Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Parent Jiggernaut

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.


  1. It's somewhat ironic for CA to be a testing ground for parent trigger laws, since we've already ably demonstrated the budgetary dangers of letting voters impose unfunded mandates directly at the ballot box under a system of arbitrarily-restricted revenue generation.

  2. Agreed, Paul. Great point. Yes I remember, during my brief time living in California, wondering how the state was possibly going to pay for all of the things voters wanted without any real means of raising revenues, not to mention trying to figure out enough to inform myself of which way to vote. So crazy. I know I said in the post we need more democracy but there is also such a thing as too much. It's a shame when people feel they can't trust their legislators with anything.

  3. One wonders if the reason California voters continue to support Proposition 13, which requires a 2/3rds majority to raise taxes, is due to their fail to recognize the connection between revenues collected and services provided.
    If parents are given a direct stake in the governance of the schools their children attend, might this create a political constituency that would support raising revenue to provide the education services these parents want for their kids?

    1. Ben, there are two complicating institutional factors that I think make it unlikely that parent trigger legislation would lead to Prop. 13 repeal or other revenue generation.

      First, one of the main reasons Prop. 13 was passed in the first place is that the CA supreme court ruled that property tax revenues couldn't just be spent locally - and therefore inequitably - they have to be sent to the state and then redistributed more or less equally. Even if people would pay higher property taxes for their own schools, they are less excited about their property taxes paying for other kids' schools.

      Also, CA makes it very difficult to raise taxes generally - usually requiring supermajorities, rather than the regular majorities required for approving services/spending. That's what I see as one of the big problems with parent triggers: majority power for service demands but no plausible mechanism for resource acquisition.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Ben. I could talk about California governance and politics all day. Do a majority of voters really still support Prop 13? Though, either way, I agree that there is a real disconnect for many California voters between the revenues that must be collected to support the services they want provided.

    Every parent knows their own children and what they want for them, but not every parent is an education expert (and even those who are don't everything--I, for example, don't know much about math education) so I absolutely think parents should be given a direct stake in the governance of their children's school and yes, that might make parents realize that revenues must be raised. As they're currently designed, however, I don't see Parent Trigger laws doing that and I could be mistaken but it's my impression that many charter schools don't have PTAs, parent organizations, or parents on their boards.

  5. Yes, Proposition 13 is still referred to as the "third rail" of California politics -- no one dare touch it.

    California's Parent Empowerment Act gives parents a direct stake in the governance of schools by giving them options (specifically, to convert to a charter school or invoke one of the federal turnaround models). What's interesting is that the power to invoke these options is enough to give parents a seat at the table when it comes to developing a new governance model.

    As far as charters and parent involvement, this actually varies quite a bit depending on the operator. Rocketship Education, for example, is a high-performing blended operator in San Jose that makes tremendous effort to keep parents involved in school governance ( In Washington DC, all charter operators are required to have at least two parents on their board; as one charter CEO told me recently, "we'd do this anyway even if it wasn't a law, the parents are fantastic contributors to our board."

    1. I'm a lifelong Californian who was an aware voter when Prop. 13 was passed, unlike most of the state. I challenge the notion that Prop. 13 is really the "third rail" -- that's mindlessly parroted by the press, over and over, till it's accepted as received wisdom.

      The reality? The vast majority of Californians actually have no idea what Prop. 13 is. As a blogger, I interviewed one of the state's major pollsters, who acknowledged that they have to tell most poll respondents what Prop. 13 is (they have a brief, neutrally worded paragraph) before they get an answer.

      Currently, two tax-increasing measures are attempting to qualify for the California ballot -- one backed by Gov. Brown and the teachers' unions, one by the state PTA. Let's hope.

      The worshipful treatment of Rocketship Education echoes the fawning over past education "reform" fads that has gone on over the past 15 years or so -- think Edison Schools. That's another subject for another post, though at least read Paul Farhi's piece on fawning news coverage in American Journalism Review.

