Your editor doesn’t necessarily like criticizing education reporters he admires such as Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews. Especially after he mentions Dropout Nation‘s revelations about the American Federation of Teachers’ real views on Parent Trigger laws. But when Jay Mathews writes a column about Parent Trigger and Parent Power, he offers up a doozy. Mathews declares in his latest Class Struggle that Parent Trigger laws should be “tossed into the trash”. Why? From where he sits, Parent Trigger laws are divisive and “fashionable” reforms that are ineffective in taking on “the power centers” in education, and will do little more than disappoint parents. He thinks parents, who, in his mind, know nothing (and seemingly, are incapable of learning about what their kids need for learning), should just leave things to “imaginative educators” who know better.
The fact that Parent Trigger laws have already been passed in three states pretty much proves lie to Mathews’ argument. So does the fact that there have been other so-called “fashionable” school reform efforts, namely the charter school movement, that started out as small clusters. But more on that in a bit.
The first problem with Mathews’ argument is that he fails to consider the reality of education for many families, including those from poor households and minorities save for an Oprah Winfrey. Let’s be clear about this: It’s easy for Mathews, who lives in suburbia and has the means, financial and otherwise, to choose high-quality schools, to deem the efforts of Parent Power activists to be little more than “attacking Fort Bragg with a pea-shooter”. But for poor and minority families, many of which are stuck with the worst American public education offers, American public education is hardly welcoming. As Peter McDermott and Julia Johnson Rothenberg of at the Sage Colleges have noted in their research on school engagement, urban and low-income parents often perceive schools to be unwelcoming and interactions with teachers to be “painful encounters.” And as University of Michigan Associate Professor Karyn Lacey noted in Blue-Chip Black, her sociological study of middle-class black families in the area surrounding the nation’s capital, black families living in Fairfax County found themselves battling teachers and guidance counselors who wanted to relegate children to academic tracks that keep them from getting high-paying white- and blue-collar jobs.
As for division and disenchantment? Let’s get real: There is already division, and it has been caused by education traditionalists and politicians, who, for far too long, have treated families — especially those from poor and minority households — as nuisances and afterthoughts. Families are already disenchanted with the political processes that often shortchange their kids on behalf of adults concerned with preserving their influence. When you even have middle-class black households battling administrators and teachers over whether their child should take A.P. courses (a matter that, as former National Science and Math Initiative president Tom Luce points out, happens way too often), there will be plenty of disenchantment and disappointment.
It is time to stop treating parents as if they can’t understand something as simple as what their child should know by the end of third grade — and as if their perspectives, both as protectors of their children and taxpayers, are invalid. And Parent Trigger laws are the ways they can get in the game. They offer families an important first step for these families to actually force districts and those who influence them (including affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers to give them their and our children their due.
What Mathews also fails to remember is that there isn’t a movement in history that didn’t start with a small group of people battling what he calls “power centers” in education. Every movement — including the colonialists who fought led the American Revolution, Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle against British colonialism, the civil rights movement, the migrant workers effort of Cesar Chavez and yes, the modern school choice movement — has started out with a small core group of passionate, determined men and women willing to take on influential status quo defenders. If anything, Parent Power activists have an easier time because they are part of a larger school reform movement that is already challenging a failed vision of American public education.
Then there’s Mathews’ argument that only “imaginative educators” can actually lead the overhaul of American public education. This belief in the myth of expertise fails to consider the reality that has been apparent for most of the past century: Teachers and other educators aren’t exactly experts in education. If anything, one of the reasons why American public education is in such dire straits is because its operations have been left to “experts” for far too long.
Thanks to experts, we have such practices as the overuse of suspensions and expulsions, the overdiagnosis of learning disabilities (especially among young black men, whose reading deficiencies are often diagnosed as being special ed problems), and that manifestation of early 20th century racialism (and belief that minorities and immigrant are incapable of learning) that is ability tracking and the comprehensive high school model, all of which are among the underlying reasons. It has been “expertise” that has given us the traditional system of teacher training that, as both former Teachers College President Arthur Levine and others have pointed out, has been ineffective in recruiting and preparing aspiring teachers for classrooms. And it is those experts whose defense of tenure and other practices that perpetuate mediocrity who have driven some of our greatest teachers — including John Taylor Gatto and Jaime Escalante — out of our classrooms.
The most-positive reforms of the past three decades have not been driven by “experts”, but by men and women outside of education — especially parents. It was Virginia Walden Ford who forced the reforms that are slowly improving D.C.’s traditional public school system and bringing high-quality options into the poorest neighborhoods. It was the work of Joel Klein in New York City that has led to one of the most-amazing revivals of a traditional district; while the efforts of Steve Barr in forming Green Dot charter schools and agitating for Parent Power that led L.A. Unified to undergo its current overhaul. It was Eric Hanushek and William Sanders, neither of whom taught a class, who developed such revolutions in education such as Value-Added Measurement of test-score data), while non-teachers such as Jay P. Greene, Michael Holzman, Robert Balfanz and Christopher Swanson have furthered unleashed data for use in overhauling schools. And it was a non-teacher, Sandy Kress, who helped make much of modern school reform possible by crafting the No Child Left Behind Act and its Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provisions.
Long before the current efforts in school reform, it was the efforts of Sears mastermind Julius Rosenwald that helped millions of young blacks in the American South get what was then considered a high quality education in the age of Jim Crow segregation. And it was the efforts of an academic in higher education, Harvard University President Charles William Eliot, which led to the high school movement that improved literacy and provided the road map of high-quality college preparatory curricula that drives the school reform movement today.
This isn’t discounting good-to-great teachers. Not at all. After all, it has been educators, from Escalante’s work at Garfield High, to the efforts of Michael Feinberg and Dave Levin in forming KIPP, which proved once and for all that poor and minority students are capable of taking on college-preparatory work. There are thousands of good-to-great teachers, from Roy Jones and his Call Me Mister program, to Steve Perry in Connecticut, and Steve Evangelista of Harlem Link Charter School, who are doing amazing work. If anything, the need to attract these talents to education is why we must reform teacher compensation and reward them with both performance bonuses and with grants that will allow them to start their own schools. But their work isn’t sustainable without families. And families, tired of failure factories, demanding more than fifth-rate, and exercising power through Parent Trigger laws, vouchers and other means, are the ones who will help pave the way for good-to-great teachers to help overhaul American public education.
Here’s the thing: Parents alone won’t overhaul American public education– and no one ever insisted that they would. This education crisis cannot be solved by any one group. And there will be no one solution, not even “imaginative” good-to-great teachers and leaders. But this crisis cannot be solved without parents having the critical role of being lead decision-makers in education. Parent Trigger laws, along with vouchers, charter schools and other forms of school choice, provide families with the tools they need to force changes that should have happened long ago.
Criticizing Mathews is not one of my favorite things. After all, he deserves all the plaudits in the world for his great contributions to education reporting. But on this issue, he’s mistaken.