Thursday, April 12, 2012
What is Authentic Parent Involvement?
Driving home after the Welcome Night, I began to reflect on parent involvement in schools. Earlier this Spring, I was privileged enough to see Larry Rosenstock (from High Tech High) speak to a group of district and school based administrators in British Columbia. During his address, he alluded to something that surprised (and then later resonated with) me: he talked about how he felt that parent involvement promoted inequity in education. At the time, I was a bit shocked and stunned, and there was a strange and tangible ripple that flowed through the room of more than 400 people. It seemed to be such a bold statement. But as Rosenstock explained, if you were to take his context in San Diego as an example, he would predict that the majority of parents that would choose to be significantly involved would be parents from areas such as La Jolla (one of the most expensive zip codes to live in the United States), and less (if any) from the impoverished areas of the city. And as a result, he felt that the values that would be promoted at PAC meetings or forums for parent involvement would be those from a small and select group of people that was not representative of his school community. He felt that the parent involvement that was most important was to have parents come to the showcase evenings that take place at his schools so they can see the work of their children.
And tonight, I read a thought-provoking post by Will Richardson called "Getting Bold with Parents" in which he details the efforts by a particular Superintendent to involve parents in conversations about education. Within this post, Mr. Richardson states:
"Parents are the most important constituency to engage in conversations around the shifts we are experiencing. We have to be willing to provoke and engage in those conversations on an ongoing basis."
From where I sit, in some small way, this flies in the face of what Larry Rosenstock was saying at HTH. Wow. Two 'educational heavyweights' on different sides of the coin. What to do?
Just to be sure, I want to clearly articulate a few things about parent involvement in schools. Firstly, I think that parents (and students) are our clients, and we need to be insatiably curious about their perceptions and feelings about education and the service that we provide in our schools. This might put me more on the end of the continuum that Will Richardson describes. Conversely, having been in education for sixteen years in three different school districts, and having read dozens and dozens of blog posts and articles about the subject, I am still struggling to find a model that gets authentic parental involvement from a truly representative group in a school community. This puts me more on the other end of the continuum where Larry Rosenstock was coming from.
Yet there is another piece to this. What is the parent involvement that we want? Have we really qualified this? I believe that if you asked District staff, school-based administrators, teachers, students and parents what effective parental involvement in schools and school reform looks like, you would likely get a wide range of answers that each have an equal amount of validity. Do parents need to be involved in administrative things such as budgeting and staffing? In pedagogical issues such as teaching methodologies and assessment? In policy discussions that govern our schools and school personnel? In the macro-issues of educational reform? In all of these, some of these, none of these? What is the right amount? A lot? A little? And perhaps the most important question of all--do parents WANT to be involved in these things? In schools and education, where the pace of change can be oft-regarded as two paces slower than glacial, do parents want to commit the time and effort to helping us do our jobs when they have jobs of their own?
I ask these questions without presuming to know the answers. But one thing that I am sure of is this: I want the support of our parents in our school community. To this end, I need to be insatiably curious about their perceptions of our school and the education that their child is receiving from us. I want parents to support our teachers, and our teachers to over-communicate with them about their student's progress. I want them to support our programs, to come to games, performances, assemblies and art exhibits so they are part of our tribe. And I want parents to support their child so they feel loved and happy each day when they come to school.
Of course these supports are not as far-reaching as what Will Richardson describes in his post with respect to engaging parents in the quest to make sweeping changes in education. However, until each of us is able to clarify the purpose and process of authentic parent involvement by answering some of the questions above, I fear that this parent involvement we are striving for will remain hit and miss at best, and at worst, perpetuate some of the inequities described by Larry Rosenstock.