‘Parent Power’ Report Challenged in New Review

By Michele Molnar — September 06, 2012 2 min read
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The Think Twice think-tank review project is taking issue with the approach and conclusions in a widely distributed American Enterprise Institute report on “parent power” that was released July 31.

The reviewers, whose work was published today by the National Education Policy Center housed at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s School of Education, arrived at a far different view from what the AEI researchers concluded.

It all started with “Parent Power: Grass-Roots Activism and K-12 Education Reform”, by Patrick McGuinn and Andrew Kelly.

As Education Week reporter Sean Cavanagh wrote about the original report:

Many education advocates today believe their challenge is to increase parent involvement beyond 'sporadic rallies, protests, and public testimony' to more sustained immersion in politics, Kelly says. Creating a 'lasting political bloc with [school] choice parents at its core...represents one of the next frontiers in parent organizing'."

Michelle Fine, of the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and Stan Karp, of the Education Law Center, in Newark, N.J., were the Think Twice reviewers who took issue with McGuinn’s and Kelly’s findings.

The authors of the original “Parent Power” report interviewed 28 leaders and practitioners from four national education reform advocacy organizations to identify what encourages and what gets in the way of “parent power.”

The Think Twice team, in its report, questions the selection of organizations included in the survey. Stand for Children, Democrats for Education Reform, StudentsFirst and 50CAN, they say, are among the nation’s most influential advocacy organizations. The organizations’ advocacy is aligned with school choice and test-based teacher evaluation, which they call “the current dominant policy agenda.”

Fine and Karp say “parent power” should be considered against the backdrop of what these powerful outside groups promote to parents.

As the reviewers describe it, the AEI report advances the construct of parent engagement where parents are viewed mostly as education “consumers” who want better choices in a more privatized education marketplace.

The reviewers offer another way to look at it, which “views parents as the citizen owners-managers of a public education system that is a central institution of democratic civic life,” which they say is “embraced by a long tradition of community organizers and public education advocates.”

Fine and Karp conclude:

The report suffers from an inadequate and slanted literature review; highly selective sampling; a serious lack of objectivity; disturbing characterizations of urban parents as 'ignorant,' under-engaged and resistant to change; and a failure to contend with empirical evidence that challenges their views on 'what parents want.' "Its failure to adequately examine and document the full range of 'grass-roots activism,' organizing, and history reflects both its blinders and its narrow political objective: to provide a briefing paper for the side it has chosen in what it calls 'the fight.'"

Fine and Karp’s review is available on the NEPC website.

The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University in Providence, R.I., also recently weighed in on the topic of power in education. “The success of community organizing is rooted in the idea of relational power—power developed collaboratively with others, rather than power over others,” wrote authors Sara McAlister and Cassandra Tavaras at AISR.

While they note the day-to-day work of grassroots organizing rarely draws national media attention or funding from billionaire philanthropists, it “starts from the proposition that those most directly impacted by a problem are in the best position to solve it.”

What forces of “parent power” and “community power” do you see at work in your community?

A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.