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Families & the Community Opinion

Tipping Toward Parents

By Adam Kernan-Schloss & Andy Plattner — November 05, 2003 6 min read
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Producing parent leaders is vital to school success.

A bit more than 10 years ago, we were working with a coalition of states and school districts that had won one of the first grants from the New American Schools Development Corp. The grant included a substantial amount of money for what was then being called “public engagement.” The money was largely destined for two organizations—Public Agenda and the Industrial Areas Foundation. The first was going to run a campaign to explain to the community the challenges facing schools and what was needed to get better. The second was going to organize parents to understand school issues and share responsibility (and power) with the schools to engage parents.

We were excited as we began a tour of the districts and states to start the work. We were crestfallen by the time we finished. No takers. Superintendents had looked us in the eye and said one of two things: “Do you think I’m crazy?” or “Do you think I’m stupid?”

They had little interest in stirring up their constituent bases (customers, starting with parents). They had even less interest in sharing power with anyone.

In short, engaging the public was fine as long as it was on their terms. Many of the superintendents talked about how the schools belonged to the public. Some of them even believed it. They just didn’t want to change their behavior.

Most of their energy was going into what they saw as higher-priority work. Rigorous academic standards. Tough tests. Strong accountability. Better-trained teachers. And so on.

This is where the school reform debate has been focused in the past decade or more—on what we call “the supply side.” The idea is that by improving all the ingredients of the education enterprise, student achievement will improve. Maybe. But we’re skeptical.

Without far more attention to the “demand side” of education reform—creating informed consumers—schools are unlikely to make anywhere near the kind of progress now mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. As a successful school superintendent once observed: “School systems don’t change because they see the light. They change because they feel the heat.”

We believe schools need both heat and light to change, and both need to be focused. Right now, schools are feeling plenty of heat, but it is relatively unfocused and coming from federal and state mandates, rather than the local customers who care most about better schools.

One of the key premises of the No Child Left Behind law is that parents will use unprecedented levels of performance data to pressure their schools to improve. But parents have no history of being driven to action based on data. And the volume of data now spewing forth is often more confusing than informative.

Many of the superintendents talked about how the schools belonged to the public. Some of them even believed it. They just didn't want to change their behavior.

Most states have never done much to explain their academic standards to parents, or their tests. Now, parents are getting information that is broken down in ways that don’t necessarily make sense to them. States and districts rarely deliver the information in a way that is customer-friendly or put in sufficient context. We scratch our heads when we look at some of the announcements states have made in announcing their lists of schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress.”

Parents care about equity and fairness for all students, but first and foremost they care about their own child’s progress. How is my child doing? How does he or she compare with others? Does he or she like his or her teachers? Do his or her teachers like my child? Are those teachers effective?

They want to know with clarity what their children should be learning at each grade, and what they can do to help. Some districts provide clear answers. Most don’t.

More than ever before, parents can vote with their feet. Those whose students attend schools that aren’t making sufficient progress can—theoretically, at least—move to better schools and get extra services such as tutoring.

But who is going to make sure parents get the information they need to be better advocates for their children, whether they choose a new school or choose to stay put? Who is going to show them not only what their rights are— but also what their responsibilities are? Who is going to show them how to interpret the data now available to them?

In a few progressive districts, school leaders themselves will take the lead—understanding that it’s in their best interest to be proactive with their parents. After all, a recent review of 10 years’ worth of research by Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp (A New Wave of Evidence, 2002) shows that students whose parents are involved earn higher grades and test scores, enroll in higher-level courses, and are more likely to graduate and go on to college. We believe these are the results that every school leader wants.

Perhaps state policymakers will be more proactive as well. After all, public-opinion polls consistently show that parents and educators think the biggest challenge facing the schools is lack of parent involvement. We believe every politician wants to visibly respond to his or her constituents’ top priority.

But we believe that most of the demand for more knowledgeable parent involvement inevitably will rest with third parties— community-based organizations like the Institute for Education and Social Policy, in New York City, the Institute for Responsive Education, in Boston, and the local education funds that belong to the Public Education Network.

We’ve put our resources into focusing on producing parent leaders who have the capacity to be effective partners with schools or, where necessary, to take schools on. We are working in collaboration with the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a nonprofit that has had great success in Kentucky, a state that has grappled for 10 years with the same issues every state is now confronting. Through intensive workshops spread over six days, participants in Prichard’s training get a crash course in leadership as it applies to education; the curriculum covers “soft” topics, such as learning styles and meeting facilitation, and “harder” topics, such as analyzing school data and serving on school improvement teams. (“Parent Power,” Oct. 22, 2003.)

As a successful school superintendent once observed: "School systems don't change because they see the light. They change because they feel the heat."

Significantly, the parent leaders being trained agree to spend up to two years working on projects designed to raise student achievement in their schools—and to involve other parents in the process. Among other successes, parent leaders have created parent-teacher conferences led by students, organized mentoring programs, recruited reading volunteers, and developed a hands-on science curriculum. Through Parent Leadership Associates, we are now helping the Prichard Committee bring this parent-leadership model to other communities, such as Atlanta; Broward County, Fla.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Jackson, Miss.

Not all parents want to be leaders, but for those who are willing, it offers a new source of much-needed assistance. And none too soon. Given the new demands of tough accountability, combined with spending deficits faced by nearly all state and local governments, now is the time to take advantage of parent leadership, an underutilized and cost-effective resource.

The writer Malcolm Gladwell has documented “the tipping point” phenomenon in American culture and institutions, when often-small changes or fads turn into transformed attitudes and behaviors. It seems to us that we’re near the tipping point with parent involvement. We believe the coming months will see ever more attention to the “demand side” of education. Perhaps we were just ahead of our time 10 years ago, trying to persuade superintendents to do the unthinkable: Treat parents as valued partners and provide them the training they need to become leaders. What was unthinkable then seems increasingly inevitable now.

Adam Kernan-Schloss and Andy Plattner are the founders of KSA-Plus Communications, in Arlington, Va. They are also partners with the Kentucky-based Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence in Parent Leadership Associates, whose mission is to give parent leaders the knowledge, skills, and confidence to be effective partners for better schools.

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