When we talk about education improvement initiatives, we often immediately focus on the role of the teacher. Eduflack is quick to note that teaching, particularly in the 21st century, is one of the most challenging careers out there. Some people are cut out to be excellent, effective teachers. Others simply aren’t up to the challenges and rigors of our current classrooms. One of our most important responsibilities in ed reform is making sure we are getting the right teachers in the right classrooms, and we are helping those teachers that just aren’t up to the challenge.
But what about the role of the parent? When we talk about changing student learning behaviors, classroom instructional approaches, and school environments, what is the responsibility of the parent? It is a question we ask far less than we should, but it is an issue that is becoming front and center.
At last week’s presidential debate, Barack Obama donned the Bill Cosby sweater (as he has before) and spoke of parental responsibility, the need to turn off the television, pick up a book, and focus on a child’s future. In his education-focused campaign commercials, Obama says much of the same, placing responsibility for student achievement squarely on the shoulders of the parents, along with the new, effective teachers he is recruiting.
Over at Education Week, David Hoff has a piece on how the presidential candidates’ views on parental engagement differ. www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/10/15/08parents.h28.html But Hoff’s piece is really just the start of the story.
For years now, parents have almost been the third rail of education reform. Teachers and school administrators expect a subset of parents to come in and “complain” about learning conditions each year. These squeaky wheels are what keep our schools moving, as some parents demand more for their kids, require more slack for others. For every other parent, we just hope they show up for the annual parent/teacher conference, sign the permission slips, and generally stay content and out of the way.
If we are to truly improve our schools, we need active, educated parents involved in the process. This means more than just complaining about the here and now. It means getting invested in the future and what can be. Yes, it means turning off the TV (or the computer or the Wii/XBox/360). But it also means so much more. Parents are a linchpin to improving student achievement and closing the achievement gap. They are key to getting more rigorous programs in the schools, including more AP courses and more STEM courses. They are central to improving school choice, including charters, magnets, and virtual learning opportunities. And they are important to successful teacher recruitment efforts, getting the very best into our classrooms and ensuring that they stay in our communities. In the collective sense, parents are the one constant in our ever-changing education universe.
What does parental improvement really mean, in today’s era of accountability, school improvement, and student achievement? Eduflack has seven simple tenets, based on the real needs of our real classrooms:
* Parents need to understand standards and what is expected of their students academically. What does it mean to be proficient? What is my student expected to learn during this particular grade? Ideally, parents would demand a common national standard so they know how their child measures up to children across the nation.
* Parents need to know how their child is actually doing. Am I getting regular progress reports? Where are the gaps? What are the available interventions? What can I do to supplement instruction at home? Parents need to obtain their own child’s data and know what it means.
* Parents need to understand the curriculum. What textbooks and workbooks are my kids using? What materials are coming home? What instructional materials are my kids enjoying? Parents need to ensure we are implementing what works.”
* Parents need to know their kids’ teachers. Am I engaging with the teacher during more than just the traditional parent/teacher conferences? Am I taking advantage of email addresses or phone numbers? Am I taking an active interest in the process, and not just complaining about what is happening to my kid? Parents need to be partners with their teachers, not adversaries.
* Parents need to know their choices. Have I visited my child’s school? Do I know about charter school opportunities? What about virtual school opportunities? Do I understand the supplemental services that may be available to my kid or my community? Parents need to know their rights and know all the opportunities available to them.
* Parents need to get involved. If we are requiring community service for students to graduate from high school, why can’t we require school service for families whose kids are moving from grade to grade? Parents need to be a fixture in the classroom and the school.
* Parents need to know learning happens beyond the schoolhouse doors. Education is not limited to classrooms and teachers only. Parents have a responsibility to supplement education at home, providing learning opportunities, encouraging their kids, ensuring homework is complete, and moving education from obligation to opportunity for all kids. They need to be the first and the constant teacher in their child’s life.
Too often, we think it is easier in public education if we can keep parents out of the mix. Keep them content (or keep them uninvolved), and it is easier to get things done. It is also easier to protect the status quo. Parents are a key lever to truly improve education. But that only comes with knowledgeable, motivated, involved parents. Perhaps the time has come for a real parental education bill of rights, one focused on the parents’ roles and responsibilities in improving the school, boosting student achievement, and increasing opportunity for all students … particularly their own children.