Thirty years ago, the Reagan Administration helped spur an array of systemic reforms when it released A Nation at Risk. By focusing on what was then the available data on the nation’s education crisis, the report helped lead efforts at developing state curricula standards. The report also spurred a series of new reforms that would help families start taking power in education. By 1991, Minnesota launched the first public charter schools, while Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist worked together with then-district superintendent Howard Fuller and state legislator Polly Williams to launch the nation’s first school voucher program.
Since then, the expansion of charters and vouchers have allowed millions of kids and their families to escape failure and mediocrity for brighter futures. Yet we still must do more to help our families take their rightful roles in being lead decision-makers in education. This includes passing Parent Trigger laws that allow families to expand the meaning of choice by taking control of failing schools in their own communities.
In this Best of Dropout Nation, adapted from a speech given at the Restoring Excellence in Education conference in St. Cloud, Minn., Editor RiShawn Biddle explains why families are looking to take power in education. Read, consider, and take action.
It is great to be here. And I have to especially thank the organizers, including AJ Kern, for bringing me here today. Like so many families, AJ and her husband, John, became part of the Parent Power movement the hard way: Through long and frustrating discussions and battles with those who are supposed to be school leaders who, instead, abandoned their responsibility as guardians of our children and stewards of our tax dollars.
Sadly, and also, fortunately, AJ and John – and you – are not alone. Each and every day, in Minnesota and throughout this nation, parents have woken up and realized that they must take their rightful roles as lead decision-makers in education. And what is happening as a result is absolutely amazing.
In Adelanto, Calif., parents of students attending the Desert Trails Elementary School are working to oust the traditional district that has continually mismanaged the school into systemic academic failure.
In Indiana, the families of 3,919 children are using the state’s new school choice program to escape the failure mills and dropout factories in cities such as Indianapolis, Gary, Fort Wayne, and Hammond. And in the coming school year, more will join them.
On the East Coast, the Connecticut Parents Union, are working the state capital this year to push for teacher quality reforms and other policies that will improve the quality of education for every child throughout the Nutmeg State.
And in Los Angeles, a group of parents have filed a lawsuit against the local district demanding that it finally follow state law and properly evaluate the performance of teachers, something that hasn’t been done – at the expense of the futures of thousands of L.A. kids – in four decades.
What we are seeing across this nation is amazing. Families, tired of waiting for politicians and school leaders to do right by their children, are pushing for reform. Parents are pushing to take their rightful place as the lead decision-makers in education. Moms and dads are demanding that they have the ability to choose schools that are fit for the futures of their children. And they are taking on adults who have perpetuated, aided, and abetted educational neglect and malpractice.
They realize that we must expand school choice. They realize that they must have the power to overhaul the very schools in their own neighborhoods. They realize that every parent needs information on what their kids should know. And they realize they need data on the quality of schools and teachers who have their kids in their care.
And they realize this: That we need a revolution, not an evolution, in American public education. And it cannot happen without families fighting fiercely for their children –and all of our children – no matter whom they are or where they live. Our children need Parent Power. And they need it right now.
If you truly want to understand why we need families to lead this revolution –and why Parent Power is critical to reforming our schools – I want to take you back to a time in history. To the middle of the Great Depression. And meet a young girl who would do everything she could for my mother and I to have a better life than her own. My grandmother.
Until she reached fourth grade, the quality of her education was subpar. As much as my great-grandparents loved her and did their best for her, they couldn’t help her because they could barely read themselves. But my grandma got lucky. In fourth grade, she had what we now call a high-quality teacher, who cared for her well-being, nurtured her genius and potential, and worked with her on reading and on her studies until she performed above grade level.
Thanks to this teacher, my grandma became the first person in our family to attend college. From her, came my mom and I, going places that she could only dream of.
This is not the way it should have been. But then, in my grandmother’s time, an education wasn’t important in earning a wage. For most of this last century, a mother and father could send their child to any school or to any teacher, and they would still do just fine. Regardless of the skill of the teacher or the quality of the school, you could drop out and still earn a middle-class wage.
This isn’t true anymore. Today, we know that in an increasingly global economy, education is critical to success and to survival. Whether you are an accountant or a welder, you need to be proficiently literate and have strong math and science knowledge in order to succeed.
But the bad news is that it is as haphazard for a child to get a high-quality education now as it was back when my grandmother was growing up in the Great Depression. And this is as true in the North Star State as it is throughout the rest of the nation.
Thirty percent of Minnesota’s fourth-graders – that’s three out of every 10 fourth-grade students in this state – are functionally illiterate, according to the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s test of student achievement. That is 18,403 fourth-graders throughout this state. And when you can’t read, you will drop out.
