School Matters: Parents Must Be Key to Education Reform

School Matters: Parents Must Be Key to Education Reform

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When then-Sen. Barack Obama was campaigning in Chicago in June 2008, he chided black fathers for not taking an active interest in their children’s lives. “Yes, we need more money for our schools, and more outstanding teachers in the classroom, and more afterschool programs for our children,” he told a church congregation. “But we also need families to raise our children.”

Whether he was speaking the truth or talking down to families of color, it seemed clear that candidate Obama passionately believed that parents should play a critical role in a child’s success. On this at least, he was right. Study after study has confirmed that parent involvement—from helping with homework to volunteering-helps students succeed in school.

Yet Obama’s fiery campaign rhetoric is vastly different from the president’s new plans for public education reform when it comes to parent engagement. Last month, the federal Department of Education released its proposal for renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as No Child Left Behind. It proposes changes to teacher accountability, student evaluation and school administration, but says virtually nothing about engaging parents.

In fact, the president’s 2011 fiscal year budget actually eliminates funding for the 62 Parent Information and Resources Centers that have coordinated parent involvement programs across the country for the past eight years. Instead, the proposal would expand two initiatives—Promise Neighborhoods and 21st Century Learning Centers—with $1.4 billion.

But those initiatives do not specifically focus on parent involvement. The bulk of that money will go to competitive grants that can be won by states, school districts, and community-based organizations that establish a wide variety of programming to improve student achievement and expand the school day. Engaging parents in such programs is suggested, but not explicitly required.

More money for community-oriented programs might be good thing. However, with such funding taking the form of competitive grants, there’s no guarantee that schools serving poor students and communities of color will get the special resources they need to implement effective parent involvement strategies.

For example, some parents feel intimated by the background checks and fingerprinting process required by many volunteering programs. Other parents have difficulty communicating with teachers and counselors when no interpreters are available. But there’s no proposal on the table to require states and school districts to knock down such bureaucratic barriers or to encourage parent participation in school decision-making processes.

Perhaps education officials think that federal involvement in matters of parental engagement has been so ineffective in the past that it’s not worth trying again. To some extent, they’re right. Parent involvement policies have been both poorly funded and inconsistently implemented. The administration’s proposals don’t address these shortcomings. Instead, they would introduce third party organizations into the relationship between schools and parents, complicating not simplifying it.

Robust parental involvement also aids in the other issues of concern for education reform. It could help hold teachers and administrators accountable, improving the effectiveness of their work and student outcomes. If parents are well informed and involved, they could tell when a school is struggling and help to turn it around before worst-case scenarios unfold. Greater parent involvement means more hands to help when faculties are overwhelmed. As Howard Blume reports in The Los Angeles Times, the faculty-run Jefferson High School in South L.A. recently established policies that involve parents in discipline matters and allow them to sit-in on classes. The school is still struggling, but it’s beginning to see results.

Active parents are the missing factors in the public education equation. Their involvement should be an active right and not a passive privilege. Parents and families can reinforce what’s learned in the classroom and bring a wealth of knowledge into the school community.

With the administration making federal funding competitive to foster innovation, why not reward states and districts that make groundbreaking efforts to engage and include parents? After all, if parents want to do their part to ensure their children’s success then, as candidate Obama said in Chicago almost two years ago, “our government should meet them halfway.”

Jack Loveridge is a policy analyst at Justice Matters, an Oakland-based education equity organization.