If You Want Parents Involved, Try Simplicity
July 6, 2016
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Everyone agrees and research confirms that actively engaged parents produce more successful students. Nevertheless, school systems often conspire to deny parents the answer to the one question on their minds: how is my kid doing?

I think back to a community engagement process my school district conducted by meeting on separate nights with various ethnic communities to seek ways for the district to be a better partner. We met with parents from African American, Latino, Somali, American Indian, and Hmong communities (among others) to ask how the district could do a better job for them. The issues we heard ran the gamut (i.e. fear of native language loss for the Hmong, ICE raids for some Latino families, and fear of hidden learning disabilities in Somali students), but one was common across all the sessions.

Parents complained that the school district failed to do the simplest thing: tell them what their students are expected to achieve so they can be successful at the end of each grade level.

Often when assessment results or information about student progress came home it looked like a NASA project with bars, graphs, footnotes, and overly complicated paragraphs in multiple font sizes so more words could fit on the pages. Reading through it all was a frustrating exercise.

Worse yet, parents often hear that their kids are doing fine only to end up with a kid later who is seriously behind in student achievement. That’s when a parent realizes they need more than a teacher’s good word to monitor their child.

My Lived Experience

My advocacy comes from two places: my experience as a student who paid the real life consequences for doing poorly in school, and as a parent who vowed to fight like hell to make sure my kids did much better than I did.

After cleaning hotel rooms, cooking food for demanding patrons, and working irregular service industry hours throughout my 20’s, the high stakes of educational failure were more than clear to me. But, after getting a kid from kindergarten through college, the power of militant parenting and public school bird-dogging is also clear.

The thing I need to do my job as the involved parent everyone agrees I should be (and that many say too few of us are) is simple, smart, and unusable information. That rarely came. Talking to teachers helped, especially in the years when we had great, trustworthy, confident teachers who could speak well with parents. Other years, nah.

This year for the first time in the 20 years that I have been engaging with schools I saw the light. My kids’ school sent home a one-pager explaining test score results that made it very easy to understand how my kids had done on annual state tests. I could have gotten misty. Finally, usable information for a busy parent. Finally, a little transparency. An opportunity to be a better parent.

We need help being the parents you want us to be

Resourced and “educated” parents are easier for schools to work with (except when those parents’ demands escalate beyond what schools can provide), so they are favored to the point that it looks like entitlement. By contrast, under-resourced parents are expected by schools to be less worthy partners and that expectation festers an unwelcoming, disrespectful relationship that pays dividends in the under-achievement of marginalized students.

I was once that parent. I once knew well the anger caused by people underestimating my ability and holding low expectations for my contributions when it came to the education process. It was a feeling I relived years later when I worked with low-income families who were trapped in misfiring state welfare systems. These parents were engaged with many “professionals” across multiple systems and they were having difficulty engaging with them all.

Yes, there were problems that poor folks caused for themselves. No doubt. At the same time, there were so many ways that systems themselves had seriously debilitating policies, procedures, and practices that produced poor results. I rarely saw systems, or workers in those systems, willing to take responsibility for their own shortcomings even as they obsessed about the shortcomings of the poor.

Why do we fight about this?

I’ve learned there are two drivers in the debate about student assessments; one is technical, the other is political.

The technical argument is about the soundness and appropriateness of the instruments used to measure my kids’ grasp of the material they are expected to learn. That’s a fair argument and I thank God for really smart people willing to commit their lives to solving that one.

The political argument has more to do with the vocational concerns of the people who are accountable for teaching my kids. After years of feeling “under attack” by the ignorant public, weak bureaucrats, opportunistic politicians, and misguided (or worse, malevolent) ideological elites, teachers and their supporters have calcified in a defensive posture and dedicated themselves to fight assessments as a strategy for protecting their occupational interests.

Their concerns are important. No system does well with disgruntled staff. But, there is a point where my patience and understanding wears thin, and my desire for objective third-party information about my child’s academic well-being becomes the priority. When unions and other school representatives say we don’t need information from assessments because we should just trust teachers, that’s like saying I don’t need a contract when I buy a home.

I want to hold the system, and myself, accountable for academic progress. I want to be a good partner, even if my experience has taught me I can’t fully trust the system. I realize we can’t be successful if we don’t work together, home and school, to produce well developed children. Information and communication is key to making that happen.

If schools are really concerned about my involvement as a parent, they should do better with providing me what I need to be my child’s champion.

And, for the love of God, keep it radically simple.

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