Use parent power to fix our schools

December 19, 2007|By Edwin C. Darden

This month, a national research organization examining reforms at four Maryland school systems released a report that was both disappointing and frustratingly predictable. The Washington-based Center on Education Policy determined that restructuring efforts as called for under the federal No Child Left Behind law were having little impact on failing schools.

Reform efforts such as Maryland's often focus exclusively on making teachers and administrators work harder and smarter during the school day. While well-meaning, that approach is seldom enough. There is, instead, an obvious but often overlooked improvement strategy: engaging parents.

Typically, parents are seen as accessories to the learning process or as disciplinarians-on-demand. They may even be viewed as obstacles. Congress intended to change that view when it enacted No Child Left Behind in 2002. The legislation portrays parents as active partners in education reform who are entitled, by law, to participate in decisions involving their children's schools.

Most school districts, however, have yet to make the shift. In fact, the Center on Education Policy report only mentions the word "parents" in two places, and then in a perfunctory way.

Across the U.S., approximately 2,300 schools are either now eligible or nearly qualify for restructuring under NCLB, meaning they have failed to make "adequate yearly progress" on state test scores for five straight years and must take drastic steps to force improvements. Experts predict that over the next few years, thousands more public elementary and secondary schools will be labeled "failing schools."

NCLB restructuring options include: converting to a charter school, dismissing the administrator and staff and starting over again, initiating a state takeover or hiring an improvement specialist.

Parents must be a key part of the restructuring equation. That won't occur by happenstance. The burden is on schools to take extraordinary efforts to engage parents and accommodate their schedules. That is particularly true in low-income communities, where parents have less-flexible work schedules and where school is, for many, a bad memory.

The Baltimore school system is among a handful of big-city school districts in the country actively striving to engage parents. Its "family and community engagement policy" requires each city school to develop a parent involvement program that is evaluated for its effectiveness every year by district officials. The district has also established a parent call response center that addresses concerns in English and Spanish.

In Montgomery County, schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast recently said his district spends a lot of money every year trying to teach low-income parents "how to kick my butt ... how to work the system just like affluent people." The district's programs include a "parent academy" offering more than 35 workshops about school and home interactions.

Faced with restructuring, well-off parents would most certainly mobilize. They know from experience that working the chain of command, marshaling like-minded parents and simply being present can bring pressure for change.

Parents living in poverty, however, are much less likely to believe they have the power to improve their children's education. Research conducted by Appleseed, a network of public interest justice centers, shows that disadvantaged parents often feel unsure about going into a school building, have trouble getting time off from work for parent-teacher conferences and frequently face language barriers.

Maryland laudably invests money and effort into bolstering parent involvement initiatives. For example, the state sponsors a Parent Involvement Matters Award and hosts a dynamic parent resources Web site, and the Maryland Education Department includes people whose primary job is to focus on ways of getting parents involved in education.

But, unfortunately, such efforts are not the norm. Clearly, more needs to be done if schools are to fully reap the rewards of an active and engaged parent community.

Five years of NCLB have taught us that not everything worthwhile can be precisely measured, and not everything that is measured is worthwhile.

School districts in Maryland and around the nation should acknowledge that the contributions parents make to academic success are, when all is said and done, truly immeasurable.

Edwin C. Darden is director of education policy at Appleseed, which last year issued the report "It Takes a Parent: Transforming Education in the Wake of the No Child Left Behind Act." His e-mail is edarden@appleseednetwork.org.

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