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Trusting Teachers Is a Means to Authentic Parent Engagement

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Guest post by Kim Farris-Berg

Would trusting teachers with authority to collectively make the decisions influencing school success be at odds with authentic parent engagement? I can see how, from some points of view, the language suggests yes. The idea can easily come off as "just trust the educators, and save the families from themselves!" Indeed, there are people who have, at first glance, interpreted the idea that way. But trusting teachers can be a promising means to parents becoming integral to the inner workings of our schools.

Debbie Pushor, Associate Professor of the University of Saskatchewan, wrote in 2007 about the reason why schools have missed the mark when it comes to authentic parent engagement. She described most schools as places where, almost as if on script, educators take on the role of protector and families accept that they are the protected. Educators are the colonizers and families are the colonists:

Educators, as holders of expert knowledge of teaching and learning, enter a community, claim the ground which is labeled 'school,' and design and enact policies, procedures, programs, schedules and routines for the children of the community. They often do this in isolation of parents and community members, using their "badge of difference," their professional education, knowledge and experience, as a rationale for their claimed position as decision-makers in the school. Educators assume this claimed position with the best of intentions . . . It is these good intentions that enable educators to act as protectors.

Pushor goes on to document that when educators and parents awaken to the knowledge that they've been complicit in this, then "they begin to imagine how to work against these constraints." This is the space where authentic parent engagement can happen. We ought to be interested in this space, Pushor argues, because family participation in education is twice as predictive of student's academic success as their socioeconomic status and is associated with multiple indicators of higher student achievement.

I've been learning the ropes regarding parents' role in our neighborhood public school these past two years (my oldest is entering second grade), and the expectations for involvement are high. Parents are the fundraisers, the audiences, helpers in the classroom, and facilitators of homework, but almost always as mere supporters of what educators are already going to do. We are not authentically engaged. That is, we are not co-determining what is going to happen at our school, on the whole or for our own children.

Just as Pushor describes, the result is that our community culture, and my own family culture, are now noticeably shaped by decisions made for us. My compliance is assumed; parents' authentic engagement is not even on the table for discussion.

Yet I also recognize that, in the current K-12 policy environment, the educators who are working in our current school are not the position to meaningfully work alongside parents to determine the school's shared purpose and how it will be achieved. While Pushor seemingly uses the term "educators" as synonymous with "the colonizers," it is frequently the case that the educators who work in our schools are among "the protected" or "the colonized." Most teachers and principals are expected to carry out what federal, state, and school district leaders have determined to be best for all students in all communities.

If the educators in our schools don't have the authority to make the decisions influencing school success, then how could they share any authority with parents and students? In this context, authentic engagement is essentially impossible. It's not surprising that, under these circumstances, educators tend to pass the expectations for compliance onto parents and students.

Happily, there are public schools across the nation where complicit behavior is not assumed, and where teachers, parents and students have successfully taken on new roles. In some of these schools the teachers have collective authority to make the decisions influencing school success. As my colleagues and I reported in Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots, these teachers have frequently opted to share that authority with parents and students.

One poignant example comes from the teachers and parents at Milwaukee Public Schools' Academia de Lenguaje y Bellas Artes (ALBA). In 2010-2011, 97 percent of ALBA students qualified for free- and reduced-price lunch and 88 percent had limited English proficiency. Their parents, many of whom are immigrants from Mexico, had serious concerns about educators making decisions on their behalf. After considering their options, these parents chose ALBA because teachers do just the opposite.

In the position to make the decisions influencing school success, ALBA teachers have agreed that a School Governance Council comprised of parents, community members and teachers will determine the school's shared purpose and make other major program and policy decisions. Parents are encouraged to be active in the classroom and throughout the school, where they share their own knowledge and cultural background. Parents also participate meaningfully in teacher interviews and evaluations.

The outcome? The linguistic goal is not English acquisition only for ALBA's students. Instead, parents and teachers consider best practice research and their knowledge of their own community to create a developmental bilingual program in which students develop strong literacy skills in Spanish before they begin to learn English. Students' readiness for learning English is determined on an individual basis (not by age or grade--a seven year old who has been in the school for two years, for example, might be more ready than an eight year old who just immigrated to the United States).

Also, the school offers a culturally relevant, arts-heavy curriculum. ALBA's website says, "Acquisition of the English language becomes second nature since it is presented within the context and understanding of the culture of the community [that] ALBA school serves. Children are encouraged to maintain their cultural ties through language and arts while acquiring life-long learning skills needed to be successful in high school."

The opportunity for authentic parent engagement, which evolves from teachers' authority to call the shots at the school, means that the ALBA community's culture is not determined for them, but with them! Teachers and parents are not expected to be compliant with what others decide to be best for their children's future. Children's fluency in two languages and cultures is valued as part of student achievement. Parents' language and culture is not seen as a barrier to learning, but as an enhancer of it.

Trusting teachers with school success is not an assertion that families must be protected by educators. Instead, it is an innovative approach to the structuring and managing of schools that puts the professionals who are closest to school community in the position to call the shots. In this approach, education leaders who are outside of schools have a supporting role; not a controlling one.

Early evidence suggests that when leadership structures are flipped in this way, educators working inside our schools determine that their success, by most measures, relies not on ensuring the compliance of the school community but on authentically engaging parents and students in the inner workings of the school. For us parents who seek to be more than cheerleaders of other people's decisions, trusting teachers offers a way forward.

Kim Farris-Berg is an independent education policy consultant based in Southern California. She is lead author of Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots.

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