Jay Mathews Keeps Getting It Wrong on Parent Trigger
Certainly there is plenty to admire about Jay Mathews, the dean of education reporters who writes the Washington Post‘s Class Struggle column. But one of his weak spots remains his inability to accept the new paradigm in education of families being lead decision-makers in education. Despite his own pieces that show how traditional districts in suburbia have done plenty to condescend and keep middle-class families who supposedly under their thumb (including the response of school officials in tony Loudoun County, Va., to parents at Leesburg Elementary School demanding that the school provide better accounting of funds raised by families through its parents-teachers organization and offer more details on how the school was helping kids improve their achievement), Mathews still argues that families are too incapable of playing powerful roles in schools and should leave education decisions to teachers and school leaders alone. For him, Parent Trigger laws and other Parent Power efforts do little more than divide families and bring politics into what he thinks should be an apolitical affair.
Such thinking can be seen in Mathews’ latest piece deriding Parent Trigger laws, in which he touts the concept of teacher home visits such as those done by a group called HOME WORKS!, an outfit based out of St. Louis, Mo. Proclaiming that home visits help “children learn more”, Mathews declares that Parent Trigger laws are “terrible wastes of time” and aren’t worth passing because it supposedly creates political division (an argument advanced by others opposed to Parent Trigger laws that I have already Ginzu-knifed into nothing), and more importantly, because families are to incapable to figure out how to overhaul a school.
The first problem with Mathews’ argument lies in the absence of evidence for his declaration that teacher home visits are effective in improving student achievement. As a journalist, Mathews should know better than offer an argument without citing supporting data. For this, I actually went to the organization’s site and reviewed its 2010-2011 evaluation. What it shows is this: Although students involved in the HOME WORKS! program did increase attendance from around 84 percent to over 90 percent, it wasn’t much higher than that for students who didn’t participate in the program (whose attendance increased from 83 percent to 88 percent in the school year); more importantly, the HOME WORKS! students already had higher levels of attendance than their peers when they began participation. (The fact that the program uses traditional district attendance measures that are unreliable in showing levels of chronic truancy is also a problem.) While math grades for HOME WORKS! students did increase, the fact that grades are too subjective an indicator to be used in evaluating student performance means that there is no real data on HOME WORKS! impact on student achievement; the lack of value-added data on student test score growth, either from state tests or formative assessments, also makes it difficult to know how well the program is doing.
In essence, Mathews finds himself touting a program without enough evidence to justify his praise. This isn’t to say teacher home visits aren’t a good idea; Dropout Nation supports home visits as one of many ways to build strong ties between teachers, school leaders, and families; after all, not every family is going to want to be so actively engaged in shaping curricula and school operations. But it’s unlikely that home visits on their own improve student achievement. More importantly, home visits do little to address the real problems of low-quality teaching and shoddy school leadership that are endemic throughout American public education.
The second problem with Mathews’ argument lies with his statement that Parent Trigger laws have “had zero effect on achievement.” Given that the first Parent Trigger law was passed just three years ago, of course there’s no evidence of it. By even making such a statement, Mathews weakens the credibility of his overall argument for supporting home visits. More importantly, in dismissing Parent Trigger laws, Mathews dismisses the evidence that shows the benefits of families playing strong roles in education decision-making. This includes the work of a University of Chicago team led by Anthony Bryk and John Easton (now the director of the Institute of Education Sciences) that shows that family engagement is one of the five key elements of advancing school turnarounds; and the University of Arkansas’ most-recent study on the success of students using Milwaukee’s school voucher program.
What Mathews consistently fails to realize is that Parent Trigger, like other school choice and Parent Power measures, allows families to actually help their kids succeed in school and spurs them to be fully engaged in education and learn more about how their kids can get a high-quality education. As James Guthrie of the George W. Bush Institute has pointed out, the only real way that families can really be engaged in schools is if they actually have the ability to actually shape the education their kids receive. This doesn’t mean all will want to even go so far as to actually manage schools. What it does mean is that families stuck with failing schools can grab their copies of Organizing Schools for Improvement, read Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors, and take advantage of the digital and other tools that can be used to transform failure mills into cultures of genius fit for the kids they love. Given the success of those in the homeschooling movement, it is quite possible for families to figure out how to build schools fit for all kids.
But Mathews’ distrust of parents isn’t surprising. He has far too much faith in those he considers to be education experts, including folks such as former New York City school leader-turned-Diane Ravitch fellow-traveler Deborah Meier and others he calls “imaginative educators”. But in putting too much trust in expertise, he fails to admit that 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. After all, it is these so-called experts who have backed practices such 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 for the nation’s education crisis.
In the process, Mathews ignores the fact that many of the most-successful school reform efforts have been mounted not by experts, but by those outside of education, from Steve Barr and his Green Dot charter schools, to Joel Klein’s overhaul of New York City’s schools, to Virginia Walden Ford’s grassroots reform initiatives in Washington, D.C. The reality is that it is going to take smart, dedicated, and reform-minded men and women inside and outside of education to transform failure mills, dropout factories, and warehouses of mediocrity into cultures of genius that serve all children well. This includes families who can become the kind of unabashed school reformers and impromptu leaders we need to make it happen in every neighborhood and school. Families are no longer willing to just trust the experts, especially when they learn about and experience dysfunctional and failing school and district cultures.
Teachers meeting with parents is a good thing. But families need more than just home visits. They need real power, both to transform the schools in their own neighborhoods and to escape Zip Code Education policies that condemn their kids (and even the parents themselves) to prisons of economic and social despair. And this means more states should do what California, Connecticut, Texas, and Mississippi have done (and what Michigan’s state senate has approved yesterday) by passing Parent Trigger laws.
It’s time for Mathews to stop bashing Parent Power and embrace it instead. Being known for giving comfort to failed thinking isn’t the legacy the legendary journalist should want. And we all know that this lion of education reporting and punditry can do better.