Talking to Parents About School Reform

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Election years provide countless lessons in the power of language to persuade, to provoke, to inspire, and also to obscure. When pushed to clarify their positions, politicians often dive behind a cover of confusing language. Skepticism of all public officials grows right along with the people's reluctance to believe what the officials say. Do these trends have implications for educators? Perhaps the following example can best answer that question:

Millions of people tune in to ABC's "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings" every night and are familiar with the segment near the end of the half-hour broadcast called the "American Agenda." Periodically, this segment deals with education. In 1994, ABC compiled several of these segments into an hourlong, prime time special on education called "Common Miracles." This special highlighted current movements in education and included interviews with some of the most significant researchers in the field. As the program was about to introduce an interview segment with Robert Slavin, the noted Johns Hopkins University researcher in early-childhood education, the camera panned a small group of children working together on a project and the reporter's voice-over said, "Remember cheating? Today it's called cooperative learning."

Although the reporter went on to describe the benefits to children of working in a cooperative classroom, some parents, many of whom are already skeptical of nontraditional approaches to education, may start questioning any activity in the classroom that has any relationship to cheating. As a result, the words cooperative learning take on connotations of their own that deny the benefits to the classroom that we know the technique produces.

If parents are asked whether they want their children to learn to work well in groups, more often than not they say yes. If we ask employers whether they want our schools' graduates to have teamwork skills, they, too, say yes. But ask these same groups whether they support teachers' using cooperative learning in the schools, and the response may be much less supportive. Reactions to this specific strategy may be the result of the messages--often conflicting--that have surrounded cooperative learning.

The entire issue of school reform, like welfare reform and health-care reform, has become embedded in the political and public-policy rhetoric of the day. For some people, reform conjures up images of a progressive, forward-thinking movement that rids an issue of all the negative baggage it has accumulated. For politicians, reform is good--the need for reform is concrete proof that past administrations and officials have been less than successful. "Ending welfare as we know it" sounds both powerful and proactive. But ask parents if they favor reform or restructuring for schools, and the reaction may be much less positive. Instead of creating images of the constructive activity of improving our schools, reform and restructuring--just by virtue of the words' implication of lack of success--can create negative images. In fact, most parents are products of our country's public education system and many consider themselves competent and well educated. What are they to think about reform efforts that may appear to threaten the future of schools as they knew them? As educators, we need to recognize not only what factors have molded parents' perceptions about education issues but also our role in creating and sustaining these perceptions. Only then can we make some thoughtful choices about how to communicate effectively with parents about educational change.

First, we need to remember the context in which parents think of education, starting with their own school experiences. Take parents' perceptions of mathematics education, for example. Parents today have been through the New Math, may have experienced math anxiety themselves, and probably learned in schools that stressed computation above all. With the emergence of computer-assisted journalism, charts and graphs in newspapers and magazines have regularly displayed the math achievement levels of U.S. students in relation to those of foreign competitors. To some parents, these international comparisons prove that U.S. kids can't do math. Both the parents' comfort level and their perceptions of math achievement can lead them to support a very traditional math program.

The international comparisons stress facts and objective standards that may reinforce parents' adherence to conventional approaches as well. Parent reaction is often expanded into a "back to basics" movement that can be generalized to the whole curriculum. And, because studies conducted by Public Agenda and others suggest that parents are usually satisfied with their own children's schools, parents are probably not ready to see major changes in the way those schools are structured.

Next, we must be aware of our own role in contributing to parents' perceptions. As educators, we have often perpetuated misunderstanding through our continued use of certain words and terms in our school reform efforts. Furthermore, parents should not be faulted for viewing educational jargon as subterfuge, as an attempt to take a classroom innovation or strategy and slip it by parents. Parents are fully capable of understanding what schools are trying to do. All of us have experience with doctors or some other professionals who say, "I'd explain this, but you'd never understand." Nothing does more to create resentment and feelings of skepticism and mistrust. Phillip C. Schlechty, the president of the Center for Leadership in School Reform in Louisville, Ky., says that educators often complain that parents don't understand the language. Our job, then, he asserts, is to make the language understandable. "Educationese" cannot become the language barrier that separates us from the parents of our students.

Furthermore, avoiding charged words and buzzwords should in no way equate to "talking down" to parents. Instead, educators should express their goals for the classroom in ways that are meaningful for parents while capitalizing on the parents' experiences. Computer programmers know that we're all more comfortable with technology if we use it in a familiar context. Because many of us spent years literally cutting and pasting paragraphs of our term papers, word processing programs that, in reality, rearrange electrons on the screen use the words "cut" and "paste" in appreciation of our frame of reference. Wouldn't talking to parents about changes in the educational delivery system be easier if we acknowledged parents' frame of reference when we talk about things like whole language, critical thinking, and cooperative learning? The words may have taken on meanings that will be difficult to overcome. But being put off by the terminology may not always indicate that parents are in disagreement about the goals of the strategy. Choosing to use words with which parents are more familiar and comfortable acknowledges the parents' own experiences and clarifies a classroom strategy that otherwise may have been reduced to meaningless jargon in the parents' perceptions.

Therefore, considering the messages parents are hearing and the perceptions about education they are forming, educators who want to try to do things in a different way must be able to articulate why any changes are necessary, describe how the new strategies will work, and address the particular things about which parents are concerned. We must make the language of education clear and free of jargon. We must constantly remind ourselves that parents have different perceptions about education. The word "reform" may mean something different in a different context to each parent. Everyone can agree that education needs to be improved; it is crucially important to involve everyone in an informed debate about how that is to be done.

What should we remember about talking to parents about school reform?

  • Acknowledge that parents are bringing their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences about education to the reform process. We must look for ways to make their backgrounds contribute positively to their understanding, just as we do with students.
  • Make sure we have a clear understanding of the reform goals ourselves. Educators are much less likely to become defensive with parents if the goals they are describing are clearly defensible.
  • Use interactions with other professionals as learning experiences--both good and bad. We need to pay attention to the words, tone, and body language people in the legal, medical, financial, and other professions use in their communications and gauge our own reactions to them.
  • Be approachable and accessible. The "just enough--just in time" guideline works as effectively in talking with parents as it does with talking to students.

According to the U.S. Department of Education's report "Strong Families, Strong Schools," most teachers believe strengthening parents' roles in their children's learning must be the top issue in education policy, while 89 percent of company executives find the lack of parental involvement to be the biggest obstacle to school reform. We need to create the conditions for involvement to happen and then create an environment that nurtures and expands that involvement. We in education are certainly aware of the need to improve many aspects of the teaching and learning process. We know that children learn at different rates and respond to vastly different teaching strategies. We know we can do a better job of reaching all children. We know all of these things. But our best reform efforts will be unsuccessful unless we also know how to communicate in ways that enable us to sustain and expand our base of parental support.

Vol. 16, Issue 10, Pages 37, 40

Published in Print: November 6, 1996, as Talking to Parents About School Reform
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