Published Online: March 19, 1997


Not Without Parents

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How is it possible to implement 21st century standards with 20th century models of citizen and parent participation?

The recent study on public education conducted by this newspaper and the Pew Charitable Trusts concludes that "despite 15 years of earnest efforts to improve public schools and raise student achievement, states have not made much progress." (Quality Counts, Jan. 22, 1997.) More is required by the states than mere development of rigorous academic standards. Preparing all children for the 21st century will necessitate the creation of an organizational and democratic capacity to get the standards accepted and implemented at the classroom level. As Richard A. Gibboney warns in his book The Stone Trumpet, "Widespread and fundamental school reform will only come when the larger society demands and forces it." Why is it surprising, then, that the new standards are not having more of an impact, when most states and communities have not built the capacity for the larger society to become involved. Or, put in another context, how is it possible to implement 21st century standards with 20th century models of citizen and parent participation?

The second national education summit, held one year ago this month, typifies the problem. Cloistered in Palisades, N.Y., the nation's governors and selected business people with high-level consultants met to recommend the public education future of over 51 million schoolchildren and their parents. But this was hardly a conference celebrating the ordinary parent or the larger society.

If you are a parent in Charleston, W.Va., barely eking out a living and concerned about resource shortages in your child's school; or a single parent in Washington, D.C., wondering when and if federal school appropriations are ever going to be allocated; or a family in Lexington, Ky., experiencing at last the positive impact of a state reform plan stressing parental involvement, how seriously will you take the education summit's recommendations? What does listening to the promises of governors and CEOs about education quality profit an unemployed parent in East Los Angeles if her children's school building is falling apart, its class sizes increasing, while the opulence of Beverly Hills is staring her children in the face?

The governors noted this conclusion from a paper prepared for the summit by Public Agenda, a New York City-based public-opinion research foundation: "Americans believe schools should set clear academic standards that significantly raise expectations of students from elementary through high school ... support for academic standards seems to be virtually 'unbudgeable.'"

But they missed another Public Agenda observation on the relationship between the public and its state and national policymakers. "There is a growing disconnect between the thin layer of the nation's experts, professionals, and leaders and the general public," the foundation reported. "Attempts by leaders to sell their viewpoint to a public that has not experienced the same information, discussion, or debate are unlikely to succeed. Today's public will not blindly follow what experts propose; they need to experience the opinion-formation for themselves."

''Democracy requires a vigorous exchange of ideas and opinions,'' the sociologist Christopher Lasch tells us in The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. But he adds that ''many of the 'best people' have always been skeptical about the capacity ... of ordinary citizens to grasp complex issues or make critical judgments." Most of the American people feel that the education summit's recommendations (if they are aware of them at all) are "not mine, but theirs," making this yet another example of top-down exuberance gone awry.

Some of the summit leaders complained that parents frequently stymie progress as much as they support it. But this comes with the territory. It's called "giving the work back to the people." Harvard University's Ronald A. Heifetz reminds us that leadership often requires the engagement of parties with competing interests, and that in leading the community of interests, we have to comprehend the stakes and potential losses within it. ''Developing a strategy to get people to change,'' he says, ''requires some intimacy related to the texture of the interests in the people's lives." In other words, this work is not for the "warrior leader," who may get killed, badly wounded, or pushed aside during the heat of battle. This work is for leaders who do not make themselves the center of the action, but work to lead others to collective solutions. A summit where governors and business leaders were not the major players, but where parents and other community members received the spotlight, would have been refreshing indeed.

Now the governors must all, again, take the next step and determine how the summit recommendations are being implemented one year later in their states. We would like to offer them a few observations on working with parents:

  • More research is needed on how to address issues related to public support and pressure for school change. We need to know more about building public engagement and channeling it constructively. These are capacities based more on advocacy models than on the instructional-design models that preoccupy most of the parent-involvement research to date.

To sustain change, the engagement model moves away from direct classroom and instructional participation to issues of governance and shared decisionmaking in the civic arena. This activity moves policymakers into areas of political uncertainty, but it also presents them with opportunities for building reform ownership and including people at the local level as partners, rather than as appendages or subordinates.

