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’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede