An Educational “Bucket List” for Parents

For many parents the political tug of war over “transformational changes” to fix our schools is bewildering. Suppose you have a child starting school. Concerned that she gets the best education possible, you do your research on schools. You may even go so far as to move to a new neighborhood to enroll your daughter in a school you’ve determined is good. You reach out to the school principal and your daughter’s teacher to introduce yourselves and pledge your assistance. That done, you take the long view and open a college savings account.

Still, you can’t relax because you keep seeing disturbing education stories in the news. Education standards are too easy or too hard. Corporate America, rather than teachers, controls what is being taught in the classroom. Strong teacher evaluation systems help ensure good teaching, but teachers are upset about being evaluated.

Advocates for conflicting viewpoints all claim that their way is best, and students will suffer if their prescriptions are not followed.  Who is right?

For over 200 years, America has provided its citizens a public education system that has made this country a world leader. Parents count on the effectiveness of this system. So what the heck has gone wrong?

Let’s go back to our parents of the 1st  grader; what do they want? They want their daughter’s teacher focused on her educational needs. They want a school system that supports the teacher to help their child learn. This necessitates the cooperation of the school board, superintendent, principal and other school staff with teachers.  In other words, they want an approach to educating their child that at its core stems from providing support for the needs of students and their teachers. If we can all row in the same direction to support all teachers’ ability to be effective in the classroom with all students, we might have something.

The parents of our 1st grader know that a quality teacher is essential to their child’s education. In fact, parents are rightly the first to raise the alarm if their child is assigned to a teacher that they believe is not effective. While a good teacher is a necessary component in this educational equation, the teacher must be connected to an effective support system. We don’t need wholesale changes here. We need thoughtful policies that parents see as supporting their child’s education. Parents desperately want this to occur but are often caught between polarizing positions – – you are either with me or against me.

What could be a more thoughtful approach that supports what parents want for their child?

  1. New standards and assessments are introduced responsibly.  Time is needed to allow teachers, students and parents (assisting their children) to adapt. Pop quiz: Which 6th grade student would do better on a common core math assessment? The student with only one year of instruction under the new standards or the students with 6 years of instruction under the new standards? The answer seems obvious, yet we assess their performance using the same assessment and judge them using the same proficiency standards. Parents do not want schools to “try out” new things on their children, they expect a coherent, fair and student-centered approach when changing curriculum and assessments.
  2. Education, not testing is the main focus of classroom instruction.  Why can’t summative “high stakes” testing be done every other year? A student’s performance will not come to a standstill or reverse itself if the traditional 3-8 NCLB testing is done every other year. No parent wants to see their child in a stressed out mode every spring. Parents want their child to have adequate classroom time for learning so that when a high stakes test is taken, it does not result in frustration and tears.
  3. The love of learning is an important outcome. The current controversy of evaluating teachers using standardized student tests notwithstanding,  parents expect students to grow academically and will certainly assess the effectiveness of the school and teacher if they do not grow. Student growth is obviously an expectation for every parent but it is not the only expectation. When our 1st   grader races home from school to tell mom and dad what she has learned today and then sits down to revisit each and every minute of the class, that joy of learning is a real and important part of a teacher’s role. Let’s keep a wide perspective on how we evaluate teacher effectiveness.  Parents want teachers to instill the desire to learn in their child.
  4. Supporting educators supports students. Supporting new teachers with meaningful induction programs is a good start. Also, provide teachers up to five years to achieve tenure – – not all teachers develop at the same rate. This allows a teacher time to develop and hone practice and time for overworked administrators to assess effectiveness. Let’s put more effort upfront at the beginning of the teacher’s career to assess practice, provide supports to improve practice and time for this to occur in a responsible manner. When parents bring their child to school for the very first time, they expect that each teacher in the school is ready to assist their child to learn.
  5. Effective teachers really matter. I don’t want to have to always lobby the principal for a different teacher if my child is placed with a teacher that is not effective in helping my child to learn. How about an approach where ineffective performance ratings result in additional support for the teacher, but after two consecutive years of ineffective ratings, a two year district improvement plan for the teacher would be implemented. Four consecutive years seems to be a fair amount of time to give a teacher to improve his or her practice or seek another line of work. Parents know the good teachers, they will not be tolerant if a school lets ineffective teachers continue to teach without intervention.

One of the joys of life for parents is sending their child off to school for the very first time knowing that education is opening the door to endless possibilities. For this door to stay open, we need to create thoughtful policies that supports the needs of students and teachers, policies that parents can check off from their bucket list.