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Parents Have To Be Prepared To Accept the New Ideas

In its report "First Things First: What Americans Expect From the Public Schools," the Public Agenda Foundation revealed last fall that many people view teaching innovations unfavorably. (See Education Week, 10/12/94.) This finding is not news to many educators. Hard-working principals, teachers, and activist parents in communities everywhere are frustrated because they can't get much support for changes they believe would improve schools for students.

Those engaged in planning change do their best to include everyone. They set up community-visioning sessions in an effort to build consensus about what students should know and be able to do. They conduct surveys, invite parents and citizens to serve on representative committees, and schedule informational meetings so people can ask questions. But later they are often shocked to discover how forcefully some parents will work to overturn or prevent any change. Even when people agree on a grand vision for the community's schools, they often vehemently disagree about the steps needed to implement it. The devil, it has been said, is in the details.

Why do parents oppose change? Why do so many seem to want schools and classrooms to go back to what they recall as "the good old days"?

When I interviewed the parents of 11th-grade students enrolled in a required untracked American Studies course, I learned that people's opinions are like icebergs: There's often a great deal hidden beneath the surface of the words they speak.

I discovered, for example, that survey data can be very misleading. Individual parents' responses are often too complex and idiosyncratic to be reduced to meaningful statistics. Simply knowing that someone does not favor making a specific change may not be very helpful because there can be many different reasons for opposing any innovative practice.

My interviews with parents, however, also revealed some information many embattled educators may find surprising:

First, parents' views of teaching and learning are not as traditional as many people think. Most did not think, for example, that students should be passive learners. Many said that their children could learn a great deal from other students--sometimes even more from classmates than from the teacher. Most considered the teacher's view of a literary work as only one opinion. Thus, teachers should allow students to decide for themselves the meaning of the books they read.

Second, parents' opposition to an innovative practice often stemmed from their concerns about the way a practice had been implemented, rather than a lack of belief in the assumptions about teaching and learning on which the practice was based. For example, in the American Studies course teachers asked students to do a great deal more reading and independent research than they had been used to doing in previous courses. When the kids failed to do the assignments and got low grades, parents were naturally upset. Many of them blamed this problem on the course. Some even asked school board members to go back to teaching English and history separately. Yet a majority of parents thought kids could learn better in a mixed-ability class and many thought that the study of American literature could enrich students' knowledge of American history.

Third, and perhaps most important, parents often do not understand how innovative practices will help students learn "the basics." For example, even though the parents I talked with overwhelmingly favored having students discuss and decide on the meaning of a book in small groups, they did not believe that students could work with each other to improve their writing. It was clear to me that parents did not understand the process approach to teaching writing, which has gained wide support among English teachers over the last two decades. Because parents remembered spelling tests, grammar worksheets, and compositions red-inked by the teacher, they could not imagine how students could learn to write correctly without these practices.

What do my findings suggest that educators can do to win parents' support for changes that are likely to help children learn more than they could in traditional classrooms?

Because each community is different, educators first need to talk to parents of the students they teach to find out what they think. Parents are likely to be more comfortable about expressing their views on their own turf. If schools can't provide time and resources for adults to conduct such a project, students could learn as they engaged in "real" research to gather the information educators need to plan more effective ways of involving parents in school reform.

These interviews are likely to show that educators need to go beyond well-established ritualistic contacts, such as informational meetings and conferences where teachers do all the talking. The usual written communications are often so riddled with jargon that they tend to confuse rather than inform parents. If filling kids' heads with information is no longer a good idea, why would anyone think this approach will work with parents?

The following suggestions are among the many ways my research indicates that schools might include parents as learners:

Conduct focus groups with parents representing a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds before any changes have gone beyond the initial planning stages.
Make sure students know what they are doing and why (for example, sharing drafts in peer-response groups or not worrying about misspelled words on the first draft). Parents get much of their information about school from children, who can be very unreliable informants. If students have a better understanding of teachers' methods, they can help their parents better understand those they've never experienced.
Make parent conferences an opportunity for learning by not only telling parents how students are doing but also explaining what and how they have learned. As some teachers have already discovered, one excellent way to give parents an understanding of how classroom methods work is to have children show and explain their personal portfolios to their parents.
Invite parents to visit classrooms when schools are in session to see that what actually happens is more productive than they might imagine. One parent I interviewed, herself a high school dropout, was extremely positive about the benefits of students' learning from each other because she had seen for herself how classmates helped her daughter understand concepts the teacher never could seem to make clear.

Unless educators begin to think of parents as full partners in a community of learners, changes in classroom practice are likely to create continued conflict and chaos. But that isn't the best reason for schools to investigate new ways to involve parents.

We all know that adults as well as children must become lifelong learners to cope successfully with the complex demands of living in this rapidly changing world. And educators should ask themselves: If schools don't accept the responsibility for fostering everyone's learning, who will?

Anne Wescott Dodd, a former public school teacher and administrator, teaches at Bates College in Lewiston, Me. She is the author of A Parent's Guide to Innovative Education (Noble Press, 1992).

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