Saturday, July 30, 2016

And what power do parents have over today's schools?

Earlier, I wrote about how schools weaken parental prerogatives at home. To what degree can parents, conversely, influence what happens in schools?

This, too, is an area in which the past favored parents. In my parent’s generation, organizations like the PTA had at least some control over the school curriculum. At the very least, it wasn’t out of bounds for parents to explore ways in which particular courses might change for the better. My mother, for example, served on a curriculum committee that advocated, among other things, that teachers assign and grade more essays.

Now, with the growing forces of centralization channeling through district-level administration and state-level high stakes testing, academics are increasingly out of our hands. While PTAs and HSOs still exist, their main function, so far as I can tell, is fundraising and volunteer activities that merely enable current practices. The officers of these organizations, our fellow parents, have often become yes-men for the principals, and the free and open discussions that PTA/HSO meetings are supposed to welcome are often hijacked by those “facilitating” them. At a meeting at our neighborhood school that was billed as a discussion of the school’s math curriculum, for example, we were told to write down our questions ahead of time on index cards, with our names included. Then, when the “math expert”’s presentation went on “longer than expected” and there was “unfortunately” no time for any questions, those index cards were simply collected. Not that they were ignored and tossed out; rather, they were used against us. That is, certain of us parents were publically criticized by our yes-men peers for being overly critical of the math program. In other words, as with all that excess homework I wrote about earlier, a certain cohort of powerful parents are effectively working against the rest of us.

What precisely, is going on here? What’s preventing us from unifying into a gigantic squeaky wheel? One is that schools can safely ignore us. Growing centralization means (1) that some schoolboards are no longer elected, and (2) that, regardless, these boards increasingly deflect all curriculum decisions to superintendents and their administrative underlings: people who are appointed rather than elected. But not all the power over us is centralized. For the balance, we need look no further than our friendly neighborhood elementary schools.

It’s during the elementary school years ;when parental power should be at its greatest. It’s at this point when there’s the most opportunity for parents to come together and bond—in the school yard of what is typically a local, neighborhood school where we drop off and pick up our kids; during after-school play dates; during neighborhood soccer practice and other neighborhood-based extracurricular activities. Later, when our kids are in high school, there’s a lot less opportunity for spontaneously bonding: school is often out of the neighborhood; different local kids may be spread across different schools, and our kids’ social lives and extracurriculars are increasingly independent of us parents.

So why do elementary schools, in particular, have such power over us? The answer is our kids’ futures: specifically, what comes after elementary school. In many large districts, we find an increasing scarcity of decent middle schools and high schools; a growing disparity between good magnet schools and terrible local schools. Maximizing our kids’ chances of getting into one of the former is, increasingly as the application deadlines approach, first and foremost on our minds. And this means ensuring that our children get good grades and recommendation letters. Since, as I’ve argued elsewhere, grades (especially in elementary school) are increasingly subjective (with perceived effort and attitude—or “grit” and “growth mindsets”--figuring as never before), there’s plenty of latitude for students of “problem parents” to get problematic grades, not to mention problematic recommendation letters. Maybe this rarely happens, but perception is all that matters, and perception is what ultimately drives the yes-men parents and the silent, compliant majority of the rest of us.

Of course, grades and recommendation letters also matter in high school, but here, again, parents have fewer opportunities to come together and organize. Even more forbidding is college, where parents are more separated from one another than ever, and privacy laws allow college students to hide their progress, or lack thereof, from parents. Of course, most parents don’t even consider trying to influence academics at their children’s colleges; but parents of students with special needs may occasionally feel the urge. However, even if, say, the parents of students on the autistic spectrum at a particular college or university wanted to get together and advocate, say, for a change in the college English requirements, privacy laws—designed, of course, to protect our children with disabilities--ensure that we won’t even find out who we are, let alone unite and try to help our kids.


Auntie Ann said...

