A hand holding a PTA logo in place over a white background.

The Parent-Teacher Association through Community Building Lens

The legend

Two things I found helpful to understand while looking at the national parent-teacher association (the national PTA) website. One is that originally National PTA included both the National Congress of Parents and Teachers (national PTA) and the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers (NCCPT) to serve all children.

The other is the advocacy achievements:

·     Creation of Kindergarten classes

·     Child labor laws

·     Public health service

·     Hot and healthy lunch programs

·     Juvenile justice system

·     Mandatory immunization

·     Arts in Education

·     School Safety 

The national parent-teacher association, the national PTA, is the largest and oldest volunteer organization that advocates for children’s wellbeing and education in the US public school system. All the local parent-teacher association (the PTA) are members of the national PTA.

50 years later, same story different landscape

In the 70s, the United States had the best public school system. We had the first public school system in the world that offered free education for all children. It made sense having an organization like the PTA to advocate the wellbeing of our children and youth, and it met our democracy needs for civic engagement.

Over 50 years, things have changed tremendously. Our public school system is no longer considered the best system in the world, more and more parents couldn’t help but worry about the quality of our children's education today. At the same time, the factory jobs that our school system was created for are either no longer exist or replaced by machines and AI, and the updated versions of factory jobs have different requirements that our children aren’t learning to compete for. The worries are real.

Based on Wikipedia’s "Education in the United States of America", out of 21 industrialized countries, U.S. 12th graders ranked 19th in math, 16th in science, and last in advanced physics[i].

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in member and non-member nations to evaluate educational systems by measuring 15-year-old school students' scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading. According to their study in 2018, Students in the United States performed even though above the OECD average in reading, but much lower compared to the top performers such as Singapore, China and Canada. The gap is obvious[ii].

None of the parents I spoke to who left our public schools said they made the decision because of the poor advocacy in the school community, but because of the education quality including the overall learning environment. When the worries become unbearable, families leave.

In this new landscape, it’s not difficult to understand why more and more parents have chosen not to join the PTA. The number of the PTA members in my local school are less than 15% of total number of parents and guardians, which explains the following statement from the Parent-teacher Association by Wikipedia, “PTA membership – including the number of affiliated units and of individual members – has been declining for several decades”[iii].

The number of the PTA members has been declining for several decades

The PTA - a community on its own

Within our school community, the PTA meets the definition of community to its full extent.

According to Charles Vogl’s book, the Art of Community: a group of individual who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare. When we form a community that grows friendship, we create what we seek, friends who care about the welfare of one another.

The PTA satisfy all 4 features of a community:

·       Shared values – advocacy

·       Membership identity – member enrollment

·       Moral proscriptions – the mission

·       Insider understanding – familiarity with rules and regulations to follow and proceed

As a community, the goal is to meet all its members’ needs. The existence of the PTA is to satisfy the PTA members’ needs under its mission umbrella regardless who is running it. This is an important concept to understand.

A community within the community

In general, when a community within another community, the smaller community holds higher value and priority for its’ members than the larger community.

For example, a local school is a member of the school district it belongs to. Everyone who works and attends at this local school, maybe follows certain rules and decisions from the district, but values and cares about each other in their small community more than members in the larger community.

The care goes the both ways, and this is why community exists. A community, no matter how small, cares about its members’ wellbeing first and foremost. This is the mechanism of community, the core reason why it works, regardless who runs it or the kind of culture established.

A great leader and well-defined culture help tremendously in building a stronger community for its own members, but it doesn't minimize the mechanism of the community nor the side effects it creates for the bigger community.

The divide

When talking about the word “community”, it often represents togetherness, caring and inclusivity in our mind. These narratives only are true when we are a member in that community. When we are not a member in a community, the community means separation, indifference and exclusivity to us.

Thinking about a school or an organization that you know about but don’t belong to, how do you feel about that community?

When the equity and inclusion are the primary goals in our public schools today, the mechanism of the PTA, regardless of its mission and operation, could potentially work against the goals.

The inherited narrative that the PTA care about all children and families, though with the good intention, is a flawed theory from the way it is set up and needs to be corrected with our current understanding on community. Without understanding and alignment with the wellbeing and educational goals for everyone in the school community, the PTA is the divide.

Non-PTA member experience versus PTA member experience in a local school community


There is no doubt that advocacy for our children and youth is important both to families and our education system. Any community regardless how big or small who fails to understand, listen and align with the greater community it belongs to will eventually fade away. It is the national PTA's responsibility to decide how to structure and operate local PTAs, but ultimately it's a personal decision for every PTA member on how to improve an outdated system to meet the current needs for our school community.

It's up to us, the parents, to create a real equitable and inclusive parent community as the future we desire.



[i] Education in the United States of America, Wikipedia.

[ii] Only 9% of 15-year-olds can tell the difference between fact and opinion, Quartz.

[iii] Parent-teacher Association,Wikipedia.

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