  • An arrogance frequently has accompanied education reform movements, the main byproduct of which is that change becomes an end in itself. Specific programs are ''panaceas'' and change is a series of guesses--all in the name of innovation. The drive for change in an era of transition has the danger of turning into a cult movement where parents may be labeled as ''dinosaurs'' if they dare object to the next innovation. Yet these district cure-alls may in fact be cooked up by some "innovation chef" living hundreds of miles away from the people affected.
The drive for change has the danger of turning into a cult movement with parents labeled as 'dinosaurs' if they dare object to the next innovation.

Parents don't want their children to be used as guinea pigs for long-shot programs. Yet school boards and superintendents afraid of being accused of opposing change are prone to adopt any reform that comes along, whether it will advance student achievement or not. Mr. Gibboney's research on school reforms adopted since 1960 shows that fewer than 20 percent were educationally worthy. We cannot afford reform rides to nowhere. Educators and communities must use common sense and common ground to agree on those reforms that actually offer an improvement over the practices they replace. To resist an unworthy reform would, in essence, become a good thing.

  • The reform proposals put forth by politicians may be changes that parents have not asked for and do not understand or want. In many cases, they are proposals upon which reformers themselves cannot agree. The fuses of ideological conflict are often ignited when parents are not included in reform discussions, or when they perceive that they are losing local control of schools to policy wonks and the professionals who work in state capitals, Washington, and privately funded foundations. Writing about businesses in his book The Organization of the Future, James Champy says that early in most organizational changes, no one may know what these changes will mean to the individual. "Concerns cannot be met by a one-way form of communications," he warns."We must mobilize managers to have conversations with people across the organization about the drivers and implications of the change program. It's in the give and take of discussion that people will discover the truth about what's likely to happen."

Building capacity for change in the public sector is even more important than it is in the private. No longer will policymakers be able to sustain change without "conversations" with their public.

  • Education leadership requires mobilizing people to tackle the tough problems. This means that community leaders must be experts in managing those processes by which parents and the community can achieve the resolution. Often, education issues lack clarity because a multitude of factions have divergent opinions about the nature of the problem. Attention becomes the heart of the matter. Getting the leaders to pay attention to the community's pulse and, in turn, getting the people to pay attention to the tough issues, rather than diversions, is the currency of a learning community. When we accomplish this, everyone becomes part of a learning community--they learn their way forward. Some call this "adaptive work"--creating an atmosphere in which people can be brought along based on their interests, understandings, and values.
  • Any successful parental-involvement thrust will require a more direct engagement between the school and the homeone that takes into consideration the values of the family and of the community. Policy administrators tend to talk in a vernacular foreign to most parents that seems condescending and irrelevant--curricular alignment, performance assessment, restructuring, portfolios, and mapping, to name just a few examples. Parents, meanwhile, want to engage the big-picture concerns.

The eminent education historian Lawrence Cremin called this give-and-take of interests the "genius of American education." He said that the "debate over what knowledge, what values, what skills, and what sensibilities we might want to nurture in the young and how we might want to nurture them is more important than the particular decisions we happen to reach at any given time. For the debate educates, and that education will affect the entire apparatus by which the public itself is created and renewed."

  • Don't use the development of educational standards as a ruse for control. Many parents are skeptical about who will write the standards, for whoever does will ultimately control the educational program for that state. Every effort should be made to employ the democratic process. If that process is rushed, if there is not time for sufficient discussion, if parents are not provided all of the information, or if the standards do not resonate with the local community, another outcomes-based-education battle will be re-enacted.

This debate, of course, may create a real dilemma for policymakers and professionals who wish to be "politically correct" or who may not like the direction their local "public" is taking them. On the other hand, the public benefits from the interaction with policymakers about innovative and best-practice ideas. The challenge is to democratize the intellectual discussion, which to many parents appears to be top-down, coercive, exclusive, and unrelated to the needs of their communities and to their personal lives.

Ultimately, parents and schools should neither be in a state of perpetual adversarial motion nor independent of one another. The public must be a full partner to the dreams and visions educational policymakers have for America's children. Without that kind of involvement, some governor five years from now will propose a third education summit addressing the question of why the first two did not work.

In the final analysis, institutional discussions will have to converge soon with what's on the mind of the populace or we will lose not only parental engagement but, with it, the "public" schools.

Joan Dykstra is the president of the National PTA, which is headquartered in Chicago. Arnold F. Fege is the director of that organization's office of governmental relations in Washington.

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