What We Have Here Is a Failure in Parent Communication

Last week, when announcing his incoming secretary of education, new New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy noted his intentions to “stop using PARCC tests.” The statement was hardly controversial. Across the Garden State, parents have spent the past three years voicing frustrations with the student assessment, reading from the talking points of Common Core and testing opponents.

So when the then governor-elect joined with parent advocates and the teachers unions in calling for the state to “create new, more effective and less class time-intrusive means for measuring student assessment,” it was no surprise that social media lit up in celebration.

Outside of Princeton, in my little Mayberry RFD, parents rejoiced. For days, Facebook has lit up with messages of parents bidding the state test adieu. They celebrated the end of PARCC. They applauded that their kids wouldn’t have to take the weeks-long tests this winter. They cheered going back to the good ol’ days. They thanked the incoming governor for finally taking action. And in doing so, their premature jubilation reveals our failures to adequately engage parents in the policy process and communicate with them on important issues.

So dear ol’ Eduflack spent the weekend being the proverbial skunk at the garden party. Pointing out that the governor’s works have to be translated into legislative action by the New Jersey state legislature. Noting that New Jersey must still administer annual assessments on almost all of its K-12 students, and that PARCC has to be replaced with something else. Highlighting that if the state doesn’t use PARCC or Smarter Balanced, then it would need to pay to develop a similar test that would have to be approved by the federal government. And making clear that, even if such actions were taken this spring, it would be years before our kids would be free from PARCC assessments in the classroom.

Yes, parents across the state and throughout the country are well intended. Yes, they are paying enough attention to the issues that they are able to share anti-testing talking points like the length of tests, the use of technology, and the absence of early childhood experts in test development. But we are doing a great disservice when we only share part of the process – and part of the solution – with families.

One can’t throw a rock in education policy discussions without hitting someone speaking of the importance of family involvement and parental voice in the discussion. Just as we like to declare the Simpson-eque, “what about the children?” in such discussion, so too do we ask where the parents are in the debate.

But too many are selective in how they want that parent voice present. We don’t want them involved in curricular discussions because that is the purview of the educators. We don’t want them to have too much power with regard to school choice, for that should be a decision of policymakers. We don’t want them involved in teacher evaluation, for they are unaware of the challenges and nuances of what happens in a school and classroom.

So we largely welcome parents twice a year to short parent-teacher conferences, we applaud when they show up for PTA meetings and school concerts, and we hope we won’t need to see them otherwise for disciplinary actions. We certainly don’t want them showing up on the school doorstep with their concerns regarding what is happening behind those doors.

Years ago, I was fortunate to collaborate with a group of tremendous researchers, scientists, educators, and parents on the book, Why Kids Can’t Read: Continuing to Challenge the Status Quo in Education. The book was designed to serve as a primer for parents to get involved in improving reading instruction in their kids’ classrooms. By focusing on what the research tells us, what is working in schools, what other parents have dealt with, and what tools can make a successful parent advocate, Why Kids Can’t Read was written to empower parents in their quest for a world-class education for their kids, for all kids.

In writing it, and since in dealing with my own struggles as a special education parent, it is clear we largely don’t want empowered parents in the schools. If we look back through history, there are only a handful of moments where education policy truly changed because of the power of parents. Instead, we prefer to keep parents at arm’s length, giving only the illusion of involvement.

If we are serious about parents as partners in the learning process, we need to figure out how to truly educate them on it. It is insufficient to equip them solely with the talking points found on social media, and then expect them to be active partners in improvement. Better, stronger educational opportunities for our children can only come when parents are better educated on the processes and policies themselves.

Otherwise, parents are simply the proverbial dog chasing the squirrel, reacting to the latest buzzwords and urban legends shared on social media with the same buzzwords and urban legends they heard the week or month before. And that’s no way to improve teaching and learning for our children.

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