By Rebecca Winthrop, Senior Fellow & Director of the Center for Universal Education, Brookings Institution

Rarely do schools feature in the debates about the public’s trust in institutions. But they should. More than any other government institution, schools are on the front lines of providing services, building community, developing a shared identity and navigating change. Put simply, a key part of what schools do is the hard, on-the-ground work of building and sustaining trust. Yet forces from the pandemic to the changing nature of work to increasing polarization are eroding schools’ ability to serve as trust-building institutions with their communities. There is an urgent need to reverse this worrying trend before it is too late.

The power of schools to influence trust

The power of schools to influence trust is far-reaching. For instance, the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer found that globally 64 percent of respondents saw teachers as a unifying force in society, higher than any other group listed — from NGO and business leaders (46 percent and 41 percent, respectively) to government leaders (33 percent).

National education systems, and the schools that comprise them, play a powerful role in connecting people. The history, values, and stories taught each day shape national identities, creating in the words of historian Benedict Anderson “imagined communities” where citizens feel a sense of belonging with people they have never met. The power to shape young people’s worldview, and by extension that of their communities, is an awesome one that has been used to both bring people together and to sow division. The last century is rife with disturbing examples: Belgian colonial textbooks in Rwanda falsely contrasted the “good and able” Tutsis with the “lesser than” Hutus, helping seed a genocide. More recently, curriculum revisions that promote Hindu nationalist beliefs have been advanced in India. And one in five states in the U.S. have proposed legislation that would limit climate education, including proposing that children should be taught that the science behind climate change is controversial.

Schools are the most visible form of government service delivery. With approximately 80 percent of young people globally attending government or government-supported schools, it often provides the main daily interaction citizens have with their governments. Teachers are one of the largest groups of government civil servants. Delivering education services in a way that is equitable tends to build trust in government and strengthen the public’s commitment to the society in which they live. It matters a great deal whether schools are accessible to everyone, whether they are of reasonable quality for everyone and if they prepare everyone well for the future.

Indeed, scholars studying the drivers of armed conflict have found that equitable delivery of education “breeds peace.” On the other hand, inequitable provision of education, with some groups in society systematically left out, can lead to deep grievances, a breakdown of trust in government institutions and increased likelihood of armed conflict.

What it takes to offer equitable education today is changing. Increasingly, the skills young people need to learn and what is required to teach them necessitates grappling with a world suffused with generative AI as well as one roiled by climate change, political polarization and more. It is no longer sufficient for students to develop strong analytical skills in key academic subjects and demonstrate their knowledge by producing the right answer. They also need to learn to ask good questions. They need to learn to put their skills to use across disciplines to create solutions to hard problems by working with others. They need to master the art of learning new things and to practice the habits of being constructive and involved citizens engaging across divides in their communities.

In short, young people need to be taught differently, assessed with a richer set of measures, and given the opportunity to practice applying, not just showing, what they know. It is no longer enough for this type of schooling experience to be reserved for the elite. Equitable provision of education today means all schools will need to help all students develop this breadth of skills, including academic and 21st century competencies.

Yet, all too frequently, schools have not communicated why and how education needs to change to their students’ families and communities. A few years ago, I interviewed over 100 innovative education leaders across 15 countries, from India to Ghana, Argentina to the U.S., who were shifting in their schools and education systems how and what young people were taught. As I reported in a book, Leapfrogging Inequality: Remaking Education to Help Young People Thrive, the leaders’ innovative strategies were sound and could help young people develop the full breadth of skills they needed: more hands-on experiments, increased trips into the community to apply what they learned and more play-based learning. But these changes made school look and feel very different – which led to significant challenges. Parents and families became concerned that the new methods weren’t rigorous enough. Should students really be spending so much time playing in school? Were leaders experimenting on their children? The community controversy was enough for most leaders to roll back the very changes that their students needed to get a high-quality education.

The leaders were not missing innovative education ideas, they were missing strategies to build trust in times of change. Longitudinal studies in the U.S. have shown that the existence of trusting relationships between communities and schools – namely school leaders, teachers and families – makes it ten times more likely for a school to be improving students’ outcomes across academic learning and socio-emotional wellbeing. Schools with high levels of trust are much more likely to make the type of bold changes needed to improve students’ learning and skills.

Strategies to build trust

Trust between communities, families, students and educators in schools does not just magically appear. Training and professional development for education leaders and teachers on how to build strong relationships with families and communities is lacking or, at best, an afterthought in most countries. Feedback loops to facilitate dialogue with families and communities are often narrow and limited to students’ report cards, events at school and occasional meetings between parents and teachers. The education community has not prioritized relational trust sufficiently, evidenced by the lack of a rigorous measure of trust between schools and families (though we are developing one). Far more time is invested in researching other elements of education, such as teacher training and curriculum development. Nor has this been a priority for donors: By one estimate, less than 4 percent of U.S. education-focused philanthropic funding goes to strengthening community-school relationships. This is despite a growing demand from families for increased communications and engagement with their children’s school coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the past five years, I have led, together with Dr. Emily Markovich Morris, a Brookings Institution team dedicated to strengthening family, school and community collaboration. With our partners in our Family Engagement in Education Network, 60 organizations across 18 countries, we have developed evidence, insights and practical tools for building trust with families and communities. In 2021, we published our findings and recommendations in Collaborating to Transform and Improve Education Systems: A playbook for family-school engagement. Since then, we have been working with our partners to pilot a range of tools and strategies.

Together we have learned that starting with intentional conversations on the purpose of school can be a game changer in the effort to nurture and develop trust. Our findings across the 16 countries show that often families and teachers have misperceptions about each other. For example, in Colombia, the majority of secondary school teachers we surveyed in 2023 believed the most important purpose of school was to help prepare young people to be active citizens and community members, while the majority of families thought it was to prepare their children for further education. Furthermore, families were not aware of teachers’ beliefs and thought teachers shared their vision of preparing children for further education.

Building strong relationships between communities and schools starts with families, educators and students understanding each other's perspectives and developing a shared vision.

Insights uncovered through intentional conversations have led our partners in Colombia, for example, to identify strategies for schools and communities to forge closer bonds with each other through increased communication, sharing and opportunities for collaboration on student learning and school improvement. For teachers in Colombia, developing the skills and competencies to be constructive citizens, from teamwork to creative problem-solving, is essential as the country emerges from five decades of war. Forging stronger partnerships with families will only strengthen the role of schools in building trust in society.

With our partners, next year we will release a set of internationally validated, free to use conversation-starter tools for any school to use with their communities to hold intentional conversations about the purpose of education and to develop strategies for building stronger partnerships and collaboration. We will also release our newly developed measure of relational trust, which looks at the extent to which educators feel trust with families and the level of trust students and families report with educators.

This will be just one small step in the right direction, of course. Our broader hope is that there will be a huge focus on building better collaborations between schools and families. From governments to funders to business leaders who are looking for ways to support the communities they are in, it is time to invest in supporting increased relational trust between schools and families, helping pave the way for more equitable education systems that deliver what young people need while strengthening the social fabric of our societies.



Evolving Trust, Embracing Change

Matthew Bishop, Journalist & Innovator