakeholders are individuals who have power or influence in a community, and schools may be obligated, by law or social expectation, to keep certain parties informed the school and involved in its governance.