    2. I should be clear that Prop. 13 was passed in the statewide election of June 1978. One would have to have been born by June 1960 (as I was) and living in California in 1978 to have voted on it, and not many people who weren't around for that election are likely to have much idea of what it is.

    3. @caroline: Thanks so much for commenting. That seems amazing (and incredibly depressing) to me that the majority of Californians don't even know what Prop 13 is and what it's done to the state.

    4. I think most halfway aware people vaguely hear of cuts' being attributed to Prop. 13, but without any awareness of what it actually was. I heard one young parent (probably born after Prop. 13 was passed) ask, "How much money does our school get under Prop. 13" -- she thought it was some kind of funding mechanism.

    5. It seems to me that two of the biggest factors that got Prop. 13 passed in the first place are still in effect: CA property values are very high and property tax revenues cannot be dedicated to local schools. Yes, people don't know much about Prop. 13 these days, but it's not obvious to me that offering middle and upper-income folks the opportunity to steeply increase their property taxes to fund schools largely in poorer areas isn't going to get them excited. I'd love to see it happen, but I don't see the case for optimism.

    6. Um, your school gets negative money under Prop 13. So sad.

  6. @Ben: I think you should read my follow-up post. I've got a meaningful "seat at the table" at my kids' school. But I want a say (even better than just a seat) at the table that tells my kids' school what to do. In fact, I don;t even need a seat at that table. I just want the people at that table to stop making district leaders, principals, and teachers mis-educate my children at the same time that they waste precious resources. I want the policies that govern our public school to change in a substantial, meaningful way. I don't see Parent Trigger laws fixing that, especially not when their proponents are the ones buying and supporting those bad policies to begin with. When Parent Trigger laws aim to get rid of stupid reading tests and stupid reading test-based curriculum, and add more of everything I said in my follow-up post that I wanted to "opt in" to, maybe I'll start seeing them as more than just more BS smoke & mirrors.

  7. @Ben I think what Rachel is getting at is that she is not sure she wants a seat at the table (or "the Bridge"?) on a Rocketship School, when standardized testing is still a clear priority. Maybe I'm wrong, but when I see a paragraph like this on their website:

    We devote significant time and energy to develop founding regional leaders and we only select veteran Rocketship school leaders for these roles who have demonstrated a track record of opening successful Rocketship schools that quickly generate high student achievement outcomes.

    I see the emphasis on "quickly generat[ing] high student achievement outcomes" and I think "test scores mean a lot to us."
    A little more snooping turns this up:
    "Basic reading and math skills must be mastered as a foundation for academic success in grade school and college, and demonstrating this mastery on standardized tests opens doors of opportunity for our students. Thus, we expect our students to show high levels of mastery and growth on standardized tests, including state exams and NWEA."

    This is exactly what she (and I) oppose, and for that reason we would not be happy with a seat at this table. We want a different table and a different room.

    I should mention that I also found a lot to like on the Rocketship website (project learning, home visits), but I wasn't sure what it would actually be like changing a public school over to a "high performing blended operator" like Rocketship. Would my kids have more project time? I doubt it. Would they have more computer time? Definitely. Would they take more tests? That seems to be pretty clear.

  8. @Cedar: Exactly. Why would I as a parent want to put people in charge of my kids' school who subscribe to the very same poor educational practices and curriculum I want my children to escape from in the first place?

  9. Parent Revolution, the nonprofit organization backing the latest CA parent trigger petition in Adelanto, needs to apply some common sense. They had parents sign two different petitions and submitted the least favorite one to the district. They call it strategy to get district to negotiate. State Senator Gloria Romero, the author of the parent trigger law, initially called their two petition strategy a dubious strategic choice. No wonder parents rescinded their signatures. You only need one petition at the ready to threaten a district to negotiate under the parent trigger law - not two. How does having parents sign two different petitions and submit the least favorite choice a strategy to convince a district to negotiate? I'm in favor of parent empowerment and that argument sounds dubious to me too.


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