The extent of this crisis extends to every part of this state. One out of every five fourth-graders in Minnesota’s suburban communities from middle-class families are reading at levels of functional illiteracy. So are one out of every five middle-class Minnesotan fourth-graders who live in rural areas.
If you have a son, regardless of your socioeconomic background, he is likely struggling in school. One out of every five young white male fourth-graders from middle-class households is functionally illiterate compared to one out of every 10 of their female peers. Meanwhile two out of every five young Asian men in the state is reading Below Basic proficiency, greater than the three out of every ten of their female peers.
In Minnesota, it isn’t as if it has gotten better. Back in 2002, just 27 percent of the state’s fourth-graders – 16,641 children – were struggling with literacy. Today, we are now talking about 1,763 more fourth-graders who are functionally illiterate now than nine years ago. Meanwhile the rest of America – which has just begun to aggressively reform the rest of public education – has reduced the number of fourth graders who are functionally illiterate by 217,432 kids in that same period.
But as I said, Minnesota is not alone. We have an American public education system that is perpetuating this state – and national – failure.
The quality of teaching is the most-critical factor in student learning, accounting for at least half of the effects of student achievement directly traced to schools. But far too many of our teachers, often for reasons not of their own making, don’t have the subject knowledge, instructional talent, entrepreneurial self-starter drive, or empathy for children needed to be in the classroom.
Meanwhile we far too many principals, superintendents, and school board members who couldn’t cook fries at the nearest Burger King – yet have been trusted with the futures of your children. And failing them badly. In Indiana, for example, a superintendent named Eugene White tried to defend his record of running the worst school district outside of Detroit by blaming kids. He declared that unlike the city’s charter schools, his district had to take in kids that he calls “blind, crippled, crazy”.
It will take myriad solutions to solve this education crisis – and help your kids, and all kids, get the high-quality schools and teachers they deserve. But one of the most important starts with you – and with every mother, father, uncle, aunt, and grandparent in this room today.
We know this: When parents are informed about what education should be and what their kids should know, they will expect more of themselves. And they will demand better for their kids from the schools that are at the centers of their young lives.
How much is your power in education is worth? University of New Hampshire researchers Andrew Houtenville and Karen Smith Conway say that schools would have to come up with $1,000 in additional per-pupil funding to match the gains in student achievement that come from parents taking power in education. In fact, the level of family engagement of power is twice as likely to predict a child’s academic achievement as their socioeconomic background.
We know that all parents, regardless of who they are or where they live, are concerned and discerning about the quality of education. 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.
Yet the adults who run our schools essentially regard parents like you as afterthoughts, nuisances, and troublemakers. Sometimes all in one. And this regardless of whether you are rich or poor, black or white, man or woman.
Peter McDermott and Julia Johnson Rothenberg, professors 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.” While some of this may have to do with the negative experiences these parents have had with schools, it also has to do with the reality that there are many teachers who look down at parents — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds.
And that hostility gets even worse when families they want to escape the worst public education offers. Earlier this year, when the families of children attending New York City’s charter schools – families who are mostly black and Latino – protested against a lawsuit filed by the NAACP and the American Federation of Teachers, the reaction from both these organizations was absolute hostility. In fact, the head of the NAACP’s New York branch told one charter school supporter that she and her fellow parents were “doing the business of slave masters”.
But those of us from the middle class and suburbia encounter the same disdain. A few months ago, Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, reported on an incident in Arlington, Va., where parents looking to send their child to a local magnet school wanted to visit the school and observe classroom activities. See, they wanted to not only know how good the school was, but whether that school would be the right environment for their child. Yet they were denied the ability to do so. Why? Because, as far as the district was concerned, letting parents do so would be a disruption.
These are just the most-visible examples of how American public education – whether in Saint Cloud or in Santa Cruz – makes it difficult for families to play the lead decision-making role in shaping how their kids learn.
The way schools deal with parents of all backgrounds (especially poor families) is particularly disdainful. Parent-teacher conferences are inconveniently scheduled. Parents struggle to contact teachers in order to know how well their kids are doing. Report cards are issued far too late in the school year for families to help their children succeed.
James Guthrie of the George W. Bush Institute has pointed out that 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. Yet only one in every five children and their families has access to such choice.
Essentially, American public education decides the quality of education your children can get by the zip code in which you live. And even if you live in what you think is the right zip code, your child may not be getting a high quality education. If you are poor, your kids are stuck in dropout factories. And if you are middle class, your kids go to warehouses of mediocrity whose shiny new buildings hide low-quality education. And even if you move from one zip code to another, you cannot guarantee that the school your child attends will be worth the cost of renting that U-Haul truck.