Our kid was probably the top student in his class, he had great test scores, he participated (badly) in two school sports, he wrote the column for the school in a local newspaper, he plays and instrument, and has one passionate outside interest. He did everything right, and we couldn't have asked more from him when it came to his resume building (for a 13 year old!) We applied to 7 schools for high school (going from private to private), more than any of his classmates. They all received multiple acceptances, he received none. He'll be starting at LAUSD in a couple of weeks.

We were always highly critical of the constructivist choices the school made. For math, they used EM, and even did that badly! They never got through more than about 2/3rds of the EM book each year, which made the spiral even more useless than normal. Our kid couldn't spell, and when we asked for help, the administrator told us that in the following year kids would be asked to spell on the board in front of the class, and that should force him to spell better--yes, it's the shame method of teaching.

When he was 5, we were literally told that we had no right to an opinion. So, we went on Google Scholar, pulled and read over 40 journal articles on the topic (red-shirting: the school red-shirted him, we opposed it,) made ourselves far more of an expert on the issue than the school was, and then handed them multiple copies of all the articles.

We were the thorn in the school's side for years.

As part of the high school application process, an "administration recommendation" is required. I'd love to know what they wrote.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to see things from another perspective. As a teacher, I feel that I'm stuck in a no win situation. The problem isn't that parents have no power. Believe me, parents can make a teacher's life miserable. The problem is that different parents want different things, and teachers are stuck in the middle. No matter what I assign for homework, some parents will complain that it is too much while others complain that it is too little. Our class goes on two field trips a year. Some parents think that is a waste of time. Others want more field trips. Last year, a new reading curriculum made it hard for me to find a way to arrange for as many parent volunteers as I usually do. Parents were quick to complain. I know that you hate constructivist math and group work, but there are plenty of parents who insist on hands on, group work with lots of room for creativity.

Auntie Ann said...

I could see the teacher frustration in the school's Spanish classes. For years, the Spanish class was a complete joke. After having weekly Spanish class for about 5 years, our kid didn't even know the word for blue.

Then, in about 5th grade, they switched to a different teacher, who actually tried to have a real curriculum. None of the students nor the families were ready for it, and the teacher had explained things poorly in class (I remember the first real homework was on the use of ser vs estar,) leaving only students with a Spanish speaker in the home knowing what was going on.

I thought it was incredibly frustrating as a parent, but I applauded her attempt to actually teach something.

That was pretty much the only such homework that came home, and the curriculum immediately went back to being a joke. I'm sure she had heard from a large number of the parents criticizing the assignment, and she quickly went back to teaching nothing. Yes, she had implemented things badly, but at least she was going to try to teach the kids something!

In sixth grade the kids had the option of taking Latin. That teacher could start fresh and was a hard teacher with high expectations. The kids in her class actually learned Latin, learned how foreign languages work, and learned how to learn one. The kids who stayed in Spanish never got anywhere.

Katharine Beals said...

Auntie Ann,

Thanks for sharing your experience. It sounds incredibly frustrating.

I'm curious whether the administrative recommendation is something that was required by each of the schools your kid applied to. I've never before heard of an "administration recommendation"!

(Yes, it would be really interesting to find out what was in there!)

Katharine Beals said...


I appreciate the frustrations of multiple conflicting demands from parents.

I've often felt that the answer to this problem is for a school to offer different types of classrooms--Constructivist vs. traditional--and let parents choose. Teachers can be hired partly on the basis of what they want to offer--and whether it's something that parents want for their kids.

This, of course, would fly in the face of the various centralizing forces that have been depriving parents of meaningful choice and input.

Auntie Ann said...

Katherine, yes, the admin recommendation was a part of all of the apps, in addition to an English teacher and a math teacher recommendation. All the privates here in LA do the same thing, and even have their own version of a common app.

However, a lot of it comes down to phone calls. The upper schools call up the lower school administration and ask who they should take. I'm thinking the admin never mentioned our kids' name.

Cranberry said...

It's standard for there to be a school recommendation. It's called the "Heads/Principal/Counselor form" at TABS:

All the questions concern the student, not the family.