First Person

Parent Participation, Partnerships, Politics, and Power

What is the appropriate role for parents in New York City’s public school system? Parents often feel intimidated or marginalized by those in charge of their children’s education. Educators (and many students!) are oppressed by parents’ disinterest and over-interest. Politicians and policymakers, forever straddling the divide, have created myriad structure for parent inclusion, leading to complaints from all sides about pandering and bureaucratization.

A major criticism of Mayor Bloomberg’s schools leadership has been his failure to consult parents regarding his education policies or to revise those policies in the wake of parent opposition. According to a recent article in Downtown Express, “Bloomberg said parents need only be involved in the micro issues of their child’s education, like the child’s attendance, behavior and grades.” Beyond that, the Mayor suggested that parents could have “influence through the city councilmembers and mayor they elect.” Comptroller William Thompson released a report last May suggesting his own views on “Parent Influence on Local School Governance.”

Notwithstanding the Mayor’s remarks, a broad legally-mandated constellation of parent organizations exists to directly influence decision-making beyond the individual child. Federal law calls for extensive parent power in shaping school, district, and state Title I policies. Recent amendments to the New York State Mayoral Control statute require 32 District Community Education Councils and 3 Citywide Councils for High Schools, Special Education, and English Language Learners. The State Education Department requires School Leadership Teams and District Leadership Teams, which must include parents, to be directly involved in school-based planning and shared decision-making. A recent New York State Commissioner’s Decision held that the city’s parents were being illegally denied their mandated role in comprehensive educational planning. Chancellor’s Regulation A-660 mandates a robust system of Parent Associations, P.A. Presidents Councils, and a Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council. It is incumbent upon all administrators, from assistant principals to the Mayor himself, to respect the letter and spirit of this strong legal orientation toward parent partnership not only in pedagogical decisions regarding individual children but in school and district policy-making and implementation.

But any parent who has had a playground run-in knows that we each have different — often strongly different — views toward child rearing. So it is impossible to describe a single parent opinion regarding schools. That is one problem with the school system’s fallacious parent surveys and, just as wrong-headed, for anyone to claim representation of a single parent voice.

The conundrum of how to structure parent voices — plural — beyond the classroom is especially difficult in an urban setting because of the geographic, demographic, and numeric diversity that make our city such a vital social cauldron. As a public good, schools belong to everyone. Fundamentally, all citizens have a right to determine how their tax dollars are spent by investing their vote in elected representatives who, in turn, have sovereignty over the public weal. Parent control of school policies, perhaps a straw man invented by those inimical to a strong parent role, would thus be as exclusionary and self-defeating as would any other proposal for unelected dominance by a single, limited constituency.

That is why parent organizations such as Community Education Councils, exclusively a parent domain (students are non-voting members), can not and should not have more than an advisory role. Selected by school Parent Association officers, these volunteers simply do not adequately represent the full range of public education stakeholders, however important their informed input may be.

Further, recent legislative activity seems to pit parent against parent, weakening rather than strengthening our evolving system of parent leadership. For example, the Citywide Council on High Schools now must include representation from the Citywide Council on Special Education and the new Citywide Council on English Language Learners. But members of the CCHS (I am a past President) already include several parents whose children have special needs, are limited English proficient, or both. Are those parents to defer to the designee from those other councils? It is the responsibility of all council members to represent their entire constituency, not just their own child’s needs. Specialized representation of this sort is contrary to principles of American democracy and plays into the hands of those who would atomize rather than unite parent interests.

Finally, parent power must be wrested from the deadening grip of over-regulation. Parents are not usually lawyers and should not be forced to become experts at parliamentary procedure. Too many parent meetings become bogged down in arcane and ultimately destructive disputes about procedure rather than substance. Parents’ lack of political sovereignty should release them from undue procedural mandates. What procedural mandates exist should be read to strengthen parents’ otherwise weak voices against more powerful institutional interests rather than to set parent against parent in an embarrassing pecking frenzy over the remaining political crumbs.

This tension between unity and pluralism in parents’ role is appropriate in our complex system of school governance. Especially in New York, where most voters do not have children in the public schools, parents provide a uniquely informed constituency for everything from testing policies to school siting decisions. Parent opinion should not be assumed to be correct or even uniform, but, amid the cacophony of their multiple voices, policy makers ignore parents at their — and more importantly, students’ — peril.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.