One of the most-critical forms of school choice is the ability to transform the schools in your own neighborhoods. Think about it: As taxpayers and as parents of kids who send your kids to schools that are at the center of their days and of their lives until age 18, you should be able to make that school better – even if it means taking that school out of the hands of a failing district. Yet only four states allow parents to do that now.
Meanwhile we don’t provide parents with the kind of comprehensive, yet simple school data systems that helps you understand how well a school is doing – and know what kind of teachers are working in classrooms. Two years ago, the Los Angeles Times showed in a series that the differences in teaching in classrooms can differ from classroom to classroom, even in schools that are rated high quality. Yet we continue to deny information to parents that they can use in making decisions.
And then, there are parents like you who don’t know what your children should know. How many can tell me what your kids should know by the time they leave kindergarten? Not many know. Every parent should be informed about what their kids should know – and what their kid is being taught in school.
What is needed in American public education is a new vision of parents – as lead decision-makers in shaping the quality of the education they receive.
It starts with expanding school choice. There is no reason why you should have to be zoned to a school that doesn’t serve your child’s needs – and doesn’t even provide an education that is worth the hard-earned dollars that you pay.
We then must pass Parent Trigger laws that allow you and a majority of fellow parents to turn around a failing school by ousting principals, teachers, even the district itself, and put the school under new management. Four states have Parent Trigger laws on the books. And some families are already using those laws to force change.
Then we must have comprehensive yet simple school data systems that tell you and your fellow parents what you really need to know about a school. This includes how well individual teachers are doing in helping kids succeed over time and how safe the school is.
And you should know what your kids should know by each grade, what kind of math curriculum is used in teaching, and even if the school offers interventions that can help your sons and nephews improve their reading and stay on the path to graduation and lifelong success.
Let me tell you something: School districts and teachers’ unions are afraid of parents. Especially when they push for their rightful roles as lead decision-makers in education.
The most-prominent example of this was revealed last year by my publication, Dropout Nation, when we got our hands on a PowerPoint from a lobbyist for the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union that was presented at its annual TEACH conference.
In this PowerPoint, the union detailed how it unsuccessfully attempted to “kill” an effort by parents and school reformers to pass a Parent Trigger law. The union also bragged that after it couldn’t stop the effort, it managed to water down the bill, and then, in a fit of “karma”, oust the state legislator who successfully got the law passed.
I can tell you that the AFT squirmed when it was revealed. It was so embarrassing that the president of the national union herself, Randi Weingarten, offered several of what I call non-apology apologies, and met with the president of the Connecticut Parents Union and the official who the AFT helped vote out of his job to offer an in-person apology.
Many of the adults in American public education – those who run schools and those who are their allies – are afraid of Parent Power. In one California district, a teachers’ union local ran a newsletter that essentially tried to claim that the parents are dupes for “heavy hitters” such as Bill Gates. In other districts, teachers’ unions and school districts seemingly work in concert to oppose any effort by families to get better for their kids.
Ideally, helping our kids succeed should be a partnership between every adult touching the lives of our kids, with parents in the lead decision-making role. But if there is going to be hostility, then those who run schools badly should be afraid. Families should no longer have to accept whatever they are given.
It is critical that parents take power. But you need to take the steps required to make this a reality. You have already taken the first step by attending this conference and meeting with parents and school reformers just like you. And I thank you for standing up and showing up.
The next step is to start your own parents union. Strength is always in numbers – and families need all the strength they can muster together. Through parents unions, you can help your children and help other parents help theirs too. You no longer have to stand alone against school district bureaucracies and teachers’ unions that have their own numbers. And believe this: No district is ready to take on well-organized parents.
Then push for expanding school choice. Here’s the thing: School districts have succeeded in opposing choice – and even increasing your property taxes – because they know that they can use your dollars to tell your state legislators that they will oppose charter schools, vouchers When you stand for school choice, you break a monopoly on education that shouldn’t ever exist.
Demand Parent Trigger Laws: Why should you have to abandon a school in your neighborhood – and, more importantly, why should a district that is not serving the needs of your children and other children continue to run the school as it sees fit.
Push for more data and transparency: It is hard to exercise choice when you don’t know what is going on. You spend $10 billion on education here in Minnesota – and $591 billion throughout this nation – and it all affects your child. You deserve to know what is going on and in an easily understandable way.
And finally, ask questions – and demand answers. You should know what your kids should know by third grade, by sixth grade, and by the time they are looking to attend college or technical school. And everyone who runs your district and your child’s school should be able to give you answers. Questions and answers equal power for your kids.
Take this energy today and use it to take power in education. And know this: You have armies of parents across this nation ready to help you.