We go nowhere if we don't bring parents along

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Editor’s note: Fordham President Michael J. Petrilli recently published a long-form article titled, “Where Education Reform Goes from Here.” Others have responded to that essay, and this post furthers that conversation.

“If you don’t bring parents and families along with you, you’re building a sandcastle by the sea.”

Keri Rodrigues, Massachusetts Parents United

There are so many flaws in how we do education in America, but perhaps one of the most consistent mistakes we make at the school, district, and policy level is the way we ignore parents and deny them a seat at the table when their voices are so important and desperately needed.

Mike Petrilli’s recent piece “Where Education Reform Goes from Here”—which I liked very much—makes this same mistake. He lays out what policymakers and practitioners can and should do moving forward but fails to mention the important role that parents can—and must— play.

Parents are rarely education experts. We don’t usually know the size of the local school budget or the difference between “supplement” and “supplant,” and we certainly aren’t debating the Obama discipline guidance at our summer cookouts and in the stands at baseball games.

But parents are an essential piece of the puzzle, and we have failed to arm them with what Andy Stern, president emeritus of the Service Employees International Union, calls “smart information.” Parents are really smart people,” he says. “And they don’t get a lot of smart information. They’re capable of making good choices when given good information.”

Petrilli rightly calls for policymakers to “defend higher standards, tougher tests, and smarter accountability systems in place today.” But none of this can happen without the buy-in of parents, and that starts with well informed local parents who can serve as centers of influence who help break down the accountability jargon into everyday language about why this is good for our kids. Parents may not know specifics about how PARCC differs from NAEP, but they will understand that a neighboring town or state is outperforming theirs by 27 percentage points on the same test. They will understand that African American and Latino students significantly trail their white counterparts on all academic measures. They likely won’t understand how it is that their child’s teacher hasn’t been evaluated even once in five years, and they likely will support tenure reform once they grasp what that would actually look like in their community and in their school.

It is imperative that we disrupt what Petrilli calls the “Lake Wobegon Delusion” and Mike suggests more “reader-friendly report cards and better approaches to parent-teacher conferences.” I wasn’t clear what he meant by that, so I asked him. Essentially he’s saying that there has to be an easy and clear way for teachers to get to the bottom line and alert parents that staff at the school are concerned about a student. We as parents are instinctively wired to convince ourselves that things aren’t really that bad. That would be much harder for us to do if the report card communicated very simply, “we are worried about your son” or “your daughter is reading three years below grade level.” These are hard messages to receive, but they would go a long way in shaking parents out of their misplaced confidence that their kid is doing just fine.

But again, parents should be active—and respected—participants in the conversation about how to simplify and strengthen the information that comes home on the report card and is shared during conferences. They are the ones who will have to read and understand the report cards, and they are also the ones who will be signing up for and attending parent-teacher conferences. Include them in the conversations on the front end rather than react when it all goes wrong on the back end.

Petrilli calls for valid and reliable ways to measure school quality beyond test scores, and he highlights the importance of civics and citizenship. But I’d remind him that, if we are really listening to parents, school safety is their first priority, and all other measures of school quality, understandably, pale in comparison. And it isn’t just school shootings they have on their minds, though this year has certainly led to an increase in worry about that; parents are worried about bullying, racism, and assault. The number of African Americans who have chosen to homeschool their children is on the rise, and when asked why, they increasingly cite school-related racism. So of course civics and citizenship are hugely important, but no parent will ever give a damn about them if they don’t think their child is safe at school.

Gwen Samuel, founder and president of the Connecticut Parents Union, has spent much of the past year focused on school safety, and she had this to say: “There is one issue that bonds parents across racial and social lines, and that is school safety. If our children aren't safe at school, we are not trying to hear anything else.” 

And while powerful interest groups and big name celebrities lay claim to how they think school safety is defined, parents must be part of determining what school safety means to them, as well as what the most valid and reliable ways to measure school quality are for them. Moms and dads can’t be the only ones defining those measures. But with sound information, they have a critical role to play in that conversation.

As Petrilli says in his piece, “for grades K–8, the challenge is to push the pedal to the metal, win the political battles, and “get ‘er done.”

My response to that is, “yes...but.” If we don’t bring families along in the process, we will never “get ‘er done.” It will be that sandcastle by the sea that Keri Rodrigues describes, and we will continue to feel like we are back at square one instead of truly moving the needle for kids.

Petrilli is much more alarmist on the high school front, and with good reason. With some exceptions, the typical American high school is broken,” he says, “and has been for a long time. These institutions are supposed to prepare students for ‘what’s next’ — but they are failing this task with alarming regularity.”

Let’s stop right there. Before we can even talk about how to get parents on board to fix this problem, we have to find more effective ways to inform them about the stunning lack of preparedness for “what’s next” that we see in students across the board. At the moment, they are not convinced. In many cases, they don’t even believe, let alone admit, that there’s a problem.

I have been beating this drum for years in my own community, and time and time again the response is “but their report card looks good,” “who cares about the test scores?,” “I went to that school and turned out fine. What’s the problem?”

While the problems plaguing America’s high schools are varied, the lack of preparedness for future study and work is pretty universal, though obviously more dire in some places than in others. Whether we are looking at student proficiency on NAEP, college remediation rates, or college persistence, the news is stark and we are not doing an adequate job bringing that message to parents in a way that penetrates. Simply put, far too many parents don’t believe that problem is that bad.

But as Mike lays out in his piece, it is that bad, especially for low-income students of color:

“Sixty percent of black high school graduates who matriculate to college (either two-year or four-year) do not complete a degree or credential of any kind within six years; and an astounding 90 percent of low-income students who start college in remedial course do not complete a degree or credential of any kind within six years.”

According to Mike, “the college-prep route works OK for 35 to 40 percent of American students.” I suspect parents would be surprised by that figure, would want to better understand its causes, and would welcome being part of a conversation about how to improve it, as well as about what other pathways may exist for their children.

As CTE becomes less taboo, parents will add tremendous value to conversations about what a resurgence in CTE could and should look like and how it may be time to dial down the volume on the “bachelor’s or bust” mantra.

Mike describes the changes needed to the American high school as “enormous shifts,” and it goes without saying that none of it will work or be sustainable without the buy-in and support of parents. Securing that will take tremendous effort and time. But it is worth it.

If we acknowledge that we spend too much time debating already knowledgeable people and not enough time providing parents with reliable and smart information free of jargon and wonk-speak, we will be on a better path to lasting reform—a path that doesn’t just say it values parents, but actually adds seats to the table and sees parents as integral partners in getting us to where we want and need to go.

Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute