menu search recent posts

What is happening in among some school districts in Idaho offers a glimpse into one of the many changes that will (and have to) come to the teaching profession in general — and American public education overall. Thanks to a state law passed earlier this year, teachers will receive merit bonuses based on meeting a series of metrics related to improving student achievement. For the Wendell district in Twin Falls, which is looking to better-engage the families of the children they teach, the bonus plan has become a blessing in disguise. At Wendell High School, as much as 70 percent of the bonuses that will be handed out is based on whether teachers bring 40 percent or more of parents into classrooms for parent-teacher conferences; similar incentives are in place for teachers in other schools throughout the district. And so far, the move (along with others) have had a good result: Seventy-seven percent of families showed up for the district’s parent-teachers conferences this year, an 18 percentage point increase over the previous school year.

The current generation of teachers — and those who will follow them into the profession over the next two decades — should expect more of this in the future. Engaging families and accepting their lead position as decision-makers in education will be one of the three factors in teacher performance evaluations, will factor into merit bonuses and pay increases, may play a part in grants that they can receive for high-quality work, and could even make a difference between whether a teacher moves up from one performance-based salary band to another or, perhaps, even becoming a principal. This means going beyond far-too-late report cards and oft-inconvenient parent-teacher conferences to really active communication that starts weeks before kids enter their classrooms for the first time.

And this will also be true for principals: As the weakening of collective bargaining agreements lead to districts handing principals more power over hiring and firing staff, those school leaders will have to be accountable for the efforts of all teachers in improving student achievement. Not only does this mean improving student test score performance — the most-objective and reliable way of measuring student and teacher success — but working more-productively with families who demand better and want to help. So principals must spot teachers who not only do a great job in improving student performance, but who also know how to well with families, especially those from poor and first-time middle class backgrounds who are just learning how to navigate American public education.

These will be jarring changes for many teachers, principals, and schools. But they are needed. Accepting families as lead decision-makers in education is not only critical to addressing the nation’s education crisis, it also helps improve the professionalism of the teaching profession itself. Lawyers and doctors can attest that they cannot do their jobs on behalf of their clients without being responsive to their concerns; same is true for nearly every aspect of the private sector. It is time that education embraces a family- and child-centered focus in helping all students succeed in school and in life.

As Temple University Professor William W. Cutler III noted in Parents and Schools: The 150-year struggle for control in American education that families have never been really welcomed in schools, and have been treated as afterthoughts, nuisances, and political pawns. Principals and teachers have relegated families to helping out on field trips and homework. Superintendents and school boards co-opted parents and parent-teacher outfits for the purposes of winning tax increases, additional federal and state subsidies, and fundraising from the private sector. Education traditionalists conveniently blame families whenever there are revelations of the failings of the system they have long perpetuated.

Education traditionalists always (rightfully) tout the importance of it in student success. Yet their attitudes toward parents hardly makes such engagement likely. From the parent-teacher open houses that are often scheduled during the work day, to report cards that are sent out far too late in the school year for families to do anything to help their kids get back on track (or stay on it), schools don’t do a good job of making it easy for parents to be engaged in the first place. As Dr. Steve Perry makes clear in his new book, Push Has Come to Shove, American public education has done a great job of alienating parents (and making them feel bad about not being as involved as they want to be without making) and a terrible job of including them in school decision-making.

This state of affairs is true for nearly all families stuck with traditional district schools regardless of where they live and how much they earn. As Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews noted in a piece he wrote this month about the fracas between parents at Leesburg Elementary School in Virginia’s Loudoun County and the school’s principal, the very idea of families asking questions is something of an anathema. The condescension displayed in one teacher’s piece on “Burger King parents” and “Grass-is-greener parents” ends up being more typical than rare — especially for  middle-class black and Latino families, who find themselves fighting to keep their kids from being steered off the college route by ability tracking regimes. For big-city families, including those from poor and minority backgrounds, the state of affairs is often even worse. Peter McDermott and Julia Johnson Rothenberg of at the Sage Colleges have noted in their research on school engagement that urban and low-income parents often perceive schools to be unwelcoming and interactions with teachers to be “painful encounters.”

Why have we made it so easy for many teachers and principals to neglect their obligations to families? Start with the structure of American public education, which makes real family engagement and communication less than valuable for schools. Just one-fifth of all American families in position to exercise any meaningful form of school choice — including vouchers, charter schools and intra-district choice. This means that for most traditional districts, families are a captive market, and thus, can be ignored by teachers and administrators, who don’t have to worry about loss of jobs or revenue.  Former New York City chancellor Joel Klein’s tale about how a secretary noted that he could just simply ignore a ringing telephone because it was probably just some parents on the other line is, in most districts, the reality. The fact that family engagement are not categories for evaluation in teacher and principal performance reviews also means that the only time these groups worry about parents is when they have to deal with those with either enough influence to cause pain to their bosses in central offices, or are children of teachers and administrators who work there. And even if a principal wants to be attentive to families, he has limited ability to address  the biggest issues  on their minds: Their relationships with the teachers who instruct their children. Since collective bargaining agreements dictate that hiring is a central office affair, principals can’t just toss out a teacher because they don’t deal well with parents.

Contrast this with private schools, which continuously communicate with families because those institutions depend on paying customers (and, thus, have power), or good-to-great charter schools, which understand that family engagement is critical to building cultures of genius in which the potential of kids are nurtured (and, also depend on paying customers). Both spend a lot of time developing more-welcoming school cultures, creating special days (at convenient times) when grandparents and others family members can visit and check up on school performance. Since principals and headmasters in those schools often have authority to hire, evaluate, reward, and fire teachers, they can easily take the steps needed to foster more-robust family engagement.

Another culprit lies with university schools of education, which train nearly all of the nation’s teachers and principals. Besides failing to recruit aspiring teachers for subject-matter competency and empathy to children, ed schools don’t even select teacher candidates based on their capacity to be as conversant with parents and other adults — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — as they are with kids. Once aspiring teachers are in training, they are rarely taught such matters as cultural competence (which would allow them to communicate with families from different backgrounds) or how to integrate such simple communications activities as calling families into their classroom work. Add in the system of degree-based pay scales, which reward teachers for acquiring degrees (and, in the process, helps foster a class divide in which some look down on less-credentialed families), and the fact that traditional public education structures teaching as a solo activity instead of a collaborative effort, and it is no wonder why many teachers regard parents as problems.

This inability to converse and work with families extends to principals. As The New Teacher Project noted in a study of teacher evaluation it conducted for the Houston school district, most principals would rather spend less time dealing with parents and caregivers. Because most school leadership training programs — including those developed by school reformers — don’t bother dealing with family engagement, principals (and their bosses at the central office) This, by the way, is part of a larger problem of communication within American public education. As Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Steve Peha noted in his series on school leadership, the fact that most principals come from the teaching ranks means that they are better-equipped to talk to children than to lead teachers and converse with parents and other adults.

But now, the expansion of charter schools in big cities, along with the growth of school vouchers and voucher-like tax credit programs in 13 states, have given families more opportunities to choose schools for their kids and not put up with mistreatment. The passage of Parent Trigger laws in three states — which allow families to demand the overhaul of failing schools — along with the emergence of Parent Power groups also means that more districts will have to accept families as lead decision-makers in education. And the efforts of National PTA to demand districts to engage in real family engagement — including its National Standards for Family-School Partnerships and the rewards the organization hands out to schools that make the grade — and actually require it as part of school turnaround efforts has also brought new pressures on teachers and principals used to having it their way.

Meanwhile the systemic reform of American public education is also slowly forcing a change in the relationship between teachers, principals, and the families whose children they serve.

As more states move to weighted student funding formulas under which funding follows students no matter the school they attend — essentially voucherizing school funding — decisions will move from central offices down to schools. This, along with expanded school choice and the slow disintegration of the traditional district model along the lines of New Orleans’ Recovery School District, will force schools and principals to compete for families (and dollars). More-robust school data systems will lead to additional information on how teachers and schools affect student progress, giving families more information they can use the same way they shop for cars with Carfax.com, Consumer Reports and other guides. The move away from degree- and seniority-based pay scales and into new structures for compensating teachers (including performance-based salary bands, performance bonuses, and even grants that can be used to start new programs) means that teachers will have to be more entrepreneurial in their work, figuring out new ways to work with families. And with more-rigorous evaluations (and the use of Value-Added analysis of student test data in those performance reviews), teachers and principals will have to work more-productively with families in order to help kids succeed.

All these changes, fostered by revelations of mediocrity and abject failure in traditional public education fostered by the accountability and data disaggregation requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, are helping many parents to finally that the old notion that any school or teacher will do is a myth. They will have to be active players in shaping education. Which means teaching and school leadership must change. Many teachers will have to realize that parents will no longer accept arguments that they need autonomy, that they are the sole experts in education, and that they must simply trust that the kids are learning. Principals will have to accept that working with families is as important for their success as evaluating teachers; so they must set the example in their own activities and demand everyone in the building to follow accordingly.

And many teachers and principals will need to stop looking at families as nuisances and enemies. After all, they are the adults who run the schools at the center of the lives of the children these families love. They deserve respect

Our systems of recruiting, training, and rewarding teachers and principals must adapt to this reality. And school reformers must make this happen. The revamp of evaluations offers opportunities to make family engagement and Parent Power key elements in measuring teacher and principal performance. So does the further expansion of school choice; as a report . These immediate solutions can help pave the way for stronger, more-robust relations between families and schools.

So can simply adapting to the times. In an age in which Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail are communications tools for every family no matter their economic status, there is no reason why a teacher cannot inform families immediately once their kids starts veering off track academically. The KIPP chain of charter schools, for example, expects teachers to be available by phone; this should be the case in every school. Principals should make it clear that they expect teachers to start communicating early and often with families — in fact, meeting before the start of the school year. And in an age in which every adult in two-parent household works — and households led by single parents, along with aging grandparents, teachers and principals should make it easier for families to meet them face-to-face.

Over the long haul, the recruiting and training of aspiring teachers must also change. Ed schools, along with alternative teacher training programs, should add ability to communicate (and empathize) with families as a critical element of selecting their candidates. Early clinical training in actual school settings is also important to helping aspiring teachers learn how to work with families. Ed schools must also ditch outdated pedagogies — including the Poverty Myth of Education — that hold little regard for the role of families as leaders in schools. Outfits geared toward developing principals and superintendents such as New Leaders for New Schools and the Broad Foundation should also develop training programs that emphasize Parent Power and family engagement in their curricula.

Parent Power is part of the future of teaching in American public education. It should have always been a part of it. And everyone who works in schools must adapt to these changes — or be left behind in the ashbin of education history.