As a parent who used to be in the classroom, I sometimes struggle with which perspective to think from: from that of a parent or from that of a teacher. Becoming a parent made me a much better and more understanding teacher. Conversely, strategies I used in teaching and things I learned there about human nature and interacting with children have proven invaluable to me as a parent. Interacting with other people's children, of course, is not the same thing as interacting with my own. My own children can tick me off in ways my students never could; I can have a hard time getting to that calm, clinical space with my own kids, even as I know I'd make fewer mistakes if I could get there.
So sometimes I feel conflicted when it comes to advocacy and opinions. Watching my own children develop has taught me a lot about how people learn and has challenged some of my old (teacher's) thinking. On the one hand, I have much less tolerance, for example, for constructivist approaches and for the teaching of reading strategies and skills. On the other hand, I appreciate that constructivists envision schools as meaningful, joyful, and relevant places. It breaks my heart whenever my children are driven to tears, overwhelmed by the tedium and stress they sometimes feel at school, which is in contrast to the how they joyfully think and engage in learning outside of school. I understand that reading strategies are emphasized out of a desire to equip students with the tools to be successful learners. My children enjoy their reading block even if it's unclear how much they are actually learning from it when there is not much curricular coherence to it.
So, to get to the point of this post, especially as the topic has been popular in edu-news lately, I have been thinking a lot about parent trigger laws and actions. Also, my own daughter will be starting kindergarten next year and the topic of school quality and parent activism has come up on the playground at her preschool, especially since many of her classmates also will be starting kindergarten, though unlike her, many don't have older siblings who have already been through it.
The situation in Desert Trails in Southern California, especially struck me. Some parents organized to pull a parent trigger on their neighborhood school because they felt their kids weren't learning what they were supposed to, though it sounds as if the parents were really trying to work with the district. I'm not going to get into the process there or discuss the ins and outs of what may or may not have happened there. What really struck me was what the parents wanted, why they were organizing a a parent trigger: They want smaller classes, more art, music, and other subjects beyond reading and math. The parents refer to these as "reforms" but most educators would call them essentials; most public schools and educators want these things as well. It seems, to me at least, that it is the state that isn't providing what they want. Surely, there are other problems and I don't blame these parents for being upset. I'd be upset. But it sounds like they want the school to provide what the state doesn't have the will or means to provide.
So, if we grant parents more choice or power to turn their schools into charters, for example, is the charter going to provide what they want? Will parents be more engaged or involved? My sense is that perhaps in the short run they will be, but I'm not sure about the long-run. I tend to agree with Diane Ravitch and other detractors that public schools or public spaces do not belong only to the group of people currently using them; they belong to the community, including future community members. Furthermore, once the school is turned over to private or unaccountable hands and is detached from any democratic process, the parents will have even less say. Parents Across America explained this in their statement in opposition to parent trigger-type solutions, saying that they won't ultimately result in meaningful parent engagement or voice (also relevant is their position on real parent empowerment). It does seem like parents get hooked in and then used to make a change that ultimately leaves them with little role in the new or parent-trigger-changed school. But that's ultimately what parents should be after: more of a role and more of a voice.
In my own (older) children's school, we are navigating excessive and unhealthy high-stakes testing. I am not opposed to testing but to developmentally inappropriate and high-stakes testing. It is corrupting what and how my children learn and what and how they are taught. I want my children to learn more science, social studies, the arts, PE, foreign languages, and practical skills. If I organize a group of parents to take over the school, will this change? I don't see how, not as long as the current policies stay in place. This is where we as parents need to go to central administrations, school boards, elected officials, legislators, and other decision makers. It is their policies and legislation that are eroding the quality of education my children receive; it is not the teachers or their principals. So, here I am in a tricky position. I support the school and teachers (my children have yet to have a "bad" teacher) in my community but I feel I must contest the bad practices they are forced to implement.
In my own conversations with other parents, I often hear them talk about school ratings. At the same time, they bemoan the state of the curriculum--the lack of art, music, science, social studies, unstructured play. I try, diplomatically, to remind them that school ratings (such as those in Great Schools) tend to be based on test scores. If we as parents use or value those ratings to judge schools, then that is what our schools are going to aspire to. If we rate or value a school based on the curriculum they offer (such as more art and music) and their pedagogy or instructional practices, then that is what they will aspire to (and that's what I'd argue we want them to aspire to). It's not that I don't look at the test scores because I do, but it's a matter of the context I consider them in and the judgments I make based on them.
It seems like what we need is more democracy, not less; to build sustainable, long-term parent engagement. Even though I am a relatively well-informed parent, sometimes even I don't know what parent engagement looks like or should look like. I started parenting simply thinking of all the things my struggling students were missing and built from there. Everything I knew would have helped my students do better academically and learn more, I made sure to do as a parent. That often seems to me like the greatest gift I can give my children, their teachers, and their peers. But then being involved in their schooling is another step, but how much involvement is appropriate? When help or feedback is requested from school, I do my best to answer the call. I express my displeasure at all of the high-stakes testing, I state clearly that I won't be doing any test prep at home and then I support as much as I can in a positive way what I'd like to see more of in schools. I am trying to help the art teacher get an award in the form of a big grant so that she'll bring back resources to classroom teachers. I participate and volunteer in book swaps. My husband taught an after school chess club. When surveys are sent out, I complete them. I offer to serve on long-term planning committees. I volunteer in classrooms. Are we doing too much? Too little?
While I recognize the expertise of my children's teachers and having been a teacher and given the current climate, I acknowledge the limitations and stresses they are under, I try to subvert the high-stakes testing, test prep, and narrowing of the curriculum in a positive way. But there's only so far this goes because for now none of that changes the continued unhealthy emphasis on standardized testing. It doesn't change the amount of data collection that takes place via developmentally inappropriate and misery-inducing standardized tests. It doesn't change the current realities that my children are learning in and that their teachers are teaching in. That's why I have real sympathy for people like me who choose to home school (and there are a lot where I live). I cheered Dana Goldstein's defense of public schooling versus home schooling, but I also know that it's an easy thing to defend when you don't have a child who melts down at home in tears and anger and questions of Why?!?! every time there's a benchmark, practice, or high-stakes test. (And my children do quite well on them!) Sometimes I want to give them what I see my homeschooling neighbors giving their children. What's so frustrating is that there's no good reason why public schools can't offer many of those same things.
So far, my children are high achievers and performers. Besides contributing positively, perhaps I can lead by example. If my own kids, who are are among the youngest in their class, come to school ready to learn, excel academically, and rarely miss questions on these tests; if I'm not doing test prep and I am making sure my kids have a knowledge-rich home life and I'm opposed to high stakes testing, maybe I'm on to something. If policy makers, legislators, and education reformers really wanted to empower parents, at the very least they'd they'd stop simply trying make it easier to hand over to schools to outside parties who can only pretend they know better. At the very most, they'd start listening to and acting upon what it is exactly that parents and communities envision for their children's education.
We parents must resolve to make them.
To read my follow-up post to this one, see here.