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Parent Power and Schools

IT looks like a banner year for parent involvement in public education. In Chicago, locally elected councils, with parents in the majority, are responsible for running each school. Most Minnesota school districts have open boundaries, allowing parents to choose children's public schools. Iowa, Nebraska, and Arkansas have passed choice laws. Eleven other states are considering such laws. Making public schools more accountable to parents will probably result in safer schools and a better climate for learning. In Chicago, school councils can replace principals, giving administrators a strong incentive to run their schools well.

The crucial education question for the '90s is whether parents can persuade educators - especially at the elementary level - to toss out mushy, ineffective programs and strengthen academic learning.

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It's a tall order for parents, not because good academic programs don't exist, but because educators guard their prerogative to control curriculum - even when faced with overwhelming evidence of their own poor choices.

Test scores are down nationwide. Business struggles with employees who can't read, spell, or do basic arithmetic. Yet educators continue to reject proven reading programs and adopt trendy, unproven methods in teaching language skills and math.

Choice theory holds that if parents are free to send their children to successful schools, other schools will have an incentive to improve. To compare schools, parents need the facts about their achievement and curriculum.

Yet in Minnesota, which boasts the nation's most far-reaching choice program, many districts don't check achievement with standardized tests. No agency informs parents what programs are available at various schools. ``There's almost a conspiracy to keep that kind of information from being visible,'' state legislative auditor James Nobles says.

Keeping curriculum, the gut issue of schooling, off-limits to the public is a longtime practice. When parents ask for programs that improve learning or object to those that don't, they are locked out of the schoolhouse.

Parents in a Chicago suburb begged elementary schools to teach spelling instead of telling children to invent their own. Parents presented evidence, including testimony from a nationally known expert, proving that ``invented spelling'' is harmful. The educators adopted it anyway, saying parents ``didn't understand.''

Parents and teachers in a North Carolina school district tried to save a first-grade program that had brought dramatic gains in children's reading comprehension and writing. After announcing plans to end the popular intensive phonics program, the superintendent forbade discussion. He gave parents a handout listing the program under ``inappropriate teaching practices,'' with no explanation. This despite hundreds of studies backing the discarded program.

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Why do educators act this way? Besides protecting their turf, they're defending the progressive ``whole child'' philosophy that dictates teaching methods and curriculum in schools. Teachers learn in college that ``socializing'' a child as a member of a group is more important than developing his intellect.

John Dewey, founder of progressivism, wrote, ``There is no obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning [emphasis added].'' Those who control teacher training agree. A leading professor in a top teachers college told me the public is ``making a mistake'' in asking for more emphasis on reading, writing, and math, which he dismissed as ``simplified skills.''

Parents working to improve their school or find a better one must trust their own common sense and be willing to question school programs that appear foolish or ineffective. Some, like ``whole language experience,'' or calculators for nine-year-olds, have only trendiness to recommend them. Though there's little research on calculator use in class, one large-scale study shows negative effects in Grade 4 math.

Can parents get elementary schools back on track academically if given the chance? Consider a unique public school in Mesa, Ariz., where parents have had a major hand in planning curriculum since 1978. Though it teaches children of all ability levels, Ben Franklin Elementary leads the district's 31 schools in academic achievement.

If parents had been given a say in curriculum, we might have avoided education disaster. Millions objected to the numerous education fads of the '60s and '70s that weakened academic learning. Then, educators could afford to ignore parents, who lacked power and often weren't persistent in voicing their objections.

The '80s brought the beginning of parent involvement, a trend that promises to grow in the decade ahead. Parents who want it to pay off in better education need to ask why American children - their children - know less math, science, history, and geography than youngsters of any other industrialized nation. Are they lazier and less intelligent than other children? Or do they fall short because elementary-school programs fall short?

If the newly empowered parents of the '90s accept the challenge of improving curriculum, they'll need all the persistence they can muster. They deserve our encouragement.

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