When “accountability” became a key term for public education; isolation, stratification, and defensiveness overwhelmed the cooperative aura which should permeate our schools. We all share responsibility for the education of our children, but the finger-pointing which began with 1983’s “A Nation at Risk” report pushed everyone to dig trenches rather than to collaborate. Add to that the cultural trend of more and more families with both parents working, and you have a clear recipe for freezing parents out of any meaningful participation in our schools.
That’s not to say the blind acceptance of schools’ omniscience in the past was a good thing. My parents, both college graduates, never questioned anything that came from the schools. If my grades didn’t measure up, that was MY problem; they didn’t even think of challenging the teacher’s grading, the school’s curriculum, or the district’s mission statement. In their minds, the school system knew best, and I’d better get my act together if I wanted to avoid incurring their wrath. To me, my teachers and parents seemed 100% united when it came to my schoolwork. So it never occurred to me to try to wriggle out of school issues by playing one side off of the other. That allowed for schools to ignore student interests instead of striving to make things better.
Things changed dramatically during my thirty-three years as a classroom teacher. Now, suspicion and second-guessing have infected the two parties with the greatest need to work together. From tracking (placing students in a remedial, average, or advanced class) to cheerleading tryouts, parents and teachers often find themselves at odds on the best course of action. The blind trust of yesteryear has given way to our current litigation mentality with schools and parents positioning themselves to gain a legal advantage rather than teaming together for the greatest good of the kids. Parents now regularly run for school boards in order to “fix” issues based on personal crusades: Revamping inclusion programs, changing counseling systems, disciplining specific coaches, and altering procedures for showing in-class movies have all been motivations for parents to become involved in schools where I worked in ways that made teachers uneasy. If you disagree with the way a teacher or school is doing something, getting yourself installed as a school board member is a pretty intimidating and dramatic way to get the teacher’s or school’s attention.
That’s not to say that teachers and schools haven’t brought on much of this conflict themselves. As public scrutiny has increased over the decades, the bureaucracy that is education has erected greater barriers to casual parent participation and ideas. Parent groups such as Parent/Teacher Organizations (PTOs), boosters, and foundations have become essentially fund-raising entities which use the schools to stage their events and hold their meetings, but rarely get any significant input or say in decisions impacting the way the schools run. Parent volunteers don’t often have anything to do with what happens in the classrooms, instead being relegated to manning concession stands at football games or organizing Halloween parties in elementary schools.
And there’s nothing wrong with those activities. Any parent involvement is better than none, so we should be thankful whenever the two groups work together for a common cause. But as more experts talk of “transparency” as an important foundation for trust and cooperation to grow, it would behoove our public schools to figure out ways to open their doors so that parental participation can occur in positive ways. Next time we’ll make some suggestions on how that might work.
For more on school reform, see James Crandell’s website http://www.snowflake-schools.com/.