It’s Time for Parents to Take Control of Education Conversation

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera tells us in his Sunday column, “Addressing Poverty in Schools,” that poverty is the elephant in the public education room   I agree that the name of the elephant in the room begins with a P. But it’s not poverty, it’s parents.

Almost all of our public discussions about how well our government is serving its citizens happen in a weird closed loop of “insiders” or “stakeholders.”  Over time, they develop their own language, their own set of fixes and a pattern to their debates.

This dynamic has permeated every crevice of public education — our policy discussions focus on whether you are “for” or “against” reform; administrators use terms like “best practice,” “multiple measures,” and “value added growth” that sound good but are not what they seem.  Add in a testing system that isn’t designed to do what we want  it to do (give us a legitimate picture of student learning) and isn’t clearly explained (or explained at all), and we’ve got an insiders’ mess on our hands.

It’s time for parents and guardians to take back control of the conversation. We parents—and our children—are the only real education insiders. It’s time for us to step into this conversation in a meaningful way. How? By partnering with teachers who are empowered to be the official translators and ambassadors to the public.

With parents, guardians and teachers as a united front, we will get much closer to the goal of giving each and every child a chance to learn, those who languish in poverty and those who languish in mediocre schools.

Absolutely we have to talk about the plague of poverty—and its effect on every facet of our society, from housing to health care. Yes, education too.

But we cannot make education policy solely through the prism of poverty, which inevitably leads to blame and questions of moral judgment that don’t lead us to solutions.

Instead, we must talk about public education in terms of opportunities and skills development so we can bring a greater focus to the business of public education: Giving young people the skills they need to be productive citizens.

When we talk only about poverty, we let lots of people off the hook. And it becomes a conversation about “those kids” rather than our kids. And make no mistake: They are all our kids.

Why Education Reform Needs Data

Public education is a fragile yet critical resource and we have to do more to strengthen our public schools.  People are willing to acknowledge that too many students are in schools that don’t give them an adequate chance to learn.  Teachers know what it takes to be effective and administrators are working hard to get the necessary resources into their schools.

And yet. And yet.

There’s real concern about whether we can deliver to all students. I’ve been thinking a lot about this gulf between our effort and the nagging doubts about the ability to deliver success.

Why is it there? I think it’s because we’re afraid of the numbers. I can understand the inclination.  I was never big on numbers. In third grade, 8 X 2 frustrated and defeated me.

Nationally, numbers have gotten a bad name in education. Rather than seeing them as helpful, we see them as punitive.

Data, even standardized test data, is an important tool for teachers.But, the numbers hold the key to translating our aspiration for public schools into a success story. The numbers can tell us which concepts our students have mastered and which ones need more work. Teachers need to know that. Parents need to know that and, yes, the taxpayers who fund schools need to know that too.

So let’s have an honest conversation about assessments, tests and all. Rather than an all or nothing question of to test or not to test, let’s start talking about how various measures can be put together to give us a multi-faceted picture of the complex work of teaching and learning.  We need to be bold enough to be honest about what tests measure, what they can’t measure and what other data we can use to fill the gaps.

At VIVA Teachers, we know that teachers can drive this conversation. Put away the anti-testing rhetoric and the blame-the-teachers vitriol. And let the numbers help us find the right answer.

What’s a good example of how to use test data effectively?