Coffee Break: Tim Daly on How EdNavigator Helps Parents Make School Choice Work

Three years ago, Tim Daly and two colleagues left TNTP (The New Teacher Project) and launched a new effort called EdNavigator. The organization aims to help parents negotiate school choice decisions and many other educational challenges by connecting them to expert “Navigators” who provide advice and support at their place of work. As the organization moves into its fourth year, Tim talks about the work and his hopes for the future. First of all, we need to know: Are you a coffee or a tea drinker and how do you take it? Coffee in the morning, black. Tea in the afternoon, milk. EdNavigator was created to meet a need, which is that in a school choice environment like many cities have today, it’s a challenge for parents to assess all of their options and find the school that best meets their kids’ needs. How did you approach the work? What inspired you to partner with businesses? So much of the focus in education is on systems and policies. Don’t get me wrong—those are very important. But they are not the most important thing, if you are talking about how to help kids succeed. Parents and families are more important. But when you look at how families interact with school systems on all levels, they often come away from the experience confused, demoralized, frustrated and angry. We ought to be ensuring that anything we do—whether it’s school choice, higher standards, better assessments, etc.—ought to include supports for families to be full partners. Our idea with EdNavigator was to connect families with local, experienced educators who could serve as their guides through the educational journey. We partner with employers because most parents are incredibly busy. We thought it might be most effective if we brought the help to them through their employer rather than asking them to find us on their own. What were the three biggest lessons learned from your first three years? The whole process of communicating how kids are really doing in school is a mess. Parents generally think their kids are doing much better than they are. It’s tempting to think this is because they are clueless or disengaged. Not so. The problem is, information about student development comes piecemeal—some of it in report cards, some in state test score reports, some in parent-teacher conferences. Those data sources often tell different stories, and the messages families hear are often sugarcoated. Meanwhile, students do not get the help they need. Parents and kids deserve to know the truth. We need to be more honest about the mixed blessings and trade-offs of school choice. Don’t get me wrong. School choice is great, it’s better than being stuck with a single school assignment that might not be any good for your child, and feeling trapped. But we can make school choice much better. We spend a lot of time helping families understand and access their school options, but even more time helping them ensure their kids’ experience in their current schools is as positive as possible. Parents do not care very much about education policy. In conversations about our work, we are often asked some variation of, “What do parents think about X?” X is usually a hot-button issue like Common Core, testing, school governance, the reauthorization of ESEA, etc. And the truth is, parents probably don’t think anything about that issue. They care about the day-to-day real-world experience they have with education institutions. One theory of school choice is that it would drive up quality? Do you think that’s happening? How can we accelerate it? Choice plays a role, sure. Families are smart. They are generally leaving schools that aren’t working for them and going elsewhere. But I am skeptical that choice by itself is going to help us deliver on all the promises we make to kids and their parents. There are so many other levers to pull as well. EdNavigator is not the only one doing this work. For example, Families Empowered in Texas is doing similar work and now several cities, including Chicago, have universal enrollment. Do they all need an EdNavigator type of organization? I note that you have expanded to Boston. Will you be expanding elsewhere? There are a number of organizations out there tackling the challenge of meaningful parent participation. It’s so great to see. Any city that wants parents more involved ought to be investing in the “demand” side of education, not just the “supply” side, and any efforts ought to be carefully matched to the local landscape. Eventually, we would like to make EdNavigator widely available across the country. For now, though, we’re not ready to do that. Lots to figure out first. I can think of places like D.C. and Oakland where this would be helpful. In a perfect world, would school districts and charter sectors collaborate on this? Do you think that could happen? The kind of work we do is probably best when it sits apart from school providers, whether district or charter. It quickly confuses parents if they aren’t sure whether their Navigator works for them or for the school. We try to be very clear—we are here for the family. If a school is not doing the right thing, we’re going to say so. It’s really hard to do that if you work in direct partnership with the school operator. Even so, [pullquote position="left"]we do whatever we can to help schools engage with and be more responsive to families. At most schools, it’s not like people just don’t care about these issues—it’s that they have a thousand other priorities and challenges they’re trying to juggle at the same time. With TNTP and now with EdNavigator, you’ve been at the center of education reform for many years. Among other things, charter growth has slowed and, while vouchers have expanded, it’s unclear just how much capacity there is in the private market. Is the choice movement at a turning point? Is the reform movement at a turning point? What’s next for reform? Is it more about “day-to-day retail” or are their big, looming policy questions we need to tackle? I agree that the action has shifted from big, national policy initiatives like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top to more local, state-specific work. But in the midst of all the investments we made in changing the system, we totally underinvested in ensuring that the new system was user-friendly and positive for families. I don’t think of it as turning away from the work that’s been done in the past. It feels more like giving overdue attention to important issues.
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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