When it comes to the role of parents at the education decision-making table, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, school districts and folks such as Diane Ravitch think parents should be like kids: Barely seen and definitely not heard. If you don’t believe it, consider the reaction by the Compton Unified School District, the AFT’s local affiliate and such commentators as Valerie Strauss and Larry Ferlazzo to the move by parents at McKinley Elementary School to make use of California’s Parent Trigger law and oust the district from management of the school. From where the status quo folks stand, the McKinley parents exercising Parent Trigger are either dupes for nefarious charter school operators and evil, money-hungry foes of public education such as Ben Austin; or the parents are evil for daring to toss out decades of abysmal school management and classroom instruction. In their minds, it’s simply not possible for parents to actually be able to make their own choices.
Yet evidence abounds that when parents are highly-informed about the quality of education in their schools, driven to kick mediocrity and abysmal education to the curb, and given the tools to help their kids, they will certainly do so. Minorities and parents in high-poverty districts, for example, were more likely than middle-class parents to request a teacher for their child based on how teachers improved student achievement, according to a 2005 study by University of Michigan researcher Brian Jacob and Lars Lefgren of Brigham Young University. The growth of the charter school movement, the continuing presence of Catholic schools, the growth of online and alternative education options such as Sylvan and Kaplan, and the work of such organizations as the State of Black CT Alliance in rallying support for school reform, are also signs that parents should be given their rightful places as kings and lead decision-makers in education.
Despite the evidence, the Ravitches and Ferlazzos maintain an attitude that parents should stay at the kid’s table when it comes to actually making school decisions. And it isn’t limited to Parent Trigger. Whether one is in a middle class suburb or in a big city, the attitude is generally the same: Parents should stick to field trips, homework and taking blame when test scores and graduation rates are revealed to be abysmal or mediocre.
This is especially so in urban districts, where poor and minority parents — many of whom have suffered in the same dropout factories and failure mills their kids are now educationally imprisoned — are shunted aside as so much garbage. More often than not, many teachers look down at these parents as being their inferiors instead of treating parents as equals. The experience of Virginia Walden Ford, who launched the school reform movement in Washington, D.C., is echoed in a study by Sage Colleges professors Peter McDermott and Julia Johnson Rothenberg, who noted that urban and low-income parents often perceive schools to be unwelcoming and interactions with teachers to be “painful encounters.”
Certainly this attitude among the status quo is manifested in other ways: The opposition to charter schools among the Gary Orfield-Richard Kahlenberg crowd (most recently expressed in a Miller-McCune interview with Erica Frankenburg and Gary Miron) on the ground that they foster resegregation; Miron in particular, ignores the reality that parents seek charter schools as high-quality options by declaring that “parents choose based on race and social class”. Then there is the embrace of the Ruby Payne-promulgated poverty myth — that poor parents are simply incapable of playing strong roles in education — among teachers and administrators. The low regard for even middle class parents among teachers, who label these families as “Burger King Parents” and “The Grass is Always Greener” for daring to demand more on behalf of their kids.
Certainly the reality that the players within the status quo — teachers union bosses, ed school professors, school administrators and even many teachers — don’t want to give up their power and autonomy is one reason for this opposition to parent power. The other reason lies with their conceit (one they share with some school reformers) that experts should actually make education decisions. After all, an ed school professor and a teacher with an array of grad degrees should have more knowledge about what kids should learn (and how it should happen) than some parent. Yet, as we have seen over the past 150 years — from the comprehensive high school model (created because of the misguided belief that immigrants and African Americans were incapable of mastering college prep work) to the array of new math theories that have fallen flat and even the traditional system of teacher compensation — the experts aren’t so good at this thing called education. Combined with other problems among status quo circles — including the rampant anti-intellectualism, willful ignorance of economics and unwillingness to consider the developments in sectors outside of K-12 — and this conceited view of parents turns from mere condescension to outright hostility.
Yet the rise of the modern school reform movement — and the emergence of charter schools, school choice and Parent Trigger — has all but assured that parents will be playing a stronger role in education. The underlying infrastructure for exercising decision-making — easy access to useful information through guides, organizations or Web sites; actual mechanisms for exercising choice that exist outside of home purchases — is just coming into existence. Many parents are just beginning to realize that the old concept of education — that the school can educate every child without active engagement of families that goes beyond homework and field trips — has gone by the wayside. But as I wrote at this same time last year, the school reform movement (like the development of cellphones and other consumer goods) is fostering choice. And choice begets choice; once parents are exposed to having real power and engagement in school decisionmaking, they will not want the so-called experts — including NEA and AFT bosses and the Ravitches of the world — in their way.
What McKinley represents is a response to the status quo: How dare you argue that families can’t think for themselves! How dare you limit our kids only to the proverbial sky! And by the way: Work with us or get out of the way! You’re either part of a better future or just boulders to be pushed aside.
The hostility against parents among education’s status quo is essentially anti-children. What these experts are tacitly arguing is that the educational, economic and social destinies of kids — especially our poorest children — don’t matter a wit. It’s time for parents to shunt these folks aside and take the power that is rightfully theirs.