School Choice & Charters

A Look Back at Parent-School Relationships

By Karla Scoon Reid — April 02, 2015 2 min read
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The notion that a parent is a child’s first teacher is often touted to support efforts to bolster parent-empowerment strategies in our nation’s schools.

Twenty-five years ago, Education Week’s Lynn Olson examined the challenges inherent in developing meaningful parent-school partnerships and highlighted some efforts that were underway. It’s an enlightening piece to consider, because many of those same obstacles—negative perceptions of minority parents’ ability or willingness to help, for example—persist today.

And challenges remain. For example, Chicago’s local school councils, which were both heralded and criticized because they gave parents more control over the management of their schools in 1989, are an integral part of the city’s school system today. But it’s unclear whether the councils helped to improve Chicago’s schools.

Here’s a sampling of what some researchers and parent advocates had to say about the topic in 1990:

“Surprisingly large numbers of parents are excluded from even the most common communications with schools.” —Joyce L. Epstein, director of the Effective Middle Schools Program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“School as we conceive of it implies family as we conceive of it. Yet, family as we conceive of it no longer corresponds to family as it now exists.” —James S. Coleman, professor of education and sociology at the University of Chicago.

“It’s still not considered part of the professional portfolio of the educator to work with parents. Efforts to involve parents are seen as something supplementary to the school—a sort of luxury that’s nice if you have the time and staff to do it.” —Anne T. Henderson, an associate with the National Committee for Citizens in Education.

Fast forward to today and California’s controversial parent-trigger law, which gives parents the right to force school districts to adopt changes at struggling schools. That law has inspired some other states to follow suit even though the jury is still out on whether the law is working to improve schools.

There are more legislative efforts to give parents control over their children’s education. Take a look at Arizona and Florida, which have established education savings account programs giving the state’s per-pupil funding to parents of eligible students (typically students with disabilities) to spend on their child’s education.

Giving parents more choices and control is exactly what newer parent advocacy organizations, like Families for Excellent Schools, Students First, and Parent Revolution say they are promoting, while skeptics still question their motivation since some of the groups’ funders are unabashed charter and voucher advocates.

Meanwhile, the heated debated over the Common Core State Standards and the standardized tests aligned to those new academic standards have galvanized some parents to mount test refusal campaigns that are not only gaining national attention but support from lawmakers.

I wasn’t a parent when Olson wrote her piece examining the role of parents and schools for Education Week in 1990. Now, as the parent of two elementary school-age children, I was left with several questions after reading the story:

  • Have parent-school partnership improved or become more divisive?
  • Are educators finally regarding parents as assets rather than liabilities?
  • Do parents have more power regarding their children’s education?
  • Has the so-called “parent power” movement done more harm than good?
  • Has technology helped parent outreach efforts or actually become a tool to keep them at arms-length?

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