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One Parent's Odyssey: Or, How the Schools Take the Winds Out of Our Sails

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My journey began last spring when I concluded that regardless of what happens at the national, state, or even district level with school reform, the best place to begin to try and make changes was in my own children's elementary school. Talk of national standards, schools of choice, setting mastery goals for children, magnet schools, new assessment methods--all these things sounded wonderful. But until our particular school examined and changed its goals and methods, what difference would any of it make? Surmising that in an atmosphere of reform, change in a single schoolhouse would be welcomed, particularly if large numbers of parents expressed interest, I began an effort through the P.T.A. to think through some of the goals and objectives that our elementary school of 400 students and 30-some faculty members might want to set for itself.

Ours is a fairly typical small-city school: A (slight) majority of the students are minority, more are on free or reduced-price lunch, that is, are legitimately considered economically disadvantaged. On the other hand, our school also is fed by some of the most advantaged areas of our town: children of doctors, lawyers, business leaders, and semiprofessionals. Frustration and dissatisfaction have been expressed in recent years by parents of students in both categories: some complaining that their children are not challenged sufficiently, others that not enough individual attention is paid to those who are less "ready to learn'' or have more problems to contend with. Large classes, discipline problems, uneven instructional quality have all been matters of concern raised by parents either to the principal, to the superintendent, or to school-board members. Some parents who can afford it have opted out into private school because of these frustrations. Others have taken a "grin and bear it'' attitude, hoping not to make life difficult for their own children by being too "pushy'' about problems at the school, even though the problems were real and vexatious.

Last school year seemed to mark a real increase in concern--and in polarization. Parents were complaining loudly, but ineffectively, about poor discipline, overcrowding, ineffective teaching by some faculty members, lack of depth in studies, and mounting boredom among bright students. The principal, however, steadfastly defended her staff and insisted that everything was fine at the school. Teachers complained, on and off the record, of discipline problems and low staff morale. Some expressed frustration with the wide range of abilities they were encountering in their classes and the impossibility of actually reaching each child.

It was in this context that I persuaded the P.T.A. to hold a "School Report Night'' at which parents, teachers, other staff members, and even students might voice their opinions about what was O.K. and what needed to change at our school. We had small-group discussions about curriculum, discipline, overall administration, and a number of other topics. Over 150 parents, students, and teachers showed up on a cold February evening (a very large turnout for our school), and the manifest enthusiasm for the effort was exhilarating. "Terrific!'' I thought. "We are on our way to some real changes around this place.''

Suggestions were made on everything from how to improve the physical facility to proposals for restructuring curriculum, decreasing class size, incorporating technology into instruction, aggressively recruiting volunteers from groups in the community, even trying school uniforms. While parents were most excited about getting a chance to talk about their ideas, teachers also seemed eager to offer their views and objectives. A committee of interested parents and teachers was to follow up the meeting by compiling all the comments and suggestions and making an action list that we, as a school community, could begin work on.

We scheduled the first committee meeting after school a few weeks later. Eight parents and three teachers showed up, as did the principal. After two more meetings, the committee agreed on a list of 10 study and action items. As the meetings progressed, it became clear that the principal's initial resistance toward our efforts was getting stronger. She evidently saw the effort as a threat to her authority. It also meant more work for her and her teachers as well as for the parents who were involved. Though she initially agreed to our action list, when we sent it home to parents and teachers she appended a cover letter stressing that these items were merely the suggestions of a "small group'' with no authority to act or implement any of them.

Undaunted, we scheduled the next P.T.A. meeting and sent home notices that we would vote then on whether to proceed with our action items. A crowd of about 150 showed up again, including most of the teaching staff. It was clear that the staff had been admonished to attend--and probably warned of potential dire consequences if some of our proposals moved forward. For instance, we had recommended that the school consider a parent-teacher-council mode of governance, with the principal as a sort of school-level C.E.O. The council might make decisions about teacher and aide hiring, curriculum changes, budget allocations, etc., all with the principal's input and perhaps even veto power, and taking into consideration whatever legal constraints the school had to honor. We had also recommended that the primary curriculum be revised and that teachers, along with parents, set the academic goals we want to see children reach by the 4th grade. In spite of near-unanimous faculty opposition at the meeting--just four brave teachers voted to move forward--the majority of parents supported the reform agenda. Many signed up to be on working groups for the various items.

After that meeting, I was told by the principal that our efforts represented a "minority'' of parents (even though our participants were fairly representative of the school), that the vast majority of parents (those who had never shown up for any of these forums) were perfectly content with the education children are getting at our school. I was told by a school board member that what we were doing was infringing on the prerogatives of the board, and therefore unauthorized and probably illegal. I was told by the district superintendent that our ideas were interesting, but that the principal was relatively new, needed time to get established, and that the school staff knew what was best for the students at their school. Translation: Parents aren't "experts''; come back in a millennium or so and we might take you seriously.

By the time our working groups began meeting, school was about to end. At the first meeting of each group, the administrators and teachers almost uniformly opposed every parental suggestion for change, each time stressing the burdens to them of doing things differently, or asserting that any change was impossible due to regulations from "central office.'' A number of parents became discouraged and stopped attending meetings. Several groups "folded,'' either because they felt nothing could be accomplished or no consensus could be reached. A few groups continued to try to hammer out some reform. One group timidly proposed that as a governance change a parent-teacher advisory group, with no formal authority, be instituted. This proposal will be presented this school year.

Over the summer, 10 students withdrew from our school to pay tuition at public schools out of district. More chose private alternatives after, as one parent told me, seeing the "frozen wasteland of public school bureaucracy'' up close.

Despite these setbacks, a few parents still seem determined to press for change. With persistence (and a favoring national and state wind) we may eventually make some small difference at our one school. But any fundamental institutional change will require self-critical, reform-minded principals and district leaders as well as parents.

As a parent of several young ones struggling through a system that provides them not much more than a minimal education, I find this recent odyssey into the real world of education reform extremely discouraging. Here are a large number of parents who want to be a vital part of their children's education being told, albeit politely, not to bother, butt out, stick to bake sales, don't get really involved in the education side of things. There is little parents can do to influence the kind of entrenched resistance I have encountered. We have scant leverage or clout. Why should teachers and principals listen when they do not have to account to parents for school policies and practices, when they have a captive audience, save for those willing and able to "go private''? And why should parents, faced with the Scylla and Charybdis of schoolhouse intransigence and district-level monopoly of authority, even bother to begin the journey toward real school reform? It is so much easier to plan parties, sell wrapping paper, and pray that your child will happen on to a decent education somewhere along the way. Odysseus eventually found his way home. After my recent journey, I wonder if American education will ever do the same.

Mary R. Blanton is a lawyer in North Carolina and the mother of four children who attend the public schools. She serves as a public member of the National Assessment Governing Board.

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