Unlocking the Future

Schools Want Engaged Parents in Theory but Ignore Their Reality

Post-pandemic politics have elevated the American parent, supposedly making them the ultimate authority in education. Conventional lore tells us that the two-plus years of having homebound virtual students gave parents rare insight into the workings and failures of schooling like never before, pushing them to be more demanding and open to change.

I’m not sure that I will buy it. In my dreams, parents would hold education officials to account for creating strong systems and producing better outcomes. In reality, public proficiency regarding the most promising policy proposals is tragically low. 

Yet, Keri Rodrigues’ essay in “Unlocking The Future,” a report by Opportunity America, is convincing in its demand that public education no longer takes parents for granted. Many of us still trust our teachers and our schools, but it isn’t uncritical support. We have questions and we deserve answers.

Rodrigues highlights two problems that doom the efforts of educators to engage with parents to fail. She says both problems are “directly related to a lack of respect on the part of educators, administrators, and the system as a whole.”

Educators don’t understand modern families

Public education has an old understanding of what constitutes a family. Schools were built for yesterday’s ideal one-income, white nuclear family with a full-time, stay-at-home mother. 

Rodriques says today’s education system ignores the “profound harm and trauma” caused to families who were never part of yesterday’s norm. Many parents today were its victims a decade ago. When they arrive at their child’s school, it is akin to returning to the scene of a crime, and no one understands the cold case.

As the mother of five in a blended family, Rodrigues knows what she’s talking about. She was once cast aside by schools that recognized troubles in her life, reported her neglect and pushed her out of school like systemic waste. Imagine being a parent like her who has kids enrolled in a school named after the principal who kicked her out of school years earlier. We are lucky that she has channeled that trauma into leading other parents toward productive advocacy, but it's a bridge too far for many parents carrying educational trauma.

A New Political Reality for Parents and Schools

The second problem that Rodrigues identifies is the one where I need more persuading.

She says:

School administrators and school boards find themselves scrambling to respond to a growing public outcry for more transparency about educational outcomes and more accountability around how education dollars are spent. Yet instead of welcoming this new collaboration and co-creation with a new generation of parents, the system is holding tight to the status quo and the old tired transactional  relationships.

News reports showcase plenty of examples of parents bum rushing local school boards with complaints about curriculum, books and programming they find offensive. Some parents haven’t returned their children to district schools, opting for options outside the system, including homeschooling, education pods and private schools. Even worse, an alarming number of students have left the schools with no trace of where they went.

I think this amounts to the parent reckoning that many of us have longed for after years of advocating pressure on the system. But, when it comes to holding public education accountable for producing teachers that can teach, using evidence-based pedagogy, measuring success in ways that advance education and spending money on interventions known to work, the systems seems as careless as ever and parents seem to need a map to know where the academic particulars are buried.

That’s my cynicism, not Rodrigues.’ Her organization has engaged with 600 parent-facing partner groups (out of 3,000 groups that she mapped), and has conducted more than 24 national polls investigating what parents know, want, and believe.

She’s in a perfect position to know quite a bit about how public education should engage with parents.

Chris Stewart
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of brightbeam. He was named CEO in April 2019, after formerly serving as chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. In the past, Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, ...

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